One late summer morning, women at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center pooled their weekly ration of free 5-minute phone calls to tell me about how they were locked down inside their dormitory and meals sometimes came hours late after nearly everyone at the prison had tested positive for COVID-19, 

Whenever time ran out and we got disconnected, another woman would call me back. 

Women at the minimum-security facility in Taft spent most days sitting on their bunk beds inside crowded dorms under quarantine, said Chelsea Norton, one of the prisoners at Eddie Warrior told me.

“We kind of just feel helpless,” Norton said. “As far as we can see, there’s not anybody speaking up on our behalf.” 

The women wanted me to let people on the outside know what was happening. 

Frontier reporter Kassie McClung and I reported that the Oklahoma Department of Corrections hadn’t tested prisoners before transferring them to Eddie Warrior from another facility and that regular testing wasn’t mandatory for correctional staff.

The virus spread rapidly through Oklahoma prisons with open dormitory layouts, where men and women sleep within arm’s reach of each other on bunk beds.

Over the next few weeks, I talked to a woman with a 1-year old son who found out her husband had tested positive for COVID-19 in prison. He’s there serving time for marijuana-related charges.

I talked to another woman who was worried after her husband, serving time for eluding police, wasn’t able to call home after the prison went on lock down during an outbreak of COVID-19.

In late September, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections announced it was finally adopting mandatory testing for corrections staff and increased testing for prisoners on the recommendation of the Oklahoma State Department of Health. 

But there’s still more reporting to do. Since I started getting those phone calls from prison two months ago, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has reported that 29 prisoners in state custody are suspected to have die of COVID-19. 

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