Albemarle Correctional inmates worried about health, safety amid COVID-19 outbreak

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 9, 2020

By Chris Miller
The Stanly News & Press

As the coronavirus continues to ravage the state prison system, four inmates in the Albemarle Correctional Institution in New London, a prison several miles from the Rowan County line, are speaking out about what they view as unsafe conditions.

In numerous phone interviews with each of them by the Stanly News & Press over roughly two weeks, a common theme emerged: sick inmates who developed fevers after having their temperatures taken often remained in the general population with the other, presumably healthy, inmates for hours or possibly days before being separated and quarantined in another section of the facility.

“Tensions are running high in here because people are scared,” said inmate Darryl Anderson.

The four inmates reside inside the E block, part of the Falls Unit, which normally houses around 270 inmates, said Department of Public Safety spokesman John Bull. The unit typically consists of the elderly and disabled individuals, people who are at increased risk of severe illness from the coronavirus. It also houses food service workers. Falls Unit is one of three units (along with Badin Unit and Tillery Unit) inside the prison.

The inmates said the prison takes their temperatures two to three times a day. When inmates have a fever — defined as a temperature of 99.9 degrees or higher — they are given water and sidelined from others before having their temperature taken again. If the inmates continue to run fevers, they are separated — but not always right away.

“Instead of them (guards) taking them (inmates with fevers) somewhere to quarantine them, they bring them right back in the pods,” said inmate Derrick Mason.

Mason, who is originally from Cabarrus County, has been in ACI for several months. He has been convicted of offenses that include assault on a female, kidnapping and larceny, according to the state’s Department of Public Safety website. His projected release date isn’t until December 2022.

Jerry Higgins, a communications officer for the NCDPS, disputed Mason’s claim that sick inmates are placed back into the general population.

“Offenders with elevated temperatures are either isolated pending a COVID test or moved to a dorm for isolation depending on available bed space,” he said in an email. “They are not placed in regular population, in order to prevent the possible spread of the virus.”

Bull said that while inmates still transfer to ACI there is “no reason to believe the offenders recently transferred to Albemarle Correctional have any connection to the recent outbreak.”

Mason and the other three inmates are housed in the same open dormitory, or pod as Mason calls it, with other inmates. Mason said there is little space and virtually no room to properly social distance. He said inmates sleep in beds just a few feet apart from one another.

“Everything we do here (in the pods) like using the bathroom and washing our hands … we got to do behind a person,” Mason, 32, said of the cramped environment.

Higgins said there are three feet between each bunk, and the maximum capacity for each dorm is between 32 and 36 inmates.

“Social distancing is difficult in any prison environment,” Higgins added. “The Division of Prisons encourages the offenders to wear a mask, wait six feet apart from each other and wash their hands often.”

COVID-19 spreading inside ACI

In mid-June, DPS initiated a plan to test all inmates in the state prison system for coronavirus, beginning with ACI. The testing of the population is estimated to require at least 60 days to complete, at a projected cost of more than $3.3 million.

Of the 774 inmates at ACI who have been tested as of Wednesday, 96 of them, or roughly 12%, have contracted the virus, according to offender-related data, which is updated daily on the DPS website. Of the total who have tested positive, all but 14 have recovered from the virus, Bull said.

Inmates who test positive and exhibit symptoms are taken to single cells for restrictive housing, but they have all privileges given to inmates in the general population, Bull said. Inmates who test positive and are asymptomatic are placed in a dorm with other offenders who have also tested positive and are asymptomatic.

Bull said 17 staff members at ACI have also been infected with the virus, though 14 of them have recovered and are back at work.

In the state prison system, 5,958 tests have been performed with 15% coming back positive. So far, five inmates have died, though none at ACI.

Stanly County Sheriff Jeff Crisco said no inmates at the Stanly County Detention Center have tested positive for coronavirus.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” he said.

COVID-19 and other infectious diseases thrive inside close quarter areas, like prisons and jails, because inmates live so closely together, officials said.

“Incarcerated/detained persons live, work, eat, study, and recreate within congregate environments, heightening the potential for COVID-19 to spread once introduced,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

So far, the COVID-19 outbreak at Albemarle is the third largest in the state prison system.

The largest is at Neuse Correctional Institution, in Goldsboro, where more than 460 inmates have been diagnosed, according to DPS data. The second largest has been at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, in Raleigh, where more than 140 inmates have tested positive.

The low security section of the Federal Correctional Complex at Butner houses 1,130 men. As of Tuesday, it had 556 inmates with active coronavirus infections, according to the federal prison bureau. The prison reported 16 inmates and one staff member from low security had died.

Across the country, more than 52,000 inmates in state and federal prisons have tested positive for the illness, according to data from the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. At least 616 have died.

Mason said he and many others were tested for the coronavirus on June 18. He discovered four days later that his test came back negative, though recent health complications (including hot flashes, chest pains and coughing) made him fear he had since contracted the virus.

Daniale Mackin, his sister who lives in Concord and whom he talks with almost daily, said Mason told her last week that he took the coronavirus test again and it came back positive. She said he is currently in quarantine.

“He said his whole body was hurting,” she said. “He felt like he had the flu and that he was about to die with the flu.”

None of the other inmates who were interviewed have tested positive for the virus.

Of the inmates in Mason’s pod, he alleges that around 20 of them were removed June 22 after testing positive for the virus. Mason said he interacted daily with many of the inmates who later tested positive and were removed. Mason said he played cards each day with three of them while he had communicated with another on a regular basis since he first arrived in early April.

Bryan Blansett, 50, said an inmate who reportedly tested positive was placed back into Block E for 24 hours before guards quarantined him.

“He was just sitting on my bed 30 minutes earlier before they came and took him out of here and put him in the quarantine block,” said Blansett, who is in prison for trafficking drugs.

Two days later, Blansett, who is from Iredell County, alleges guards brought three inmates into Block E who had previously tested positive for the virus. He said he was told they had been quarantined for long enough “that it shouldn’t hurt us,” but that didn’t ease his worries.

“With this being a very unknown virus, how can you say it’s not going to affect the rest of us just because they have went through the worst of it?” said Blansett, who said he has emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease along with mobility issues. “If I get it, I’m sure it’s really going to hurt me bad.”

Bull said inmates who have tested positive but who have quarantined and have met the recovery criteria set forth by the CDC and the state’s Department of Health and Human Services are removed from medical isolation and returned back to the general population.

Blansett said guards can be slow to respond to moving sick patients out of the block.

“They put people where they want to and move people when they want to,” he said.

He misses his family and believes that if he gets the virus, “I won’t be able to see them again.”

A few weeks ago Velton Williams, 56, a native of Beaufort County, said he was moved inside the A block for roughly three days before being placed back into the E block. Williams later learned that almost all the inmates inside A block had tested positive for the virus.

Williams is concerned because he has a bad heart and bronchitis.

“I don’t need this coronavirus,” he said. “I’m trying to avoid this coronavirus.”

He fears that the outbreak inside ACI will get worse and that “this is going to be another Neuse Correctional” with hundreds of inmates infected.

While worried about possible retribution for speaking out, Mason, who was interviewed before he tested positive, says he is more concerned about his health.

“My voice has to be heard in some way,” he said.

The reason he hasn’t voiced his safety concerns to ACI is because Mason alleges certain staff members have routinely disparaged him by calling him offensive names based on his sexuality. He said his mother had written to state officials in Raleigh about the incidents.

Mackin said he told her that, due to the way the staff have treated him, Mason was recently told he will soon be sent to another prison.

Other inmates’ worries

Darryl Anderson, 53, also fears for his health and safety. As someone who has an underlying health conditions — he has seizures and suffered a heart attack last year and is currently in a wheelchair due to complications — he faces higher risks from COVID-19.

Anderson, who has been at ACI since December, is in prison for nonviolent offenses, including writing worthless checks, forgery and larceny of a motor vehicle. Anderson said he could have been released in October, but due to the pandemic, his projected release date is now May 2021. His biggest fear is that he won’t be able to come home to his family.

He said it’s unnerving when new inmates come into E block because he’s not sure of their health status. He’s also unsure if they have previously tested positive and have been quarantined.

Mason said he feels the prison has left the inmates in the dark and hasn’t been fully transparent with them when it comes to test results. Instead of informing the block of which inmates had tested positive, he said, the prison simply transferred the infected group to another location.

“Everything that goes on here, they don’t tell us anything,” Mason said.

He also said staff didn’t bring adequate cleaning supplies into the block until the day before the inmates were first tested, adding that his previous prison, Piedmont Correctional Institution in Salisbury, had an abundance of cleaning supplies readily available for the inmates.

Higgins disputed Mason’s claim, saying cleaning supplies have been readily available to inmates and “cleaning takes place throughout the day.”

Bull noted that every inmate and every staff member at every state prison facility has at least two cloth face masks.

Mason is also concerned because all of the inmates — including those with the virus — spend time outside at the recreation yard. Though the quarantined inmates are not outside at the same time as the general population, Mason worries he has interacted with surfaces (a pull-up bar, tables, doorknobs) that the positive inmates have touched.

Higgins said offenders who have contracted COVID-19 are allowed outside recreation time only with others who have also tested positive. He also noted all surfaces are “cleaned thoroughly prior to use.”

Anderson, who noted inmates are still being moved around the prison each day, said there is no set system in place and that the prison is “playing it by ear” in terms of dealing with the pandemic.

He said he’s around people who are coughing and are scared that they will eventually test positive and be locked away with others who have the virus.

“We’re just hoping and praying we don’t get sick,” Anderson said.