By Hannah Critchfield
UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect that an inmate at Greene Correctional died of COVID-19 on October 7.
He is the first person to die of the virus at the facility, and was hospitalized on September 24, two days before testing positive.
A week before visitations were slated to reopen at Greene Correctional Institution, a state prison in eastern North Carolina, officials announced Julia’s worst fear: The novel coronavirus had struck the facility — again.
“I’m broken-hearted,” said Julia, whose boyfriend is incarcerated inside and requested North Carolina Health News use a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation by the prison system, on Sept. 30. “We haven’t seen each other in eight months.”
“It’s very scary, it really is. It’s just gonna be spread like Neuse,” she told North Carolina Health News, referencing a state prison that was particularly hard hit early on in the pandemic. “It’s gonna wind up like a Neuse. Probably in the next week. That’s my guess.”
Within a week, the state prison, in a county that currently has the third highest number of new COVID-19 cases per capita in the state, has experienced an upsurge in cases. On Sept. 24, the day before the outbreak was announced, there were zero infections. By Oct. 2, the prison reported 63 positive cases, 59 of them among inmates. By Oct. 7, one incarcerated person had died.
It’s the second time the facility has experienced an outbreak since the pandemic began.
“We thought that we were a little more secure,” said David W. Small, 68, an inmate at Greene. “But then they kept shipping people in. And before we know it, it’s back in the building.”
The outbreak comes amid a spate of state prisoner deaths after a relative pause in COVID-19-related fatalities. It also leaves families who looked forward to seeing their incarcerated loved ones wondering what went wrong, and prisoners alleging mismanagement in containing the virus.
“We are in a giant tomb,” her boyfriend wrote in a letter obtained by NC Health News on Sept. 28. “Hoping to get lucky and make it out okay. Because that is all it will be is luck. Nobody cares if we live or die in here.”
The past and present spread
Greene County is where the first correctional officer in the state tested positive for COVID-19 in late March, at the neighboring Maury Correctional Institution.
Yet Greene Correctional Institution managed to stave off an outbreak for several months after the virus touched down in North Carolina.
Positive cases among inmates were first detected in “the summer/early fall” and eventually recovered, according to an emailed statement from Department of Public Safety spokesperson John Bull, though he said he could not provide the exact number of people or date they tested positive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers an outbreak to be two or more confirmed cases of COVID-19.
In any COVID-19 prison outbreak, theories about its origin spread almost as fast as the virus itself.
Prisoners who spoke to NC Health News say they believe the virus re-entered sometime in late September, and rapidly spread, as inmates continued to be transferred. They also allege improper quarantining protocols.
“It’s like they weren’t happy till they got it here,” said Kenyon Loftin, 43, an inmate at Greene who said he lives in the B dorm.
NC Health News spoke to seven prisoners and obtained letters from another, who are all currently incarcerated in the prison. Seven chose to go on the record; Julia’s boyfriend asked to remain anonymous out of fear DPS personnel, who oversee state prisons, would move him to another facility farther away from home in retaliation. NC Health News verified that all are current inmates at the facility.
They alleged a range of inadequate safety measures at Greene, echoing what have become rote complaints from people inside the state’s 55 prisons — fears about movement of prisoners, a lack of mask wearing by guards, and difficulty getting timely medical attention amid the outbreak.
Each prisoner expressed skepticism about the steps Greene Correctional staff were taking to ensure incoming inmates — transfers continue between the state’s facilities — were COVID-19-free before they were released into the general population.
“They never stopped like transferring guys in, so I don’t know if it came from them, or from officers,” said Kenneth Little, 54, who said he lives in the D dorm. “Certain officers just didn’t wear masks here. They weren’t wearing masks.”
Atop concerns about transfers into the facility, two prisoners alleged movement continues between dorms. Both live in B dorm and said prisoners from quarantined units have continued to enter their housing unit since the outbreak began.
“They just walk right past the guards and come in,” alleged Lewis. “The officers, they don’t care. It’s like they don’t care about their own health, and they really don’t care about mine. I have asthma, and I’m overweight.”
“We had to run them out,” said Lofton. “We had to run them out for our own safety.”
Prisoners in the neighboring C dorm corroborated that this is a frequent phenomenon in the Greene prison.
“They’re only not coming in our dorm because we won’t let ‘em in,” said Davelle Townsend, 37, alleging that the responsibility to preserve proper quarantining during the outbreak has often fallen on prisoners. “Guards try [to stop them], but if you’re got five, six people entering at once — it’s not like there are locks on our doors.”
“It’s because they don’t really have no security in the dorms,” said Small, another prisoner incarcerated in C dorm, who likewise attributed the problem to understaffing of correctional officers.
DPS denies these allegations.
“The leadership at the prison assures me COVID-positive offenders housed in D-Dorm or I-Dorm remain quarantined in that dorm until cleared by medical when they met [sic] the CDC and NCDHHS criteria to be considered presumed recovered,” Bull said in an emailed statement.
A lack of testing
None of the seven prisoners who called North Carolina Health News said they’d been tested for COVID-19 since the first cases this summer.
“We want to be tested because we’ve been exposed,” said Ahmad Lewis, 39, a resident in the B dorm.
They alleged the prison is instead taking temperatures, and only testing individuals who have a fever.
“We’re just like sitting ducks,” said Little. “Just waiting to contract this virus.”
Two dorms are undergoing mass testing, according to Bull, though he did not specify which units. However, he confirmed that Greene is only testing prisoners in the remainder of the population who “exhibit symptoms of COVID-19” or are “identified through contract tracing as being at risk for COVID-19 due to potential exposure.”
“They said the state can’t afford to test us all,” said Townsend. “It’s hell.”
“We all know that there are people that will have it and not be symptomatic, so why wouldn’t you test everybody, so you’re able to separate everyone and prevent the spread?” said Julia, whose boyfriend, housed in I dorm, did receive a test last week.
Most of Greene’s confirmed cases are asymptomatic, according to Bull.
Amid confusion and fear, all of the men expressed a desire for more transparency around information about the viral spread.
“They haven’t told us anything,” said Little.
Each said it remains impossible to social distance while sleeping in their dorm beds, which remain far short of 6 feet apart, as recommended for social distancing.
“They’ve got us sleeping on top of each other,” said David Hopkins, 34, who said he’s located in B dorm.
As cases began to decline within state prisons and in North Carolina broadly, the Department of Public Safety announced it would resume limited visitations for family and friends on Oct. 1.
The new outbreak has halted those plans at Greene, leaving inmates and their loved ones grappling with what they consider yet another cruel stroke of the pandemic.
“My mom was going to come,” said Little, adding that his father also died at the start of the pandemic. “She recently had a stroke. So it’s pretty hard right now. It’s really, really hard.”
“It was real hard,” echoed Ahmad Lewis’s fiancee, Sutrenna Farnell. “We have a son together — he wasn’t there for the birth. He still hasn’t seen him.”
“We used to really depend on that one visit a week,” said Carl King, 40, an inmate in C dorm. “We know we’re paying our debts to society, but we still want to see our families.”
As cases grow, inmates must instead resort to writing letters, as they have for the last eight months.
“He told me he wrote a letter to his 7-year-old son, in case he doesn’t make it out, just saying, ‘I love you,’” said Julia. “That shook me to my core.”
A rise in deaths
Prisons across North Carolina have seen a spike in deaths due to COVID-19 in the last month. Eight incarcerated people have died while in state prison custody since Sept. 6.
Hospitalizations of prisoners due to COVID-19 are also on the rise since the outbreak at Greene began, according to DPS data. These hospitalizations are not broken down by prison facility.
On Oct. 8, DPS announced that an inmate inside the Greene prison had died of the virus the day before, after being hospitalized on Sept. 24 and testing positive two days later.
On Friday, Julia informed North Carolina Health News that her boyfriend had tested positive for COVID-19.
“He’s positive, and pretty much every man but five in his pod are as well,” she said. “All hell is breaking loose. I’m devastated.”
A few days before, in a letter addressed on Sept. 28, he wrote to Julia:
“We will all have to die for something to change. And maybe even then people wouldn’t care.”