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By Hannah Critchfield
Travis and his fiancée don’t talk much anymore. It’s not that he doesn’t call — it’s that he’s often gasping for air.
Travis, who has not yet been convicted of a crime and request NC Health News only use his first name, is awaiting trial for drug possession and assault charges inside a local jail with a COVID-19 outbreak.
As illness rendered his bunkmates bedridden over the last week, Travis said they were getting no sympathy from detention officers.
“Better make bond, because y’all can’t breathe like George Floyd,” one guard allegedly told the group of sick inmates in late August.
The situation is worsening at Pitt County Detention Center, according to those held there who have reached out to NC Health News. At the end of August, inmates who tested positive inside the dorm where a COVID-19 outbreak began continued to be housed alongside those who had not.
Inmates in a neighboring dorm, all of them Black men, said they are struggling to get tested amid worsening symptoms. They allege a guard mocked the concerns of inmates inside, telling them to “make bail” if they “couldn’t breathe like George Floyd.”
North Carolina Health News verified that they are currently incarcerated at the facility.
They allege nearly every person in their 17-man dorm is showing COVID-19-like symptoms, despite numbers reported to the Department of Health and Human Services that state the only positive cases in the facility are eight staff members.
However, the sheriff’s office had previously told NC Health News and other news outlets that there were cases among the inmate population. DHHS and the sheriff’s office have not yet responded to requests for clarification on the discrepancy with the numbers.
Inmates claim those incarcerated inside the dorm are not being tested, but only have their temperatures taken and are subsequently transferred out to another cell only if they become “too sick to move.”
“It’s like a nursing home right now,” said Travis, who said he had a 103-degree fever when his temperature was taken one Saturday evening. “Everybody laying on their mats.”
Pitt County Sheriff’s Office has not yet responded to multiple requests for comment.
No oversight to ensure testing
Unlike state prisons, county jails have no mandate to perform testing inside their facilities.
“There’s no COVID-specific oversight,” said Luke Woollard, staff attorney at Disability Rights NC, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, who are overrepresented in county jails. “There’s no agency that could come into a local detention facility or jail and say, ‘You must test these people,’ or mandate certain structures regarding social distancing.”
State prisons are overseen by the Department of Public Safety, a statewide agency. An ongoing lawsuit over prison conditions during the pandemic means those facilities are conducting mass testing of all inmates, as per a judge’s order
“The state prison system, because it’s sort of a hierarchy, it’s easier to set policy that’s effective statewide,” said Woollard, whose organization is one of the complainants in the lawsuit.
By contrast, each of North Carolina’s 99 jails is run at the county level and overseen by locally elected sheriffs.
Despite variance in administration, jails across the state have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as two or more positive cases of the virus, in the last month. August concluded with active outbreaks in 24 North Carolina jails.
Several of these facilities, such as the Randolph and Alamance County detention centers, have repeatedly declined to provide their testing numbers to North Carolina Health News.
Inside Pitt County’s jail
It’s unclear how many COVID-19 cases Pitt County Detention Center currently has.
People incarcerated inside said guards are declining to test them, despite them obviously displaying symptoms. Pitt County Sheriff’s Office has not yet responded to requests for the number of inmates who have been tested since the outbreak began.
“They haven’t tested us; all they’re doing is taking temperatures,” said Carlos Whitaker, another inmate inside the dorm, which detainees said was the B3 unit. “The whole block’s feeling sick.”
They allege about five or six detainees with severe temperatures have been moved over to another unit, the D block, to quarantine — but it’s unclear whether they were ever tested. Their fellow inmates believe they were not.
“They’ve been moved somewhere else, but no, they have not been tested,” said Whitaker. “They just said their temperatures were over 100.”
Inmates said this belief is partially built on the narratives of detention staff.
“We got confirmation from an officer – I won’t divulge his name because I don’t want him to get in trouble – but the officer told us the whole jail has the coronavirus,” said Eric Lanier, another inmate in the block. “He said that about every block is infected, has cases. He said that they only promoted nine on the news because that’s all that they assumed that they had at the time.”
Lanier said he isn’t surprised.
“They’re going from block-to-block, passing out trays, and they’re coming over here with the same PPE, same gloves, same mask, and everything,” he alleged, stating he watched as guards entered and exited the neighboring block, where the outbreak began and proceeded to enter their dorm without changing gloves. “So it’s basically coming off their clothes, onto our trays, and being put in our mouths.”
Meanwhile, Travis said he had a 103-degree fever as of Saturday night. He said he has not been tested for COVID-19 and has not been removed from the dorm.
“On a scale of one to 10, 10 being worst, I’m probably about an eight,” said Travis. He said he’s having trouble breathing.
“We’re just sitting here waiting to die,” said Lanier.
Being told to ‘make bond’
“The statements about George Floyd aside, just saying that people need to post bond to get out of these conditions that jails are not adequately protecting people against is very problematic,” said Woollard. “It’s really just saying if somebody doesn’t have enough money to pay bail, they deserve to stay in a potentially deadly situation.”
For some jail detainees, making bond isn’t simple.
For a charge of drug possession and assault with a deadly weapon, Travis’s bond is $271,000, according to his fiancée Niesha, who also requested we only print her first name out of concern for identifying Travis. Fifty-thousand of it must be paid in cash.
“How can we make bond when that bond’s like $300,000?” said Whitaker, another inmate. “But then, you’ve got people in here with misdemeanors with $10,000 bonds and can’t even afford that.
“They should let people go if they’ve just got misdemeanor charges,” said Whitaker, who himself is awaiting trial for misdemeanor charges.
Pitt County also houses federal prisoners — who are not eligible for bond release.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love [Sheriff] Paula Dance to death, I love her dearly,” said Niesha, noting she voted for Dance in the 2018 election. “But my fiancé has asthma real bad, and I’m scared. Because I caught it, so I know how it is — but I don’t have asthma.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Travis and Niesha’s full names. They have been removed at the request of Niesha, citing concerns of retaliation.