Over 100 inmates in an NC prison caught COVID. Families ask if the state is to blame.

Over 100 inmates in an NC prison caught COVID. Families ask if the state is to blame.
Over 100 inmates in an NC prison caught COVID. Families ask if the state is to blame. (Source: NC DPS)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - At a state prison north of Charlotte, more than 100 inmates recently caught COVID-19. Now prisoners and family members are asking why officials created the risk of a larger outbreak by moving infected inmates to a dorm with uninfected people.

On Dec. 20, a group of about seven prisoners at Alexander Correctional Institution was moved from one minimum security dorm that had experienced a coronavirus outbreak to another dorm that had not, eight inmates and family members told the Charlotte Observer.

The following day, after multiple complaints, prisons officials did rapid tests on the inmates who’d been moved. At least six of them tested positive for the coronavirus, the inmates and family members said.

It’s not clear why prison officials moved the inmates — and whether the move further spread the virus.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Observer asked a state prison official why the inmates had been moved, and if they’d tested the men immediately before transferring them. As of early afternoon Wednesday, officials had not responded.

But family members remain concerned.

Kristi Cox worries about her husband, 38-year-old Robert Cox, who is scheduled to be released from Alexander Correctional in about two weeks. She worries about her 8-year-old son, who has a weak immune system. And she worries about others, too.

“They’re threatening everyone’s lives — not just the inmates but the officers who have families,” Cox said.

Jerry Higgins, a spokesman for the state prison system, said the medical staff at Alexander Correctional is now testing all 117 inmates in the minimum custody unit.

The testing began with all inmates in A dorm, where the first COVID-19 cases in the unit surfaced, Higgins said. All the inmates who tested positive were placed in medical isolation in the prison’s main building, he said.

The inmates who tested negative were moved to another dorm in the minimum security unit to establish A dorm as a place where infected inmates could be medically isolated, Higgins said.

“The minimum unit at Alexander CI has done extremely well throughout the pandemic, without having had a positive case until this current outbreak,” HIggins wrote in an email to the Observer. “It is a testament to the diligence and work of the staff assigned to the facility. Unfortunately, just as so much of the state, country and the world are aware, once COVID-19 finds its way into a facility or community, it spreads rapidly.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 240 inmates at Alexander Correctional have tested positive for COVID-19. One of them — a man in his early 80s — died on Nov. 22.

On Dec. 22, the prison had 102 active cases of COVID-19 — up from just eight on Dec. 16. Seventy three of the infected inmates lived in the prison’s minimum security unit. More test results are pending.

Located in Taylorsville, about 60 miles north of Charlotte, Alexander Correctional houses roughly 1,100 inmates, many of them sick and elderly. Most of those prisoners are in the maximum security building, up the hill from the minimum unit.

Ronald Kautz, a 67-year-old inmate at Alexander’s minimum security unit, is scheduled to be released in May. He said he has suffered from bronchitis, shingles and internal bleeding.

On Tuesday afternoon, Kautz said, the entire minimum security unit was locked down, meaning that inmates are not allowed to leave their dorms.

“I haven’t gotten the virus yet and I don’t know if I’d be able to handle it if I do,” he told the Observer.

‘I DON’T WANT HIM DYING ON ME’

Sandra Hairfield said her fiance — 52-year-old Joseph Cantrell, Jr. — is scheduled to be released from Alexander’s minimum security unit in about a month.

Cantrell suffers from seizures and asthma, Hairfield said.

“I don’t need to get it. And I don’t want him to get it. I’m panicking,” said Hairfield, 55, who also suffers from asthma. “I don’t want him dying on me. I need him. He’s my backbone.”

It’s unclear how the coronavirus entered Alexander Correctional.

But several prisoners — including Lamar Lineberger, another inmate at the prison’s minimum security dorm — said they believe the virus was spread when an inmate was returned to the general population at Alexander Correctional after leaving the prison for medical care. They said the inmate was not quarantined and soon got so sick with COVID-19 that he had to be hospitalized.

Lineberger and other inmates said they often see staff members inside the prison who don’t wear masks.

“Their negligence has put everyone at risk,” said Lineberger, 42. “People’s lives are in danger … If guidelines were being followed the way they should be, we would not be going through this.”

Higgins, the prison spokesman, said staff members are required to wear masks. “Disciplinary action is taken any time an employee is found to not be following that mandate,” he wrote.

Deric Edwards said that he and most other inmates in the minimum security unit wear masks. But some, he said, don’t.

Edwards, 56, said that for the past week, he has been experiencing body aches, headaches and chills. Although he told a prison nurse he wasn’t feeling well when the symptoms started, no one took his temperature or tested him at that time, he said. He continued to be sent out to work his job as a groundskeeper for the prison.

On Monday, he tested positive for COVID-19.

“I’ve been here for 23 years and I’d hate to lose my life with less than two years to get out of here,” he said.

OTHER PRISON OUTBREAKS

In prisons across North Carolina, more than 7,000 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, according to state Department of Public Safety data. That amounts to almost one of every five inmates tested.

Twenty nine state prison inmates have died from COVID-19 complications. At least five staff members have also died.

Most of North Carolina’s roughly 60 prisons have experienced outbreaks.

The worst of them happened in late November and early December at Tabor Correctional Institution, near the South Carolina border west of Wilmington, where more than 560 of the roughly 1,400 inmates have tested positive. The prison has just three active cases now.

Another serious outbreak recently happened at Nash Correctional Institution, a mid-sized prison about 45 minutes east of Raleigh.

That prison had no COVID-19 cases in mid-November. A month later, 150 of the roughly 630 inmates there had been infected. Eight inmates there have active cases now, according to DPS.

And when prisons experience COVID-19 outbreaks, people on the outside can be endangered, too. That’s because staff members can carry the virus to their families and communities. So can some of the 2,000 people who are released from state prisons each month.

Viruses often spread rapidly inside jails and prisons because inmates live so close together. At the minimum custody unit inside Alexander Correctional, for instance, the bunk beds are just two to three feet apart, inmates say.

That leaves staff members with a challenge.

“Now (the coronavirus) is all over the place,” said Kautz, the 67-year-old inmate with health problems. “I don’t know what they’re going to do now.”

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