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Editor’s note: This article is Part 2 of a two-part Carolina Public Press investigative series, “What ails NC prisons?“
The women’s prison in Raleigh does not have air conditioning.
It is not an anomaly among North Carolina’s 55 prisons, nor is the Greenwood C hall at Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women, where the heat was malfuctioning for portions of four days in December while 18 women were quarantined after being exposed to a staff member with COVID-19.
In June, Lisa Phelps was sentenced on a probation violation to the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. She got there in June and left in December.
“I knew I was only going to be there about six months, but I just, I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel because of the horrid conditions, I mean it was really hot in there,” Phelps said.
For RaShaun Conner at Sampson Correctional, about half the year is spent surviving poor weather conditions because of the lack of climate control inside the prison.
“During the summer and winter, it’s kind of rough,” he said.
Sampson Correctional was built in the late 1930s, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety’s website.
Old infrastructure is not the only problem in the prisons that predates the pandemic or the only one that contributed to the severity of the COVID-19 outbreaks behind the walls.
Conner is in a dorm with about 135 other men in a prison that has 18 current COVID-19 cases in another part of the facility. If the virus is introduced to his dorm, he said, there wouldn’t be anything to stop everybody from getting it.
While North Carolina has prioritized incarcerated people and prison staff to receive the COVID-19 vaccines, long-standing problems like crumbling infrastructure, limited access to health care and staffing shortages, which created an environment for COVID-19 to thrive behind prison walls, will continue while the rest of the state recovers from the pandemic.
The increased attention, in large part due to litigation challenging the constitutionality of conditions during the pandemic, has brought about transparency and awareness of the prison system that may dissipate once the pandemic is gone, which could still take many months yet.
‘It was not for punishment, but it felt like it’
The pandemic exacerbated long-standing issues within the prison system, from medical care to poor conditions to having too many people in prison relative to the number of staff.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina has an ongoing lawsuit in federal courts alleging deliberate indifference in the state prison’s health care plan for treating hepatitis C and another in state court challenging the constitutionality of the state’s use of solitary confinement.
DPS has been transparent about staffing shortages since the problem contributed to an attempted prison escape and killing of four prison staffers in 2017.
Both the health care and staff shortage crises have only grown more severe during the pandemic, as prison medical facilities are filled to capacity and staff members get sick with COVID-19, needing to take at least two weeks off work from the time they were tested as per state policy.
And though it’s technically not solitary confinement, DPS has been using the same prison cells for medical quarantine and isolation during the pandemic.
In line with health protocols, Phelps was quarantined at NCCIW for two weeks after a visit to the courthouse. But in violation of medical best practices and possibly the order of a state judge, those conditions are strikingly close to punitive segregation.
“They posted a note on the wall, a memo on the wall that said, ‘Quarantine in segregation is not for punishment. It is for your own health,’” Phelps said.
“I thought it was the funniest thing in the world,” she said. “It was not for punishment, but it felt like it.”
For those two weeks, she was locked in her cell 23 hours a day and let outside three times a week, when she could walk “three steps sideways and four steps forward” in a chain-link cage.
As with prisons around the country, DPS uses solitary confinement as a punishment. A person is held in a cell for long periods of time with little to do, few if any privileges and little access to sunlight. Using those same cells for medical quarantine creates distrust between prison staff and incarcerated people, said Ben Finholt, staff attorney at N.C. Prisoner Legal Services.
The distrust and the isolation of quarantine could lead to people not wanting to report their symptoms, Finholt said. And it creates a situation whereby prison staff might also be disincentivized from thoroughly checking for symptoms.
“That’s the system that DPS has set up where people who might be sick aren’t going to want to report it,” Finholt said. “The guards don’t want to deal with it because they don’t have any humane way of separating people who might be sick from people who appear not to be sick.”
Not separating the sick means more spread of the disease.
Shared woes: states fail to address COVID in prisons
One can measure a state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic spreading through prisons in several ways. Depending on which measure and how it’s measured, North Carolina rises in the ranks or falls to the very bottom.
The COVID Prison Project lists North Carolina as one of the more transparent states for the testing and case information it posts online. DPS recently added graphics on the number of tests on hospitalizations of people in prison and has regularly updated a chart showing deaths from the disease.
But a September report from the Prison Policy Initiative showed that North Carolina tied for last among the 17 states where data was available for the percent reduction in prison population, a key public health step for controlling the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.
The Prison Policy Initiative released another measure estimating the additional number of COVID-19 cases caused by state prison systems. This was calculated not only including the cases within prisons, but the possible cases that were caused by the disease moving from the prison out into the surrounding community.
Ardis Watkins, executive director of the State Employee Association of North Carolina, said she knows of stories where staff members get sick from an outbreak in the prison and take the virus home to their families.
In this measure, North Carolina ranks in the top 20 states for additional cases caused by outbreaks in its prisons.
Even before the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in North Carolina’s prisons, public health experts were warning Gov. Roy Cooper that outbreaks inside prisons could spread beyond the walls, a dire alarm that was being rung around the country often to little effect but great accuracy.
“The health of your correctional facility will be a good indicator of the health of your community surrounding it,” said Alison O. Jordan, a public health expert and consultant in New York specializing in correctional health care.
Vaccine might cure the pandemic, but not prisons
The COVID-19 vaccine is already being distributed in North Carolina.
Prison staff and people in prison over age 65 or with comorbidities can get the vaccine in the first phase of the current distribution plan. That makes North Carolina one of just six states to prioritize those groups so highly, according to an analysis by The Marshall Project and the COVID Prison Project of 40 state proposals.
North Carolina is following public health recommendations by giving the vaccine to prison staff and incarcerated people at the early stages of distribution and is not falling prey to the stigmatization of incarcerated people driving policy in other parts of the country.
People in prison are at greater risk from COVID-19, according to Sandra Springer, an infectious diseases doctor at Yale University.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of debate,” Springer said. “We do know that individuals who are incarcerated are at a much higher risk of acquiring the disease and also having substantial risk of death.”
But getting the vaccine does not mean the pandemic is close to being over for people held in North Carolina’s prisons, according to Taleed El-Sabawi, an assistant professor at Elon University Law School with expertise in health services management.
“Assuming that the vaccine being released is going to solve the pandemic immediately, it’s not wise,” El-Sabawi said. “That’s not how vaccines work.”
It’s not clear how many staff members and incarcerated people will opt in to being vaccinated. In addition, the vast majority of people in prison, the comparatively healthy and young, will get the vaccination in phase two of the plan.
No hard dates are associated with the plan phases and their rollouts, which are dependent on the state’s coordination with the federal government, vaccine production and the approval of a second vaccine that will take less effort to store and transport.
The long-term effectiveness of the vaccines is also unknown, El-Sabawi said. They were rushed through federal approval on an emergency basis without some of the processes typically required for bringing a drug to market. The trial period for the only currently approved vaccine showed it worked with 95% success for three months.
If enough people do not volunteer to be vaccinated, if the virus mutates or if the vaccines are not as effective as hoped, the pandemic could go on for a long time, El-Sabawi said.
When the end does come for the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons are likely to revert to the way they were being run before, according to Aaron Littman, a teaching fellow at the UCLA School of Law and deputy director for the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.
That was already seen with jails, he said, where across the country there was a marked decrease in population in the first wave of the virus, but that rebounded in the fall.
Still, Littman is hopeful that some lessons during the pandemic will stick.
“There has been a growing recognition of the fact that prisons and jails operate in a very shrouded secrecy, and that, you know, transparency and accountability go hand in hand,” Littman said.
In North Carolina, when the pandemic ends, so will a tool for transparency. Civil rights groups sued the state in April over what it alleged were unconstitutional conditions during the pandemic. On a preliminary basis, before the full trial starts, the judge agreed.
Vinston Rozier Jr., the Wake County Superior Court judge overseeing the case called NAACP v. Cooper, ordered the state to provide extensive documentation of prison operations and regular updates to the court. All of that is part of the public record.
But the lawsuit is based on the presence of COVID-19. Plaintiff attorneys told CPP that when the pandemic is over, so too will the lawsuit and that mechanism for judicial oversight.
For now, though, a pandemic still rages. Five prison staff members have died from COVID-19, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Twenty-nine people in custody have died, according to DPS’ website. There are 610 active cases in 34 prisons.
That includes 103 cases, the most at any prison in the state, at Nash Correctional Institution. The outbreak seems to be isolated on one unit, according to Kwame Teague, who has been in the prison system for 27 years.
Numerous problems exist with the prison system, he said, but none of them are as pressing in this moment as controlling the virus.
“I can talk about what’s bad in prisons from here to the time the sun burns out,” Teague said. “But the question is not what’s bad, but what’s jeopardizing people’s lives, health and safety.”
Correction: According to the N.C. Department of Public Safety, all of its prisons have heating systems, which are currently operational. Inmates at several prisons, including Sampson Correctional, have described periods of time in which they do not believe the temperature was maintained at an appropriate level or in which, such as recently at Swannanoa Correction, it was not functioning properly over parts of four days. This article as originally published made an incorrect statement about the heating system at Sampson Correctional, based on a misinterpretation of information from sources. This wording has been revised as the result of additional information that the Department of Public Safety brought to the attention of Carolina Public Press after publication.
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