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Despite few COVID-19 cases reported in state prisons, many have concerns

Razor wire was on many of the fences at the North Fork Correctional Center in Sayre, Okla., Thursday, June 23, 2016. Photo by Kurt Steiss, The Oklahoman
Razor wire was on many of the fences at the North Fork Correctional Center in Sayre, Okla., Thursday, June 23, 2016. Photo by Kurt Steiss, The Oklahoman

Despite a low number of reported positive COVID-19 cases inside state prison facilities, families and friends of those incarcerated say they are still concerned for the safety of their loved ones.

Prior to an outbreak at the Lexington Correctional Center last week where over 80 inmates tested positive, Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections had tested just under 5,000 inmates and reported only 15 positive cases, according to DOC.

As of Friday, nearly 5,500 inmates had been tested and 108 were confirmed to have the virus. DOC currently incarcerates over 22,000 inmates.

“Preventing the infection and spread of COVID-19 is our top priority right now,” said Justin Wolf, DOC spokesperson.

But family and friends say they believe more positive cases would be found if testing increased.

Many said they’ve struggled to get information, and they told stories passed on by loved ones about guards not wearing masks, lack of access to showers during DOC’s initial pandemic lockdown and slow medical responses to health care requests.

“It appears that we are doing so well, but we are hearing stories on the inside and it doesn’t actually seem to be the case,” said Jonna Davison, whose fiance is incarcerated at the Dick Conner Correctional Center.

Family fears

Jamie Smitman’s close friend is incarcerated in one of the state’s private prisons, and she says despite the precautions and the reassurances, she still has fear.

Smitman’s concerns range from inmates going without hand sanitizer to old ventilation systems that could circulate the virus, to worrying about what will happen when over 1,400 inmates are transferred throughout the state now that one of the private facilities is closing.

“There is a lot of movement and more chances for the virus to come in,” Smitman said.

Emma, who asked that her last name not be used for safety concerns, said her fiance is incarcerated at Jackie Brannon Correctional Center but is set to be released in the coming weeks.

“I’ve been trying to push for him to get out as fast as possible,” she said. “He is terrified. He doesn’t feel like they are doing enough to keep him safe. He’s told me, 'I don’t want to die in prison.’”

Emma wanted to see guards and DOC staff tested more regularly, increased mental health support for inmates and space for families to “be more helpful,” which could mean sending masks.

“I think about this constantly,” Emma said.

Davison said she has struggled to get consistent information, and she believes “without a doubt” there are more cases inside DOC facilities than have been reported.

But testing is a complicated topic for families.

While it’s generally agreed that more testing would give a better picture of the situation, if systemwide testing was done and a huge undetected outbreak was revealed, the facilities would likely go into lockdown again, meaning less communication and more isolation for inmates.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Smitman said.

And testing would have to be done continuously for accurate data, something DOC may not have the capacity for.

Inside DOC

Inmates are currently tested if they are presenting COVID-19 symptoms or if they are within two weeks of being released. Inmates being transferred in from county jails are also tested, and if someone tests positive for the virus, contract tracing begins and others are tested as well, said Wolf, the DOC spokesperson.

So far, at least 20% of the inmate population has been tested, Wolf said, and the rate of positive cases has been “less than half of 1%.”

“We’re confident in the picture we’re getting from our testing,” he said. “It’s unlikely that we’ve somehow managed to test that large of an amount of our population but not been able to find more positives.”

Since March, the department has taken precautions like canceling visitation, increased cleaning, screening of staff and ending inmate transfers from county jails. In early April, all inmates went into lockdown.

In recent weeks, visitation and inmate transfers have resumed.

Wolf said the department is not worried about inmate transfers from county jails or finding space for the inmates that will be relocated after the closing of one of the state’s private prison facilities.

He added that staff are required to wear masks to work, and the department cannot require staff to get tested.

Kris Steele, director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said he recognizes the steps the agency has taken but more must be done in the criminal justice system as a whole.

“We’ve got to get to the place of understanding that even with adequate testing, which we are not doing and I don’t want to gloss over that, but even if we could get to the point where we have adequate testing, the reality is that there is only so much you can do in a confined environment,” Steele said. “The reality is we have to find ways to safely reduce our prison population.”

Additional steps

Early on in the pandemic, several groups urged the Corrections Department and Gov. Kevin Stitt to release more individuals through a process called compassionate release.

This would include releasing those who have existing medical conditions, people over 60, inmates set to be released within six months and pregnant women, among others.

The state previously called meetings to go through an emergency medical docket to release about a dozen inmates because of virus concerns. That needs to happen again, Steele said, but it needs to happen with a much broader interpretation of who is eligible for medical dockets and compassionate release.

“I think in the time of a pandemic, you must consider anyone and everyone that would or could fall into that category,” Steele said.

Damion Shade, a criminal justice policy analyst with OK Policy, said he’d like to see DOC and county jails receive federal dollars to address COVID concerns. This could cover testing, maintenance for ventilation systems and provide continued cleaning supplies, he added.

“It is incumbent on Governor Stitt and other state leaders to tackle this problem directly,” Shade said. “We need leadership as a state to be proactive with these issues to cut problems off before they become full-fledged outbreaks.”

Kayla Branch

Kayla Branch covers county government and poverty for The Oklahoman. Branch is a native Oklahoman and graduate of the University of Oklahoma. She joined The Oklahoman staff in April 2019. Read more ›

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