Union president at Pa. county prison says 'half the jail is in quarantine'

The virus is taking its toll on the staff and has required significant use of overtime to keep things running


By Tony Rhodin
The Express-Times

EASTON, Pa. — The corrections officers union president at Northampton County Prison says the situation inside the facility in Easton is worse than county Executive Lamont McClure offered on Tuesday and while it’s possible guards are responsible for the surge in COVID-19 at the prison, there are other explanations.

The virus is taking its toll on the staff and has required significant use of overtime to keep things running, Kyle Shultz, the top representative for AFSCME Local 2549 in the prison, told lehighvalleylive.com on Wednesday.

Northampton County Prison.
Northampton County Prison. (Photo/Rudy Miller of lehighvalleylive.com via TNS)

While the county says 41 corrections officers have tested positive since March for the disease caused by the coronavirus, there have been 35 since Nov. 1 and two more were sent home just Tuesday, Shultz said. At least six others are waiting for paperwork and three of them have already said they have COVID-19, he said. The total is about 20% of the corrections officer workforce, he said.

“I gotta keep my officers safe,” he said. “The number (of those infected) is going way too high. ... Even now my numbers are three days old. We’re just running out of officers. They’re dropping like flies.”

But while inmates were locked down in the spring when the number of infections was minimal, “we’re nowhere near lockdown,” Shultz said, even through McClure said Tuesday that inmates only leave their cells to shower. “It’s not true. There is movement in the jail. ... We’re being forced to let the inmates move a little bit more.”

Even in quarantine, “they’re not totally isolated,” he said.

As for McClure saying there were few prisoners arriving at the facility with COVID-19, Shultz said all the staff in intake has become sick in recent weeks.

The overall numbers are being underreported, Shultz said.

“Half the jail is in quarantine,” he said.

Shultz pointed out that many new prisoners upon arrival or sometime soon after have court appearances by video in the small room in Central Booking. And while prison personnel aren’t necessarily in that room, they are in an adjacent space that hasn’t been secured with any sort of shielding, he said.

The room where the court proceedings take place isn’t disinfected between hearings, Shultz said. He suggested slowing down those proceedings to sanitize.

New prisoners are quarantined for 10 days after they arrive and likely aren’t bringing the coronavirus to general population after that stay in cells that feature two to 12 people, Shultz allowed.

There are expensive fixes planned — such as UV lights that Shultz called lasers and PhoneSoap UV devices that aren’t where corrections officers have access even if they were allowed to brings items in that needed such cleaning. He doesn’t see these things working in the prison setting.

Shultz said basic public health safety may do more to limit the spread of COVID-19, which has infected 100 prisoners just this month after only about a quarter of those cases since March. Shultz has a background in the medical field, a profession in which his wife still works, he said.

While hand sanitizing stations with alcohol aren’t allowed in the prison, hand-washing stations — “like the ones you see at concerts” — could be retrofitted where there are water fountains in the new portion of prison, he said. He said he often touches eight doors without being able to wash his hands, because there are limited restrooms in the old part of the place.

“It’s insane,” he said.

The prison does have good spray sanitizing devices, but “If I were in charge, those things would be sprayed every shift,” he said.

While he has regular labor-management meetings with Department of Corrections personnel and is pleased with that communication, Shultz has had more difficulty getting in to see human resources officials or McClure, he said. He has a meeting with HR on Jan. 6, he said, hoping to share some of his ideas, but it took several weeks to set up.

Corrections officers are wearing KN95 masks while on duty and entering and leaving the prison, Shultz said. They no longer leave in large groups at the end of their shifts, Shultz said. Their exits are staggered to encourage social distancing. And in regular communications he encourages them when away from work to wear a mask and use other safety practices, he said.

“To my knowledge, yes, we’re very diligent,” he said of his members, reminding that corrections officers aren’t the only personnel inside the prison. There’s contract medical personnel, other staff and management, he said.

Yes, he said, it’s possible that corrections officers are carrying COVID-19 into the prison, but what has changed most from the spring is that prisoners can, for example, leave their cells to use telephones, and with the court system back on line, the inmates have more court dates.

“Clearly it could be brought in” by employees, he said, since COVID-19 is so prevalent in the community. But medical personnel, he said for example, move from unit to unit, which could also increase risk.

If a corrections officer is exposed to COVID-19, but isn’t showing symptoms, they do not quarantine for 10 days, Shultz said. That falls within CDC guidelines, he added, when asked if that increased overall risk.

“We’re being notified if we’re in close proximity to someone,” he said. “If we want to take a test, we can take a test.”

But the tests given throughout the prison are the quick version, which can get a fast outcome, not the PCR type, Shultz said. They are being told they are 98% accurate, but “nothing is 98% accurate,” said the longtime union official who began serving his first term as president in November. It’s an unpaid job. Shultz typically works in recreation at the prison, but now he goes wherever needed, he said.

He and the other corrections officers wear the masks for a week, as long as it doesn’t get wet, on the job, he said.

“I try to wear mine more than a week,” he said, citing a continuing shortage of masks nationwide.

The union has grieved that Gracedale employees have received hazard pay during the pandemic while the corrections officers haven’t, he said.

Gracedale employees and residents are getting vaccinated, due to the high priority given to such at-risk, older people. And Shultz said he understands that.

He doesn’t know when his membership will get access to the vaccine, but he does know he “would like the shot”, he said. “I will take it, yes I will. It will save lives.”

But the job of keeping order during a pandemic in a facility that has sections that date to the Civil War is more than challenging, he said.

“Jails are set up to be beacons of disease and everything else,” Shultz said. “Especially if you’re in a 200-year-old jail.”

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(c)2020 The Express-Times, Easton, Pa.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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