The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has backed away from earlier promises to adopt mandatory COVID-19 testing for staff and other precautionary measures even as a new surge of the Delta variant has swept across the state.
The agency relaxed many COVID testing requirements for prisoners and prison staff after the number of confirmed cases in the prison system fell to nearly zero earlier this year. During a press conference in September 2020, Gov. Kevin Stitt and Corrections Director Scott Crow said the department would begin mandatory testing for staff and increase testing for prisoners.
The Department of Corrections says it follows the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for contact tracing, masking, quarantine and isolation for prisoners. But the agency does not follow CDC guidelines on COVID testing for prisoners and staff, The Frontier has found. The agency has also stopped publicly reporting testing data for prison staff and does not require masks for employees.
While the agency has so far been able to vaccinate about 60 percent of prisoners against COVID, public health experts still consider widespread testing a key step in controlling the spread of the virus.
COVID cases in the state prison system are now on the rise again.
On Tuesday, the Department of Corrections reported that 695 prisoners at Eddie Warrior were in quarantine again after 31 prisoners tested positive there, according to the agency’s COVID dashboard. The previous day, only 527 prisoners were in quarantine with only five confirmed positive cases.
The Department of Corrections reported 42 active COVID cases across the state prison system on Tuesday and 841 inmates in quarantine, up from 11 active positive cases a day earlier. DOC numbers show it had only administered 120 tests during the previous week, with 7 positives. Testing peaked earlier this year in March with 641 tests given in a week with 113 positives, agency data shows.
The department has ended CDC-recommended protocols such as testing requirements for prisoners who enter the prison and for those who are transferred or released. Agency spokesman Justin Wolf said the Department of Corrections stopped the requirements after cases in state prisons fell to nearly zero earlier this summer, but could not provide an exact date. The Department of Corrections has also stopped regular testing for staff and for people who don’t show symptoms.
Frontline staff members who have been exposed to a person with COVID are also not required to get a test or to quarantine, even if they are unvaccinated. The agency encourages masks for workers who test positive, but they are not required. Workers are also not required to report a positive COVID test to their supervisors, Wolf said.
“We’ve tried to make sure that our policies have been responsive to the picture that we’re seeing within our facilities,” Wolf said. “And we review those on a daily basis, basically, as we take in the data.”
Bobby Cleveland, director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, which represents Department of Corrections employees, said the agency is already facing staffing shortages, and correctional officers are often required to take their own accrued paid time off if they report symptoms or a positive test. The group has pushed back against requiring correctional officers to use their own time if they fall ill with COVID, he said.
“There seems to be more employees than inmates that have (tested positive). We’ve got a number of officers out,” Cleveland said. “You take the places with a staffing shortage and you get five or 10 officers out, they don’t have enough to cover a shift.”
Cleveland believes the agency should give correctional officers who test positive for COVID additional paid time off, rather than forcing them to use their own accrued leave.
“If they got the virus, they caught it there (in the prison),” Cleveland said. “They’re working 12 hours a day, sometimes more than that. They don’t have time to be running around town, so they should be paying them for that.”
Kevin Armstrong, head of the prisoner advocacy group OKCURE, said he suspects many of the lax staff protocols stem from prison staffing shortages. As of July, Wolf said, there were 372 funded staff vacancies system wide. The Department of Corrections is currently conducting a staffing analysis for each facility to identify where staffing shortages exist, he said.
“All of these people in charge are basically looking at their labor shortages and saying we can’t afford to lose anybody, so we’re not going to require them to do tests and stuff like that to the same degree they were,” Armstrong said.
Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, who is the chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, said the lack of paid leave discourages employees from getting tested or reporting a positive test or symptoms to their supervisors. Federal relief money the agency once used for this purpose has since dried up, Humphrey said.
“Can you prove that they got COVID at work? The answer is no, but my question is can you prove that they didn’t get it at work? They’re exposed to it at work more, and it’s highly likely that they got it at work,” Humphrey said. “If you get injured at work, we should take care of you.”
Wolf said it was unclear how the Department of Corrections would respond to President Joe Biden’s recent mandate requiring employers with more than 100 employees to either be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Gov. Kevin Stitt has expressed strong opposition to the requirements. Humphrey also said he opposed the mandate.
Prison officials have stopped widespread prisoner testing, reporting on staff testing
COVID cases in Oklahoma have increased over the past couple of months — jumping from a seven-day average of 99 cases in early June to an average of 2,709 cases by Sept. 7. But the Department of Corrections has no plans yet to resume more stringent testing requirements for prisoners, Wolf said.
“We’re in communication with the Department of Health and we’re still listening to advice from CDC,” Wolf said. “Our chief medical officer is looking at the data on a daily basis to review all of our policies for future protocols on COVID.”
The Department of Corrections has not reported a major outbreak within the prison system to the level it did in September last year, when thousands of inmates throughout the prison system tested positive for the disease.
There have been 56 deaths from COVID-19 in the Oklahoma prison system since the beginning of the pandemic. The most recent death was reported in April.
The virus spread rapidly last year to most of the female prisoners at Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility in Taft after women from another prison were transferred there without testing or quarantines. The outbreak prompted a vigil outside the prison for two women who died from the virus.
The Department of Corrections is doing most testing on prisoners who have been in contact with someone with COVID and put in quarantine or who are showing symptoms, Wolf said.
Though the Department of Corrections briefly reported staff testing and positivity numbers, it has not done so in months, Wolf said.
Prison officials decided to stop releasing staff testing data because they did not feel it would accurately reflect the true number of staff testing, since some testing could occur outside of the Department of Corrections system, Wolf said.
“Unlike our inmates where they are in our care and we have control and we see the test results, we know that that’s not an accurate reflection of what actually happened (with staff),” Wolf said. “And so as opposed to putting a number out there, and then trying to explain to people why that number is only a minimum threshold, as opposed to an accurate number, it’s just as important we just don’t include it.”
While masking is mandatory for prisoners in common areas, the agency does not have any mask requirement for staff, though it is “highly encouraged,” Wolf said.
The department also does not track whether employees are vaccinated, Wolf said, and a frontline staff member who is exposed to someone who has tested positive is not required to report the positive test to a supervisor.
Vaccination has helped curb the spread of COVID in state prisons
Vaccinations have also contributed to lower numbers of COVID cases in the prison system. The department began vaccinating prisoners in March and also rolled out a vaccine education campaign. The agency’s 60 percent vaccination rate among prisoners is so far higher than the statewide rate of about 45 percent of the population who have been fully vaccinated.
The vaccinations are voluntary and any prisoners can make a request to Department Of Corrections medical staff, Wolf said.
The agency also began vaccinating employees in January. By May, 1,085 staff members had been vaccinated, according to agency director Scott Crow.
Megan Lambert, legal director for ACLU Oklahoma, praised the department for its educational outreach to inmates about the vaccine earlier this year and high uptake rates.
But she remains concerned that prison officials are not following all CDC recommendations for testing and masking for staff as COVID cases spike again in the state.
Incarcerated people are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID since they live in close quarters with no ability to leave and often have higher rates of other medical complications, Lambert said. Adopting and enforcing CDC guidance, including widespread testing, is important to ensuring a surge in COVID cases does not happen again, she said.
“You have the potential for all of these folks walking around, not knowing that they need to be adhering to the COVID protocols, and without that universal testing, that’s the only way that we know what is going on,” Lambert said.