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Piedmont Correctional inmates say prison failing to provide efficient care during pandemic

By Shavonne Potts
shavonne.potts@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — There’s a greater number of inmates who are COVID-19 positive than is being reported by N.C. Department of Public Safety officials, says Lee Burgess, a 53-year-old nonviolent offender in the minimum custody unit of Piedmont Correctional Institute.

The U.S. Army veteran is a non-violent offender currently serving a six-year prison sentence for drug trafficking at the Salisbury facility. He also was diagnosed in September with COVID-19.

Burgess said in a letter and subsequent interview with the Post that the N.C. Department of Public Health and Piedmont Correctional Institute were negligent and failed to protect the inmates against COVID-19, which resulted in a number of them, including him, contracting the virus.

Piedmont Correctional is made up of the medium-security unit located on Camp Road, colloquially known as the “high-rise,” and the minimum-security unit located on South Main Street. The minimum security, nicknamed the “low-rise” houses fewer than 300 inmates.

According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, there are currently 6,238 positive COVID-19 cases and 50 deaths in North Carolina correctional facilities. Per the agency’s data portal, Piedmont is among 15 North Carolina prisons with more than 100 total positive cases, as of the most recent available data.

The N.C. DHHS shows Piedmont currently has 119 positive cases, fewer than half the 465 positive cases at Neuse prison in Goldsboro, which has the highest number of positive COVID-19 cases, based on the most recent available data. On Saturday, state data said there were just two positive cases.

“My biggest concern is they had six months before this even took place. They did not come up with any type of plan to combat it. Now that it’s happened they are like ‘you guys are wards of the state. We don’t care.’ It’s just not right,” Burgess said.

Entry point

Piedmont is a point of entry into the prison system for male felons ages 22 and older from western North Carolina who are sentenced to less than 10 years in prison. Department of Public Safety spokesman John Bull said the prison is a designated intake facility where new offenders from the county jails are processed to begin their prison sentences.

ALLISON LEE ISLEY/SALISBURY POST Inmates at the Piedmont Correctional Institution and their bunk beds.

“All new offenders from the county jails are immediately placed in medical quarantine for 14 days, in keeping with CDC and NCDHHS guidelines. They do not come in contact with the rest of the prison population. They are tested for COVID-19. Any who test positive are placed in medical isolation until they meet CDC and DHHS guidelines to be considered presumed recovered,” Bull said.

Burgess wrote in a letter to the Post that at the beginning of September three inmates were sent to the Salisbury-based facility from Catawba County to “do their disciplinary hole time.” The inmates began to show signs of COVID-19 and were tested. Before the results were reported, an inmate in Burgess’ dorm got into an argument and was placed in disciplinary segregation.

The minimum security unit has 28 cell segregation units, which is known by inmates, Burgess said, as “the hole.”

“It’s where people from other camps are sent here to do their disciplinary time,” Burgess wrote in his letter.

Typically, an inmate may be moved into disciplinary segregation if he violates prison rules. However, Bull said, inmates who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 have been medically referred to segregation.

“Offenders in medical isolation may be put in cells that otherwise would be used for those in restrictive housing, particularly at prisons that do not have many if any available single cells. But offenders in these cells due to medical isolation retain the same privileges as do the offenders in the regular population. They are not in solitary confinement. These cell assignments are for medical isolation purposes, to prevent the spread of the virus in the offender population, and is not punitive,” Bull said.

Burgess describes “the hole” as a cell with bars separated by a block wall with no air conditioner and fans at the end of the hall to circulate air. They are roughly 48 square feet, Burgess estimates.

The inmate who got into an argument was placed in the hole for a “cool off period,” for a day and a half, Burgess said. At the conclusion of the cool-off period, the inmate was returned to Burgess’ dorm. Two days later, the three inmates transferred into the prison received positive test results.

Officers dressed in personal protective equipment removed one inmate from his dorm on Sept. 10 and the other two on Sept. 11, Burgess recalled. Three days later on Sept. 14, the inmate who was in disciplinary segregation came down with a fever and was removed from the dorm.

As the days continued — Sept. 16, Sept. 18, and Sept. 20 — three other inmates became sick, Burgess said.

His entire dorm was tested on Sept. 21 and two more inmates became sick on Sept. 22, he said.

Burgess said inmates were ordered to pack their belongings and were moved to another dorm — 28 men on side C and 17 on side D.

He found out afterward that the 28 men in side C were determined to be negative but were still required to be quarantined because of their exposure to the 17 positive men. The only thing that separated the men in the dorms was plastic, Burgess said.

Burgess said the 28-person dorm was meant to house 24 and that men were “packed like sardines” and forced to wear masks constantly.

“We feel like livestock being held in an overcrowded pen waiting for our turn to get sick,” he said.

By Sept. 30, Burgess and eight others received positive COVID-19 test results, bringing the total to 41 inmates out of the 50 or so in the dorm and possibly three guards, he said.

As of Saturday afternoon, Burgess was COVID-free.

Safety precautions

Bull said the prison has extensive experience in responding to infectious diseases.

When COVID-19 was detected in China and before the first case was diagnosed in the United States, the N.C. Division of Prisons updated its pandemic flu plan, later modified it to address COVID-19 and enacted it in March. All offenders have been tested at least once — on arrival to prison from jails, Bull said. All offenders also were mass tested this summer.

“They are tested again if they have symptoms of the virus, if they may have been potentially exposed to someone who tested positive, and sometimes entire cohorts of offenders are tested for the virus. Other testing is conducted as needed,” Bull said.

Both offenders and staff are urged to wear their face masks, wash their hands often and practice social distancing to the degree that can be done. Prisons have been working to reduce population density at some prisons as much as possible considering the high-density congregate care environments in prisons. Also, due to the pandemic, offenders in bunks are supposed to sleep with their heads on one side of their bed while the offenders in adjoining bunks sleep with their heads on the other side of their beds. This is to gain additional separation from the offenders faces when they are sleeping, Bull said.

ALLISON LEE ISLEY/SALISBURY POST A few Piedmont Correctional Institution inmates spend their time listening to music and watching television in their cell.

Bull says the prisons were not built with social distancing in mind. It was built 40 years ago, in 1980.

Burgess said the majority of the men who tested positive experienced loss of taste and smell, coughing, sneezing, head and body aches, and diarrhea. He experienced an occasional headache and sporadic cough. He is housed in a unit with 50 to 60 other inmates in military barrack-style quarters.

When the inmates questioned being placed in population with potentially other sick inmates, prison staff members threatened disciplinary action, Burgess said.

Burgess’ sister, Annette Long, said she’s tried to be her brother’s voice but has been stonewalled by prison officials. Long said she feels as though the prison system is not doing anything to stop the spread.

“North Carolina has really dropped the ball when it comes to COVID. It’s steadily rising,” Long said. “It really hurts my heart because we’re a really close family. He’s already caught TB in there. q

Long speaks with her brother by phone at least once a week but says she’s so scared that he could contract the coronavirus again.

She said because the family doesn’t know what could happen, they make sure they end each phone call with, “I love you.”

Other inmates

Burgess is not the only one who’s expressed concerns about conditions in Piedmont Correctional during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Post was unable to arrange interviews with the inmates prior to publication.

The Post received letters from other inmates, including William D. Berns and David Lynne Peche, who detailed similar issues with the failings of the prison system to protect inmates. The Post also received interview consent letters from other inmates — William H. Johnston Jr., Thomas Alby Davis and James Franklin — all three of whom said they wanted to share their experiences.

The letters were sent Oct. 25, Oct. 26 and Oct. 27. The Post forwarded those requests to the Department of Public Safety as it did with Burgess’ request. In response, Department of Public Safety staff said they needed to focus on the pandemic response until the facility is taken off of “red status.” But multiple people who spoke to the Post said the prison has been in “red status” for multiple months.

Bull suggested the Post arrange interviews with the inmates when their fellow inmates have access to phones. The Post was unable to arrange interviews in time to meet its deadline.

While interviews with additional inmates wasn’t possible, James Franklin’s wife, Stephanie, agreed to share his story. She said staff moved Franklin, who is housed in the minimum security unit, and 25 others to a smaller dorm where social distancing wasn’t possible. He and 15 others tested positive on Sept. 28, but his only symptom reported was a lost sense of smell.

Stephanie Franklin said she felt the prison was not ready to handle the virus and the healthcare of the inmates.

She’s contacted prison officials via phone and email and hasn’t gotten the answers she sought. Her husband also wrote a grievance letter about this and other issues that have gone unaddressed.

Bull said prison staff members try to connect with families but are busy “dealing with the health, safety, and security impacts of COVID-19 and maybe delayed in response.”

“They need to test everybody, he’s assuming, and I’m assuming they don’t want numbers to look bad,” Stephanie said.

She’s fearful that her husband and the other men could become re-exposed to the virus.

“They are humans and they deserve to be safe,” Stephanie said.

A letter from Berns, whose request for an interview was denied, said he has been housed at the facility since July 2016.

“I have observed/seen several errors in judgment and decision-making that I feel has put my and other inmates’ life in jeopardy,” Berns wrote in his letter. He described up to 50 inmates per dormitory. Some inmates have become more sick than others, and Berns wrote that he was aware of least one who was sent to a hospital at Central Prison in Raleigh.

Berns also said inmates who are sick are placed in the hole to either “become sicker or get well.”

“I am very concerned about the jeopardy my life has been placed in … I have been put in a position of undue anxiety that has reached the level of being inhumane treatment by the prison staff,” Berns wrote.

Berns is expected to be released in late May.

Injunction

In the spring when the federal prison complex in Butner began to have a spike in COVID-19 cases, a number of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit to protect the rights of those incarcerated there. One part of Butner is the hospital that serves many inmates who receive cancer treatments and other medical care.

Butner became the deadliest prison COVID-19 outbreak in North Carolina and among the deadliest in the country, said Maria Morris, a senior staff attorney with the National Prison Project at the ACLU.

The American Civil Liberties Union is among the civil rights groups who filed the class-action lawsuit to include the ACLU of North Carolina, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and Winston & Strawn seeking adequate medical care and conditions be made safe for those who remain in custody amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Morris said they are seeking an injunction that asks to reduce population density by transferring people to home confinement or house arrest.

“In addition, to reducing the population density we are asking that they undertake changes to make it possible for people to social distance, do more systematic testing, improve their quarantine and isolation practices, provide better healthcare to people with COVID,” Morris said.

She said they should also not let the fact that there is a pandemic get in the way of people receiving the medical care they need for other conditions.

The lawsuit also demands the prison take care of the basic needs — better cleaning, the use of masks and gloves, and PPE.

“What’s going on is unconstitutional and violates the American with Disabilities Act,” Morris said.

“We take on responsibilities to those people. We are putting people into a setting where we’re putting their lives in danger. We should be talking about it and thinking about if that’s what we in this society want to be doing,” Morris said.

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