Connie Kellum and LaToya Fields stood outside the Camden County jail on Dec. 5, waving their arms towards the sky to signal messages of support to prisoners watching from windows.
“WE LOVE YOU! WE’RE HERE FOR YOU!”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has made in-person visits impossible, the two middle-aged women worry about people inside they love dearly: Kellum’s husband, Alfred Gilbert, and Fields’ partner of 20 years, Todd Oliver.
Last week, authorities reported that 114 prisoners and staff members in the jail had tested positive for COVID-19; a similar outbreak at the much smaller Cumberland County jail has affected at least 79 prisoners and officers there as well.
Kellum said her phone “has been blowing up” with distress calls from prisoners who are frustrated by what they consider inadequate responses to COVID-19 by the justice system.
Fields had already faced her worst fears. Within weeks of being locked up in October, the 53-year-old Oliver suffered a heart attack. He was hospitalized at Cooper University Hospital. There, he was diagnosed with coronavirus before returning to the jail and being isolated.
“I got a phone call from Cooper asking how he was doing,” said Fields, “And I said, ‘Ma’am, he’s incarcerated!’” Fields doesn’t understand why he is still in jail.
“For his safety,” said Fields, “why can’t they bring him home?”
According to the American Medical Association, incarcerated people should join health care workers and nursing home residents in being among the first to receive coronavirus vaccines. With their dormitory settings, shared bathrooms and hygiene challenges, jails can be COVID-19 hotspots. An outbreak at California’s San Quentin this summer infected 75% of the incarcerated population, with 28 casualties. The CDC reports that prisoners have higher rates of underlying conditions and tend to be older, factors that make them even more vulnerable.
Fields said Oliver told her that the atmosphere in the jail was so unsettling that “grown men are crying and thinking about hanging themselves.”
In the spring, while many New Jersey residents were following CDC and state advisories to wear face-coverings, Camden County spokesperson Dan Keashen said masks were only being distributed to inmates with symptoms. It wasn’t until June, said Keashen, that every prisoner at the jail was issued a mask.
In a series of telephone interviews, several prisoners told WHYY masks weren’t distributed until August or September — and that they were paper and not replaced for weeks. A call to the warden wasn’t returned.
COVID-19 tests were administered on a “limited” basis at the jail beginning in April, said Keashen, with 800 tests having been given this year for a population of 813 prisoners. Some prisoners reported requesting them and being denied.
“We need testing,” said Gilbert, 50, “because we don’t know who’s got it.” He said he had been at the jail since May and had yet to be tested.
Many prisoners blame guards for bringing the virus to them: Of the 114 people that tested positive, 75 were employees.
Prisoners also said the facility seemed short-staffed; they attributed that to guards who had the virus staying home to quarantine, though Keashen said the jail’s staffing had been “adjusted.” He also said that anyone testing positive is separated from the general population in a COVID-19 unit where they are being treated.
Val Anderson would disagree. She said her sons Haneef and Jalil Anderson, both in their 30s, share a cell at the jail. Jalil told her he had COVID symptoms — chills, headaches, sore throat — but was refused a test. The following week, she said, “I got a call saying Haneef was in the infirmary with COVID-19. Then they put him back in the same cell with his brother.”
“I’m scared,” said Anderson, “to lose one of my children from COVID. I also have two nephews in there and they’re scared to death, too.”
Dana Butler’s son, David Wilmer, has had a particularly torturous bout with coronavirus in the jail, because he was born with a ventricular septal defect, a common heart defect. On Oct. 26, Wilmer’s request to see his childhood cardiologist was refused by a judge who said there was no COVID in the jail.
Ten days later, the 29-year-old Wilmer tested positive. Butler said she argued with the jail’s medical staff as they downplayed her son’s stroke symptoms and urged him repeatedly to take medications that were contraindicated by his heart condition. Finally, Wilmer’s heart became enlarged and he was treated at Cooper University Hospital. He is now back at the jail in the medical unit.
Butler said Wilmer tested positive twice for the coronavirus — on Nov. 4 and again on Nov. 18.
“I wonder why that is,” said Butler. “Maybe if you’re laying in the same filth, the same germs, you don’t get better!” She believes it was her Nov. 24 appeal to a New Jersey lawmaker that finally got her son a clean towel, fresh jumpsuit and two new masks.
Nearly all the prisoners interviewed felt stymied in their efforts to stop the virus spread, saying that uniforms and bed linens were only changed every few weeks, and that they were denied access to cleaning products. One said he was refused a cup and had to drink from his hands while ill with coronavirus, and another reported drinking water from a toilet. Many said they had to choose between taking a shower or making a telephone call in recent days, though Keashen said prisoners are able to call out “at any time they please” through computer tablets provided to them.
When those tablets were collected from prisoners last week, rumors spread that they had been taken away to make it harder for them to complain about current conditions. Keashen said they were taken back for repairs and disinfecting and would be returned to residents this week.
At the same time, prisoners said the frequent and sustained lockdowns — which they attributed to not enough guards and fear of virus spread — were debilitating and that some prisoners were hiding their symptoms to avoid more isolation.
Akirra Freeman said her brother Khiree Sayers, 21, who was incarcerated at the jail in July, “doesn’t feel safe at all. Sometimes he feels like he’s losing his mind by staying in the room all day.”
Jennifer Sellitti, Director of Training and Communications for the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, said at the beginning of the pandemic, her agency “tried to identify anyone who didn’t need to be in jail, who was serving less than 364 days in jail … We got like 700 people out of jail through an order to show cause and then what did we do? We started filling up the jails again.”
Sellitti recalled that at the beginning of the pandemic, “State prisoners were being forced to choose between taking a shower or calling a family member or lawyer and it was really just a function of time and space. The prisons need to get their acts together… but I don’t think it’s malicious.”
New Jersey has recorded one of the highest coronavirus death-per-capita rates in correctional facilities in the nation. In October, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order allowed several thousand state prisoners to be released during the last year of their sentence but, said Sellitti, “Murphy has less control over the county jails.”
With trials currently suspended because of the virus, Sellitti believes that release should be considered for anyone in a county jail being held pretrial on a nonviolent offense, “because of both public health issues and speedy trial rights.” Prisoners and their family members voiced frustration over court dates being postponed repeatedly.
Larry King, 39, a prisoner with asthma and diabetes, was hit hard by the coronavirus. He felt like his lungs were closing in, with his nostrils “like two tunnels inside my head” and no sense of smell. He said he was left to recover in a filthy room, where “there’s urine and they masturbate. So not only are we fighting germs, we’re fighting COVID. Sometimes I felt like all I needed was a strong cold medication and fresh air.”
“We’re in jail,” he said, “so we’re already labeled as guilty, we’re already written off. We have family that’s worried about us and we can’t give them information. We’re so isolated right now.”
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