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Prisons, inmates and their families dispute Delaware's response to COVID-19 outbreak

Xerxes Wilson Jeff Neiburg
Delaware News Journal

Editor's note: The rate of infection cited in this story has been updated to reflect the total number of individuals who have spent at least three weeks in Delaware prisons during the pandemic.

Of the 5,787 prisoners who have spent at least three weeks in Delaware prisons since April, 1,428 have tested positive for COVID-19 — a rate approaching 1 in every 4.

Today, each of the state's four prisons is dealing with dozens of cases of the virus, prompting fears of infections from prisoners, protests from their families and criticisms of the state's Department of Correction, whose leaders maintain they are acting responsibly to contain the virus. 

Nimah Watson's son is in Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington. She stood outside the prison Friday night with a sign protesting how the department has handled the pandemic. Her son tested positive last week. She said her life has been "hell on wheels" worrying about the situation.

"He has less than a year. He is in there for petty charges; let him out," she said. "You can't control it, you don't have a hold on it and it isn't fair for parents or grandparents." 

Family members and supporters of Delaware prisoners gather outside Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington on Friday to protest the Department of Correction's handling of COVID-19 behind bars.

The Department of Correction posts statistics for active cases, defined as inmates who have tested positive and not yet recovered. As of Monday, this is how many active cases the department reported: 

  • Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington: 155
  • James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna: 116
  • Delores J. Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution near New Castle: 32
  • Sussex Correctional Institution near Georgetown: 36

​​​That does not include some 546 prisoners who have recovered from the virus during this latest monthlong rise in cases, according to the department’s statistics. This latest surge followed two large outbreaks at individual prisons in the spring and summer of this year. 

So far, this most recent outbreak has been less deadly than those prior surges of infection. Of those considered active cases, the department reports that only 38 are showing symptoms. 

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As of Monday, 12 prisoners remained hospitalized and two were on a ventilator. Eight had been hospitalized and recovered since the latest outbreak began. 

Also as of Monday, no prisoner who tested positive this fall has died from complications, according to the department. The virus killed 11 Delaware prisoners in earlier outbreaks, which saw a total of 518 inmates infected. 

Prisoner infections tell only part of the story of what is going on inside Delaware correctional facilities. 

As of Friday, there were 110 staffers and officers considered active cases. There are also a handful of employees working at other corrections facilities who have recently tested positive for the virus.

In all, nearly 300 officers and staffers have tested positive and recovered from the virus during the pandemic. 

The latest outbreak represents the worst in number and breadth in Delaware since the pandemic began, mirroring both the record-breaking infection rates for the state and the wildfire spread of the virus inside prisons around the country. 

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Outbreaks in prison have also been worse than what Delaware has seen in the community, reflecting the difficulty of stopping the virus’s spread inside the close quarters of lockup. 

In Delaware, 5,787 inmates have spent at least three weeks in one of Delaware's four prisons since the correction system saw its first sign of the virus in those facilities. Of those, 1,428 have tested positive, a rate approaching 1 in every 4. 

In that period, 2,837 total inmates in one of Delaware's four prisons have been tested for the virus. Another 58 are awaiting results.

The state at large has recorded about 46,500 positive cases since the start of the pandemic as of Saturday, a rate of about 1 in every 20 people.

'It's getting ugly here'

Dozens of family members of Delaware prisoners at Friday's protest are upset at what they feel has been a mishandling of the virus by corrections and what they say is a merciless position by prison officials in response to calls to release certain inmates because of the difficulty avoiding infection behind the walls.

Family members and supporters of Delaware prisoners gather outside Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington on Friday to protest the Department of Corrections' handling of COVID-19 behind bars.

"All lives matter, so do these inmates. They are not animals," said Lanoris Britt, whose son is housed at Howard R. Young prison. 

Department of Correction Commissioner Claire DeMatteis, who has defended the department’s response to the pandemic, said those protesting should be thankful staffers were able to keep it from the Wilmington prison for eight months.

“I will not allow negative narratives against our medical personnel or our officers to stand,” DeMatteis said ahead of the protest. “We are getting inmates recovered. And we are dealing with COVID as we do any other infectious disease.” 

Throughout the pandemic, the situation inside Delaware prisons has been the subject of countless written criticisms by prisoners and their families; the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union; and at least one lawsuit, which has only now started to navigate the courts. 

At every turn, inmates have disputed public statements by the department about the frequency of cleaning, the availability of cleaning supplies, mask wearing by officers and staffers, and other aspects of the pandemic in prison, saying the department has exaggerated aspects of its response. 

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"They dropped the ball," said Anthony Woods, an inmate at Sussex Correctional Institution who recovered from an infection earlier this year. "They lost some lives and people were injured and will be injured for the rest of their lives." 

Over the past week, Delaware Online/The News Journal spoke to or corresponded with more than a dozen inmates inside Delaware's prisons. Several speculated that the case count is higher than what is being reported because of a lack of testing.

Inmates, particularly at Vaughn, said decisions about when and when not to test inmates appear inconsistent and they criticized the decision not to test every inmate in prison as the department did during an earlier outbreak at Sussex Correctional Institution. 

“They are not testing people who are around people who already have it,” said Carlos Torres, an inmate at Vaughn.

DeMatteis said the department’s tactics related to testing have changed since the earlier outbreak at Sussex. She said immediately testing everyone in proximity to a positive case is more likely to render a false result. 

She said when an inmate shows symptoms, they are tested and their cellmate is tested. From there, inmates in the same housing area are given daily symptom checks. If symptoms develop, an inmate is tested. If that inmate tests positive, everyone housed in the same area is tested. 

Some inmates claim that isn't always happening and that inmates have shown some symptoms, but are still not tested unless they have a fever. Some said those symptom checks are not happening consistently. 

On Dec. 10, DeMatteis said all inmates on a tier with a confirmed positive should be receiving twice daily temperature and symptom checks and every inmate at Baylor, the women's prison, is receiving such checks.

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Inmates have also pointed to prisoners being moved from one building or tier to another, fearing they are spreading the virus that way. 

DeMatteis said inmate movement has segregated positives from negatives, not caused additional infections. She wrote off criticisms of the movement as inmates fearing movement that is infrequent in normal times. 

The spread has been caused by both housing setups in the prisons as well as the movement of inmate workers who are required for food service, cleaning and laundry work inside, she said. 

At Howard R. Young, the spread appears to be related to a counselor who was infected and inmates spreading it through the dormitory-style housing on the prison's first level, DeMatteis said. 

DeMatteis said spread at Vaughn is at least partially attributed to the infection of an officer overseeing food service. Inmates who work in food service were likely exposed and took the virus to their respective housing units, she said.

Andrew Brown, an inmate at Vaughn who works in laundry service, said he was allowed to work in different parts of the prison in late November while waiting on the results of a test that eventually showed him positive for the virus. 

"I was positive at this time, not knowing it," he said. 

DeMatteis said they've implemented a special housing area for inmate workers who are tested at least once weekly. 

Positive cases and quarantines spilled into food service as well. An inmate at the Wilmington prison said “they haven’t been cooking the real menu” and have been “cutting back on breakfast.”

Bologna sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly have replaced full meals, said the inmate, who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation from prison staff. When asked about morale in the building, he said “there’s a lot of tension.”

DeMatteis said the availability of food workers has led to inmates receiving two cold meals and one hot meal a day, differing from the typical two hot meals per day. 

The Howard R. Young inmate also said his cell and others did not have working heat, and the availability of hot water has been inconsistent.

DeMatteis said she was not aware of any reports of those issues. The inmate said he's made multiple pleas to staff. His mother has contacted both the warden and the ACLU, she said.

At Sussex, DeMatteis attributed the COVID-19 outbreak to a staffer bringing the virus into the prison, which has been the suspected source of most of the cases through the pandemic. 

Department of Corrections commissioner Claire DeMatteis

Thomas Hollingsworth, an inmate at Vaughn, criticized the department's screening procedures, which see officers and staffers have their temperature checked ahead of entering the facility. He noted he tested positive without ever running an abnormal temperature. 

"They should have been giving them proper testing," he said. "I think the negligence is the cause of this surge in numbers." 

DeMatteis said the department does not have sufficient rapid tests for the thousands who enter their facilities to work each day. 

Inmates have also criticized the lack of mental health care and other health care. 

"If it doesn't seem life-threatening, they are not going to see you," said Woods, the Sussex inmate. 

DeMatteis said mental health appointments are now being conducted mostly virtually and that the system has suspended chronic care and some other medical services to allow for medical personnel to focus on the COVID-19 symptom checks and treating those in the COVID-19 treatment centers. 

"As a general point, even if we did not have COVID cases at Vaughn, Kent General could not handle our patients at this time," DeMatteis said. "They have their hands full with community spread."

She expects health care service to return to normal in January. 

18 HOURS IN C BUILDING: Inside Delaware's Vaughn prison uprising

State Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle, on Friday made a surprise visit to Howard R. Young Correctional Institution's COVID-19 treatment unit. She said she spent more than an hour speaking to inmates there and saw nothing alarming about their treatment.

"Their main concern was that they felt like they needed more rec time," she said in an interview after the visit. 

A spokesperson for the department said all COVID-19-positive prisoners are provided an hour of out-of-cell recreation time each day. Some facilities are providing two or more hours of recreation time, and the department is working to increase that. 

"We are in no way being punitive. We are in no way being negligent," DeMatteis said. 

Vaccine outlook, no early releases 

Along with prisoners and their families, the local ACLU and the Delaware chapter of the National Medical Association have written to DeMatteis and Gov. John Carney urging a change in tactics to address the pandemic. 

The latest letter, delivered earlier this month, implores the department to respond to common quality-of-life issues raised by inmates, but to also consider early release of prisoners who are particularly threatened by the virus. 

Specifically, they called on the department to work toward the release of prisoners over the age of 60 who have fewer than two years left in prison and health issues that make them particularly vulnerable, something DeMatteis described as a “non-starter.”

Some inmates claimed they had served their sentenced time in prison and qualified to "flow down" to house arrest or a work center, but have not been able to do so because of program restrictions and other pandemic-related roadblocks.

DeMatteis said that is false and the department has a process for inmates to leave the highest level of lockup when it is their time. 

The ACLU has also called for the release of prisoners whose sentence would end in the coming six months, those held because they cannot post bail and those held on a probation revocation for a technical violation. 

This story continues below the ACLU letter. 

Both DeMatteis and Carney have not supported such measures. 

"Any mass release of incarcerated individuals does not have statutory authority and would not be justified for public safety reasons," DeMatteis said. 

Delaware's Office of Defense Services, the state's public defender, has petitioned the court on behalf of inmates for early release and had some success with prisoners sentenced to work release facilities, according to a statement from a spokesperson. 

But generally, for inmates who have been in prison more than 90 days, the courts have not granted relief, the spokesman said. 

Minor-Brown, the state representative, said the state should have a mechanism for releasing some vulnerable prisoners because of the pandemic. She said she is "working on something" and declined to provide more details. 

For now, corrections officials are turning their attention to the vaccine.

The correction system is among the state’s highest priority groups for receiving vaccinations, DeMatteis said. 

Emily Klein, of Wilmington, protests in front of the Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown in July. She said a friend's son is an inmate at SCI.

First in line are health care workers and long-term care residents in Delaware, but officials have said that the first deliveries of the vaccine this week will be less than a quarter of what is needed to cover the entirety of that first priority group. Corrections is largely in the next priority group. 

James Lee, a spokesman for the state, said the vaccine plan includes some flexibility for distribution among different priority groups as vaccine doses are received. 

DeMatteis said her department is working on its own internal priorities for how to dole out doses when they are received. 

Corrections Medical Director Dr. Awe Maduka-Ezeh said when the department receives doses, it will prioritize both inmates and correctional officers, first delivering vaccines to inmates with end-stage lung and cardiac diseases. 

Then both staff and inmates above 60 with other exacerbating health conditions will be prioritized. From there, the department will prioritize inmates and staff younger than 60 with exacerbating health conditions, then staff who are otherwise healthy and then everyone else.

Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown, Del.

How long it takes to get through those priority groups will depend on how many doses are delivered, DeMatteis said. It is not certain when the department will receive its first doses. 

"​If we continue to receive consistent supply of vaccine, we anticipate opportunities for DOC to receive vaccines next month," said Lee, the state spokesman. 

DeMatteis said the vaccine could significantly reduce the risk of officers and staff bringing the virus behind the prisons’ walls. 

They are also working on incentives for inmates to receive the vaccine because a large number of them often refuse vaccinations, she said. As an example, she said typically only about 30% of inmates accept a flu vaccination. 

“We expect some of that same resistance,” she said. 

She said some early discussions have involved asking Delaware lawmakers to approve some sort of incentive like good-time credit, which typically reduces inmates’ sentences  in return for cooperation like good behavior and work helping to keep the prison running. 

If you are a prisoner in Delaware, you can contact reporter Xerxes Wilson by searching for xwilson@delawareonline.com in the Getting Out email app. 

Prison officers and staffers may contact reporter Xerxes Wilson by emailing the same address. Your identity will be protected. 

Contact Xerxes Wilson at (302) 324-2787 or xwilson@delawareonline.com. Follow @Ber_Xerxes on Twitter. Contact Jeff Neiburg at jneiburg@delawareonline.com.