By Taylor Knopf
Nacola Williams was released early from North Carolina’s state prison system as part of an effort to reduce exposure to COVID-19 in a confined space where the contagious virus can spread quickly from inmate to inmate.
Her age, 52, plus high blood pressure put Williams in the high-risk category for COVID-19 complications, and thus eligible for early release.
She was serving a one-year sentence for chronic shoplifting at the women’s prison in Raleigh. Williams was released 36 days early to her home in Wilmington.
But it wasn’t soon enough. She tested positive for the virus about a week later. Now, she is in the hospital, according to prison legal advocates working with inmates at high risk for COVID-19 complications who have filed a lawsuit seeking early release.
It’s unclear where Williams contracted the virus, but there has been an outbreak at the women’s prison where she was incarcerated.
Before Williams became sick, she wrote an affidavit to accompany the lawsuit. What she and other current and former inmates describe in their sworn statements taken between April 21 and 23 gives a glimpse from the inside that does not always correspond with what’s being presented to the public from prison officials.
The Department of Public Safety has reported a long list of COVID-19 precautions taken to protect corrections staff and inmates, including suspended visitation, temperature checks of staff, enhanced cleaning and some early release of inmates, such as Williams.
Virus symptoms dismissed
In her written testimony, Williams wrote that women from her unit were going into the community for work release programs as late as the third week of April, even though the DPS said these programs were halted on March 25.
Over the past several days, more than 80 women from William’s unit at N.C. Correctional Institution for Women (NCCIW) tested positive for the virus. Prison officials tested 185 offenders in the Canary Unit, a separate minimum-security facility that houses a small fraction of the inmates at NCCIW.
The Canary Unit is on the same campus in downtown Raleigh as the larger women’s prison facility which houses the majority of the inmates. However, as of Tuesday, a Department of Public Safety spokesperson said prison officials had no current plans to conduct mass COVID-19 testing in the main, larger facility.
Williams also said that inmates were still moving between her unit and the main NCCIW facility, widening the circle of contacts who could transmit the virus from prisoner to prisoner.
Inmates experiencing coronavirus symptoms were told to report them to a medical technician, Williams wrote in a sworn statement on April 21.
“The overwhelming response from the medical technicians was not to refer women to the nurse on staff, but instead, told women that they just had allergies,” she wrote.
DPS officials have said they are testing inmates according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC places prisoners showing symptoms in the “high priority” category for COVID-19 testing.
Williams said other inmates around her had low-grade fevers. One woman was so sick that she didn’t get out of bed for four days and couldn’t eat, she wrote. Other inmates brought her water in bed.
Williams said she told the sergeant that she believed the virus was in the facility. She was told that it was not. Finally, the bedridden inmate was taken out of the dormitory. The following day, the women were told someone tested positive for COVID-19, according to Williams.
N.C. prisoners describe what conditions are like in their facilities in affidavits filed in a court case where prison legal advocates are suing the state for early release of some inmates.
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Though inmates were spaced out in the dining hall, Williams said the bunk beds they slept in were not six feet apart. She wrote that women started hoarding bleach because there was a shortage of hygiene products at one point. Others started crocheting T-shirts together to make masks before prison staff distributed cloth masks.
Before being released home, Williams asked if she could be tested for the virus. She was told “no.”
“I believe I should have had the option to be tested before I left the facility,” she wrote.
Now she is in the community and sick.
“There are many women inside of NCCIW that are terrified that they will not make it home,” she wrote. “The conditions in which we were forced to live were not consistent with the CDC guidelines around social distancing.”
This was a common refrain throughout the inmates’ written testimonies at facilities across the state.
No way to social distance
Many write that inmates at their facility were given one cloth mask a week that they attempted to wash with their bars of soap. They describe sleeping in bunk beds no more than three to four feet apart. Some say they’ve been told to sleep in alternating directions. One wrote that there’s no soap in the bathroom and inmates bring their own to use. Another wrote that there’s no hand sanitizer for inmates.
In their testimonies, the inmates describe feeling fear or anxiety because they don’t know who is infected and have no way of separating themselves from others.
Charles Gilchrist, a 32-year-old man incarcerated in the Columbus Correctional Institution in Whiteville, said half of his 30-person dormitory fell ill for two weeks in March with “fever, body aches, chills, coughing, loss of appetite, and sweats.”
Gilchrist wrote that they were not provided medical assistance, tested for COVID-19, or taken out of the dorm. He and the others cared for them with supplies they could purchase from the commissary.
Another young man named RaShaun Conner, incarcerated in the Sampson Correctional Institution in Clinton, wrote that he fears for his life because he has a kidney disorder and a compromised immune system which put him at risk for COVID-19 complications.
“The continued movement of people between prisons causes me to have additional concerns for my health and safety while incarcerated,” he wrote.
“I hear that on the news, they are telling people across the state to stay at home and limit contact with other people, but I was shipped across the state with other incarcerated men and am in very close contact with other men at all times, which undoubtedly puts me at a higher risk of contracting the virus.”
He said that two more buses of male inmates were transferred to Sampson in the weeks after his arrival on March 27.
Inside the Neuse CI outbreak
Ruben Wright, a 63-year-old incarcerated at Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro, described the environment inside the prison as the number of inmates who tested positive for the virus increased to more than 450 out of the nearly 700 inmates tested. At time of publication, three inmates had died from COVID-19, two at Neuse and another at Pender Correctional Institution.
Wright and the other inmates in his unit at Neuse were tested for COVID-19 around 4 a.m. on April 15.
“We are unaware of who in the unit has the virus and thus are unable to even attempt to keep our distance to protect ourselves. I have learned more from the news about the confirmed tests in this facility than I have from anyone working here,” Wright wrote the week after he was tested, saying he had not yet received his test results. He had learned through the media that at least 300 inmates in his facility had the virus.
“They allow people to wander around to different cell blocks. They do not make any efforts to try to separate people,” he wrote. “In reality, they can’t effectively separate people because there is nowhere else to put them.”
Wright wrote that a bus of inmates from Craven Correctional Institution arrived at Neuse two days after the whole prison was tested for COVID-19.
“I was under the impression that the prison had stopped shipping other incarcerated people here,” he wrote. “This is not a safe place to be during this virus.”
He wrote that he would rather be safe at home with his wife in Virginia. Wright is a veteran who served 29 years in the Marine Corps who was in line for a historic promotion before he was wrongly convicted of murder, he wrote. His lawyers at the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic confirmed that they have been working on his case. They believe he is innocent and they are suing to obtain video footage to prove it.
According to his lawyer, Wright has tested positive for COVID-19.