Despite COVID-19 threat, inmates were sent to public buildings to work. Now they’re sick.

On March 25, North Carolina officials announced that they were suspending the prison work release program. And they made it clear why: They wanted to prevent inmates from being exposed to the coronavirus.

Despite that announcement, officials continued to send inmates from at least one prison — the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women in Raleigh — to work in government buildings outside the prison until mid-April, the Charlotte Observer has learned.

 

Prisoner Natasha Purvis told the Observer that she and other inmates would load into crowded prison vans that took them to state Department of Public Safety office buildings in Raleigh. Now, Purvis is among at least 90 inmates at the women’s prison who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. She said last week that she was suffering from body aches, sweats and “a nasty cough.” Purvis and three other inmates on the cleaning crew told the Observer they weren’t issued masks until April 15. State employees were working in most of the buildings they cleaned, and “there were times when you got a lot closer than six feet” from other people said Purvis, who is scheduled to finish her six-year drug trafficking sentence in 2022.

 

“I feel like they put us out there for a dollar a day to keep them safe,” the 42-year-old inmate said. “But they weren’t thinking about us at all.”

 

It’s unclear how the coronavirus entered the women’s prison. State prison officials say that at the DPS buildings that were cleaned, they’re not aware of any employees who have tested positive for COVID-19.

John Bull, a spokesman for the state prisons, said in a statement that the cleaning assignments “were deemed to be essential to the continued effective operations of the Department of Public Safety during the response to this pandemic.”

 

Tim Moose, the state’s Chief Deputy Secretary for Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, said in a statement that prison officials closely monitored the health of the cleaning crew — a practice that he said “could not be guaranteed by an outside cleaning agency.”

 

During the weeks that the cleaning crew was doing its work, there was no indication that any of the inmates had been exposed to people who might have contracted COVID-19, Bull said. But on April 16, the first person at the women’s prison exhibited potential symptoms of COVID-19, he said. That’s when the prison ended the cleaning assignments.

 

“The moment anyone showed symptoms, the whole thing was shut down,” Bull said. Now, Bull said, employees at DPS buildings are responsible for cleaning their own offices.

 

‘BLATANT DISREGARD FOR THEIR LIVES’
 

But critics question why state officials kept sending the inmates out on work assignments long after the risks of infection inside prisons had become clear.

 

Experts say prisons and jails are breeding grounds for infectious diseases because inmates live so closely together. “How irresponsible for leadership to act in this way,” said Elizabeth Forbes, who heads the inmate advocacy group North Carolina CURE. “Not only did they put these women at great risk, they also put their own staff at great risk. That’s just so irresponsible in my mind.” ACLU official Kristie Puckett Williams agreed.

 

“This is a blatant disregard for their lives,” said Puckett Williams, who heads an ACLU initiative to reduce the population — and the risks posed by COVID-19 — in the state’s prisons. “It was unnecessary to put people in harm’s way in this way. For them to know the risk and not provide them what they need to be safe is unconscionable.”

 

State prison officials note that they’ve taken many steps to reduce the risks to inmates and staff. On March 13, they suspended all visitation at state prisons. Later they began taking the temperatures of all employees before they enter prisons each day. And on March 25 — following a story in the Marshall Project which noted that the state prisons had been letting hundreds of inmates work inside poultry plants, construction sites, factories and offices — officials announced they were ending the work release program in order to limit the risk of exposure.

But the women’s prison continued sending inmates out to clean DPS buildings for three more weeks.

 

By April 21, the first inmates had tested positive at NCCIW. And by the beginning of May, 90 inmates at the prison had been diagnosed. It’s now among the state prison system’s largest outbreaks, second only to Neuse Correctional Institution, where more than 460 inmates have tested positive.

 

 

‘THEY PUT MY LIFE … IN DANGER’
 

One of the women on the cleaning crew, 67-year-old Doris Sadler, suffers from chronic asthma and high blood pressure — ailments that could make her more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. Last week she said she tested positive for the coronavirus. Another was Daisey Watkins. She said last week that she, too, has tested positive for COVID-19. Last week, she said she was suffering from periodic chills, fever, sore throat and body aches.

 

Purvis, Sadler and Watkins aren’t the only ones. All but one of the 11 people on the cleaning crew have been diagnosed with the disease, Watkins said. She said she was sometimes no more than an arm’s length away from employees at the DPS buildings she cleaned. During the second week in April, Watkins said, she became ill — unable to smell or taste anything and suffering from a sore throat, chills and a fever. A prison nurse gave her cold medicine and nasal spray, she said, but a prison officer told her that if she didn’t report to work on the cleaning crew, she’d be disciplined.

 

“They sent us out after they stopped everybody else from going out (to work),” said Watkins, 39, who in September is scheduled to finish her prison sentence for obtaining property by false pretenses. “We had to go out and run the chance of getting sick. And we did get sick.”

 

Another inmate on the cleaning crew, Ritamarie Blosser, recounted a similar story. She suffers from chronic diabetes and says she has also tested positive for COVID-19.

Ritamarie Blosser NC DPS

 

“They put my life and everyone I work with in danger, and that’s not fair,” said Blosser, 42, who is doing time for identity theft and is scheduled to be released in October.

 

Blosser recalled a day in mid-April when she had a cough and a runny nose and was feeling so weak she could barely stand. She said she reported her symptoms to a prison sergeant, who told her she needed to work her shift with the cleaning crew regardless. “She said if I didn’t go out, I’d get written up,” Blosser said. Bull, the DPS spokesman, said inmates aren’t expected to work when they’re sick. He said staff members are instructed to send inmates with respiratory symptoms to prison infirmaries for appropriate treatment.

 

“Everyone is instructed to look for any symptoms of respiratory illness — and to report it immediately,” he said.

Dr. Marc Stern, a physician who once served as the top medical officer for the Washington State Department of Corrections, said he’s reluctant to assess whether the work assignments at the women’s prison were prudent. That, he said, would depend on whether state officials took proper precautions to prevent infections.

But he said there’s little question that sending inmates out on such jobs would increase the risk that they would bring the virus back to the prison.

 

And when prisons house older inmates with health problems — people like Doris Sadler — “it starts to become less wise” to send prisoners out on work assignments, Stern said.

 

“If you didn’t manage the risk and you brought the virus back to the facility, was it worth it?” he asked. “Probably not.”

 

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