By Jordan Wilkie, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women was one of the few North Carolina prisons that had been able to avoid an outbreak of COVID-19 since the first cases were reported among prison staff and inmates at the end of March.
That ended Dec. 4, when a staff person tested positive for the virus and was taken off duty, according to the Department of Public Safety. The staff member’s illness likely triggered the current outbreak at the facility.
Prison staff conducted contact tracing and put “some cohorts of offenders” on medical quarantine, DPS said.
The quarantine included the 18 women in the prison’s service club, who were told that evening that they had been exposed to COVID-19 in a meeting with the ill staff member the night before, according to one of the members, Sandra Dowell, and two other women in the group.
They were moved from locations throughout the prison to quarantine together in a hall with that had no heat in the sleeping area, they told Carolina Public Press.
The action is indicative of the state’s preparedness to respond to COVID-19 in its prisons. Poor conditions and sagging infrastructure that predated the pandemic make it harder to manage the pandemic.
Expanded testing, especially among staff, allowed the state to identify an outbreak relatively early on, but the testing rates and other COVID-19 responsive policies still fall far short of expert recommendations.
An ongoing lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the prison system’s handling of COVID-19. The realities of prison response differs from what the state is telling the court is happening, according to the civil rights groups suing the state and prisoner advocacy group N.C. Prisoner Legal Services.
The women of Swannanoa’s service club slept in the cold with gloves on. They had their family members call the prison to request additional blankets, according to Betsy Fredell, another member of the prison’s service club. Prison staff fixed the heat after four nights, on Dec. 8.
By that time, several women were complaining of symptoms that could be related to COVID-19, though they were the ubiquitous ills that come with this time of year such as cough, headache and runny nose.
Betsy Fisher and three other women from the group showed serious enough symptoms that they were further separated from the others, into a hall called Greenwood B, she said.
Dowell, who stayed with the main group, had worsening symptoms, according to her lawyers. She is a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging prison conditions.
In a preliminary injunction in June, the judge said conditions are likely unconstitutional, and the case is proceeding to trial in the spring.
‘It’s affecting our nervous system or something’
The prison medical staff checked temperatures and asked about symptoms every day the women were in quarantine, Dowell and the others said, which is proper procedure recommended by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But they were not being tested.
One of Dowell’s lawyers, Elizabeth Simpson, associate director of Emancipate North Carolina, said her legal team emailed the state’s lawyers on Dec. 10. That night, the women in both halls were given rapid tests to detect COVID-19.
Dowell and six other women tested positive and were moved into Greenwood B.
Two of the women already there tested positive. One tested negative and was moved out. Fisher tested negative but was kept in the same hall as the nine women who tested positive, she told CPP.
DPS policy states, “Offenders who test positive are promptly separated from the rest of the offender population and placed in medical isolation to better ensure they don’t spread the virus.”
But Fisher, who tested negative, first with a rapid test then with a “three-day test,” so-called for how long it takes to get results, is still on Greenwood B. She has her own cell and only leaves it to shower or make calls, she said.
The Department of Public Safety told Carolina Public Press “offender population was mass tested on Dec. 11, at which point mass testing of the entire staff was initiated.” DPS has reported just over 50 tests in a prison with a capacity of 366, according to their website. While DPS can provide staff test results upon request, it is not publicly reported in the same manner as those for the people in state custody.
After getting negative results with rapid testing, two more women from the service club tested positive and moved into Greenwood B, including Fredell, the women said.
DPS has not responded to questions from CPP about the lack of heat when the women were first put in quarantine or about why Fisher is still being held in the same hall with 11 women who tested positive for COVID-19.
As of Tuesday night, Fisher told CPP that she had fatigue and sinus pressure. Like the other women, she is checked two or three times a day for symptoms, though so far she has not been tested again or moved to a hall without confirmed positive cases.
“I probably have the COVID, but they don’t want to test me because they gave it to me,” Fisher said of the prison staff member who housed her with women who tested positive.
Some of those women are now throwing up, have diarrhea and what the women call “the hippy shakes,” where it feels like their insides “just shake all the time,” Dowell said.
“You know, it’s like it’s affecting our nervous system or something,” she said.