Prisoners with underlying medical conditions question why they were transferred to Neuse CI, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the North Carolina prison system.

Seven weeks after a COVID-19 outbreak swept through Neuse Correction Institution, infecting more than half of the men housed there, the NC Division of Adult Correction began resuming transfers among the dozens of facilities in the system on May 27 to make room for new offenders arriving from county jails after sentencing.

Many of those transferred between facilities on May 27 are people with underlying health conditions, including asthma, diabetes and hypertension, and they were horrified to discover that they were headed to Neuse, the facility with the highest number of infections and deaths.

The state Department of Public Safety reports that 466 out of 795 incarcerated persons who have tested positive for COVID-19 are housed at Neuse, and three out of the five incarcerated persons who have died from the virus are at the 788-capacity, medium- and minimum-custody facility in Goldsboro.

Three men housed at Neuse who contacted Triad City Beat described a rising sense of frustration with the prison and fear that the virus will rebound due to crowded conditions that make social distancing impossible, uneven use of masks, the intermixing of healthy and sick people, and haphazard testing as the virus spread through the system over the past three months.

“Everybody that got off that bus that day had chronic health issues,” Frank Baber told TCB. “How you gonna send someone with chronic issues to a hotspot?”

The 57-year-old Baber, who went to prison on a drug charge in 2016, said he suffers from a lung disorder and a chronic heart condition. He relies on a CPAP machine — short for “continuous positive airway pressure” — to help him breathe at night, but he said he’s unable to use it because there’s no electrical outlet near his bed and he doesn’t have access to cleaning supplies to keep it sanitized.

“They’re playing guinea pigs with anyone with an underlying health issue they’ve been sending here,” Baber said.

Jerry Higgins, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety, said in an email to TCB that at the time of the May 27 transfer, “Neuse Correctional Institution may have been one of the safest prisons to move offenders to considering that the offender population either tested positive and were presumed recovered (meaning they are not contagious) or were found to be COVID-19 negative.”

Frank Baber

Baber and other incarcerated persons said they were not tested before they were transferred into Neuse. Baber said he pleaded for a test after suffering from headaches. He got the test on June 17 and it came back negative. But he said the sample was taken from a throat swab instead of the standard nasal swab, and he doesn’t trust the accuracy of the results. Baber said he was under quarantine for COVID-19 symptoms at Pender, before he transferred to Neuse.

“Neuse Correctional is lying to the public saying we’re back to normal,” said Danny Costner, who like Baber, arrived at Neuse on May 27. Costner was previously housed at Tabor Correctional Institution in Columbus County.

“They did not test me for COVID-19 when I transferred,” said the 44-year old Costner, who is serving time for an obtaining property by false pretense conviction as a result of writing bad checks. “I had an upper respiratory infection…. I started raising hell…. They put me immediately into population.” Costner said he has Type 2 diabetes.

Perry Pitts, a 49-year-old Winston-Salem man who is serving time for 2018 drug conviction, said he had expected to be transferred to Randolph County Correctional Center, a minimum-custody facility in Asheboro that has reported only nine COVID-19 cases. Pitts has maintained an unblemished record of conduct since he started serving his sentence in October 2018 and is classified as a minimum-custody prisoner.

But instead of going to Randolph County, Pitts wound up joining Baber and four other prisoners from Pender on the bus to Neuse.

After learning from his sister that he was at Neuse, Kellie Mannette, Pitts’ lawyer emailed Jodi Harrison, deputy general counsel for the Department of Public Safety, writing that her client “has several underlying conditions that put him at high risk if he contracts COVID.” She added, “I understand there has been a resumption of transfers, but this is terrifying — Neuse has had the largest outbreak.”

Harrison responded: “I am not sure what you are asking me to do here. While it is true that Neuse did have an outbreak of COVID-19 in April, Neuse CI has resumed normal operations (‘normal’ meaning subject to the same COVID-19 restrictions to which all facilities are subject). Mr. Pitts was transferred to Neuse because he was promoted from medium custody to minimum I, and the facility he was previously housed in (Pender CI) is not a minimum-custody facility.”

Harrison said that while she understood Pitts’ concerns, “I would respectfully point out that those are concerns that are likely widely shared by many offenders and, while understandable, the department is not in a position to permit COVID-19 concerns to prevent it from utilizing available space at operational facilities.”

Perry Pitts

Pitts suffers from asthma, hypertension, seizures and obesity, Mannette has said, and an intellectual disability compromises his capacity to make good decisions to protect his health.

Pitts said when he arrived at Neuse, he was placed in a “recovery dorm for COVID-19” after reporting a sore throat.

“My bunkie said he had been in there 14 days; he’s still got sinus and coughing,” Pitts told TCB on June 26. “I’ve been having light symptoms — headaches, throat swolled up and my body aching. I don’t know whether I have it or not.”

As of Monday, Pitts said he still had not been tested for COVID-19.

‘Deliberate indifference to substantial risks of serious harm’

On June 18, the Department of Public Safety announced a plan to test everyone for COVID-19 in the state prison system, a process that’s expected to take 60 days at a cost of $3.3 million. The state said testing will begin at Albemarle Correctional Institution and also prioritize new offenders arriving from county jails.

The decision came just two days after a superior court judge issued a written order finding that the ACLU of North Carolina and other plaintiffs suing the state “are likely to establish deliberate indifference to substantial risks of serious harm created by (1) overcrowding and cohort-based social distancing, (2) transfers, and (3) disparate levels of COVID-19 protections at different facilities.” The judge also ordered the state to halt transfers, other than for medical reasons or to address immediate risk to inmate safety, unless they’re first tested for COVID-19.

Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at NC Prisoner Legal Services, said it’s understandable that the state didn’t immediately test everyone in the prison system in mid-March when the pandemic arrived in North Carolina, considering that testing was not widely available. But by mid-April, that was no longer the case.

“Once you have the Neuse outbreak, if you decide you’re going to keep transferring people around the state, then I think it’s irresponsible not to test everybody,” Finholt said. “The decision to transfer people could have been defended if they had tested everybody in their custody. If you don’t do the testing, then you’re telling everybody who works for you: ‘We’re not that concerned about you.’ Yet I haven’t seen a single thing that indicates we shouldn’t be extremely concerned about the pandemic.”

Higgins, the Department of Public Safety spokesperson, responded that “COVID-19 has presented unprecedented challenges all across the country.” Asked why the state didn’t implement universal testing in prisons earlier when public-health experts were warning that detention facilities provide ideal condition for the spread of COVID-19, Higgins responded that “the division of prisons reviewed the existing policies and procedures in preparation to battle the virus,” and followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Higgins told TCB that “state prisons are not overcrowded” — a statement at odds with the determination published in Judge Vinston Rozier Jr.’s June 16 preliminary injunction.

Baber and Costner provided descriptions of their proximity to others housed at Neuse Correctional Institution that consistently portray a facility where social distancing is impossible. Speaking by phone to TCB on June 25, Baber said he was sitting next to a table of people playing cards and was close enough that he could have touched two of the players. He said inmates eat in the cafeteria 10 inches apart. Baber and Costner said those housed at Neuse have limited access to the yard, where they might get fresh air.

Baber and Pitts also said that some of those housed at Neuse wear facemasks provided by the prison and others don’t; there’s no enforcement.

“Given that they’ve been ordered to test everybody, I think they should take a much harder look at who needs to be in prison and who doesn’t in an effort to reduce the number of people in their custody,” Finholt said. “The best way to deal with COVID-19 is through social distancing. That’s not possible with the numbers of people being housed by DPS right now.”

Finholt added that it’s not easy to make a determination about which people can safely be released early or allowed to complete their sentences through some type of home confinement arrangement.

“It would be hard to be the person at DPS who should make the decision about who should be in prison and who shouldn’t,” Finholt said. “But that’s the job the state takes on when it decides it’s going to house over 30,000 people in prison. What comes with that is the responsibility to ensure the welfare of the people in your care. In this case, when COVID-19 arrives, that responsibility requires social distancing. I think the way to do that is to say, ‘Okay, this is difficult, but we need to reduce the population.’”

‘I wasn’t issued a death sentence. I want to go home.’

Echoing the constitutional claim in the ACLU lawsuit, Baber, Pitts and Costner are all seeking early release based on the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment under the US Constitution, or a similar provision in the North Carolina Constitution.

In a motion for appropriate relief filed through his lawyer in Forsyth County court, Pitts argues that under the circumstance of the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring him to complete his sentence as it was originally imposed would be cruel punishment.

Baber, who is scheduled for release in early November, wrote in his grievance that he was exposed to COVID-19 because Neuse Correctional Institution failed to test prisoners and staff coming into the facility.

“The warden, Mr. [Morris] Reid and his staff knew the correctional officers had tested positive for the virus, but failed to keep them from coming to work, which was deliberate indifference,” Baber said, reading his grievance to TCB over the phone. “NC Department of Public Safety and Neuse Correctional did not respond in a safe way or in a reasonable manner to stop the spread of COVID-19. Prison officials knew on 3-25-20 that some correctional officers contracted COVID-19 and purposely ignored the prison’s duty to keep me safe and protect me from unreasonable risk.”

Responding to Baber’s claims, Higgins, the DPS spokesperson wrote, “All staff, including wardens, were provided information regarding COVID-19 and what to do if they thought they may have contracted the virus. Medical screenings have been in place for all staff entering a prison. No-touch thermometers are used in all screenings. Entry is denied to anyone who has a temperature of 100 degrees or more, has symptoms of respiratory illness or who have been exposed in the past 14 days to anyone who may be suspected or diagnosed with COVID-19.”

Costner, who is scheduled for release in January 2021, also made an Eighth Amendment claim in his grievance.

“They put us in harm and they put us at risk because they made the [correctional officers] sign a paper saying they would come to work even if they had COVID-19, and that they would not talk to the press,” he told TCB. “They would come to work if they were sick or not, or they would be terminated, yet again putting us at unreasonable risk.”

Baber said anger among those housed at Neuse about the administration’s seeming lack of concern for their safety is reaching a boiling point.

“As far as riots and stuff, it’s lucky someone hasn’t been killed the way we’re being treated,” he said. “They’re stirring a pot.”

In 2016, inmates reportedly broke windows and set fires during a riot at Neuse, and it took the prison response team and local law enforcement several hours to get the situation under control. The clash resulted in one inmate and one staff member being hospitalized.

In early April, after two inmates tested positive for COVID-19, prison staff reportedly used force to get inmates to go back into their cells in response to what the Department of Public Safety called an “organized prison protest” while Warden Reid and members of custodial and medical staff attempted to speak with a small number of inmates outside their dormitory.

Danny Costner

Costner said his bunkmate told him about the COVID-19 outbreak in April.

“He had to help these guys when this shit went down in April,” he said. “They were crapping on themselves, urinating on themselves; they’re throwing up on themselves. They could barely keep themselves fed. They’re in their sixties and seventies, and they said, ‘Help me, help me.’ And the staff just walked on by.

“It’s very cruel and unusual,” Costner continued. “I wasn’t issued a death sentence. I want to go home.”

He said he thinks about his two sons, who live with their mother in Pfafftown, outside of Winston-Salem.

“I don’t want my boys to come to my grave and say, ‘Daddy, I miss you,’” he said.

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