Without mandatory testing for staff and inmates transferred from another prison, COVID-19 has spread rapidly at Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, where women sleep on bunk beds in open dormitories.
Women at the minimum-security facility spend most of their day sitting on their bunk beds inside crowded dorms under quarantine, said Chelsea Norton, a prisoner at Eddie Warrior who has tested positive for the virus. Norton said she experienced mild symptoms including a loss of smell and headaches.
“We kind of just feel helpless,” Norton said. “As far as we can see, there’s not anybody speaking up on our behalf.”
Women at Eddie Warrior, which houses more than 800 prisoners, use communal bathrooms and sleep in bunk beds spaced close enough that the women can reach out and touch each other, Norton said.
“We’re literally sleeping on top of each other in here,” Norton said. “Social distancing is a joke.”
The Department of Corrections Pandemic Planning Guide suggests “arranging dormitory housing or multiple person cells so that people lay head to toe relative to each other.”
More than 580 women at Eddie Warrior in Taft had tested positive for the virus as of Wednesday, the highest rate of any prison in the state, according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Of those, 579 were in isolation and four were hospitalized.
“We haven’t been sentenced to death, not one of us. I should have a choice to keep myself safe. DOC took that choice from me by holding me in an open dorm and then willfully compromising the environment they kept me in,” one inmate at Eddie Warrior told The Frontier, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation.
“They got us sick and now we are being punished for being sick. Lives are in danger and no one is being held accountable,” she said.
In phone calls and written correspondence, women at the prison say all they can do is wait out the virus. Widespread testing of prisoners at Eddie Warrior did not occur until after the majority of women were already infected.
Access to the prison yard has been limited and visitation, classes and work have all been cancelled, Norton said. The women do get outdoor recreation time each day, said Justin Wolf, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
Four Oklahoma prisons feature dormitory style housing, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said could contribute to the rapid spread of the virus.
Fifteen staff members at Eddie Warrior have tested positive, but the testing of all employees is not part of the agency’s response plan, Wolf said in an email. Employees are offered tests at some facilities in certain circumstances, but testing is not required, he said.
However, staff are screened with a temperature check and health screening symptom questionnaire before each shift, Wolf said.
Prisoners at Eddie Warrior say women began getting sick after inmates from Kate Barnard Correctional Center, another minimum security facility in Oklahoma City, were transferred there in August. The Department of Corrections is repurposing Kate Barnard for administrative space and training.
“Now we are so packed. We had a whole bunch of empty beds, so it wasn’t that bad,” inmate Vicki Currier said. “But now that they brought Kate Barnard here, we have so many people. That’s when everybody got sick.”
The Department of Corrections screened women at Kate Barnard for symptoms of COVID-19 before transferring them to Eddie Warrior, but did not test for the virus, Wolf said.
The agency’s current protocols require testing inmates before situations they might have contact with the public such as release, hospital visits or transferring to community corrections facilities and halfway houses, but not for prison transfers.
The CDC recommends facilities in communities with viral spread consider testing inmates before transferring them to other facilities to reduce the risk of introducing the virus.
The federal agency advises facilities to consider a “broader” testing strategy to avoid a large outbreak when the virus is identified among staff.
Before the full scale of the outbreak was known, Eddie Warrior began housing some of the women who tested positive for the virus in a gymnasium that lacks air conditioning.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections last week declared the facility a “hot spot,” after dozens of inmates tested positive for the virus.
The agency started providing staff with additional protective gear, closed visitation and volunteer access, and moved workstations in an effort to prevent viral spread, according to an Aug. 27 news release.
Before the full scale of the outbreak was known, Eddie Warrior began housing some of the women who tested positive for COVID-19 in a gymnasium that lacks air conditioning.
The gym has windows and fans for ventilation, Wolf said. Staff also conduct multiple temperature checks per day to ensure temperatures are “not unhealthier outside of what is allowed,” he said.
Eddie Warrior’s open dorm-style living makes socially distancing a challenge, Wolf said. Each inmate received two washable masks and has access to disposable masks, he said.
Across the U.S., at least 108,045 people in prison had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Aug. 25, according to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit investigative newsroom.
In Muskogee County, where Eddie Warrior is located, 1,327 cases have been confirmed.
The outbreak at Eddie Warrior has contributed to Muskogee’s ranking as the metropolitan area with the most new new cases relative to population in the United States, according to the New York Times.
“The prison systems are a microcosm of the communities that they’re in,” Wolf said. “So when we see a large number of increased positives in the state, we expect some of that to come into the facilities.”
Women at Eddie Warrior who spoke to The Frontier said they would like Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt to consider early release for some prisoners to slow the spread of the virus through the state’s prison system, where more than 1,400 men and women have already tested positive for COVID-19.
“If we had the space to socially distance, if we weren’t crammed in here like sardines, if they didn’t have people that shouldn’t be imprisoned in prison, then we wouldn’t have been sick,” Norton said.
When a reporter asked Stitt about the Department of Corrections’ safety protocols during a news conference on Tuesday morning, he praised the agency’s response to the pandemic as having “led the nation,” but did not indicate any new plans to slow the spread of the virus.