COVID-19 cases have more than doubled among inmates at Lehigh County Jail in the past week, according to a county spokeswoman, and inmates are alarmed at what they describe as a worsening situation of the virus spreading quickly in housing blocks.
Employee cases, meanwhile, have affected staffing to the point where Lehigh County’s work release center temporarily closed earlier this month in order to move its staff over to the jail to address the jail’s staffing shortage, according to Laura Grammes, Lehigh County’s spokeswoman.
With the work release center closed, its inmates were also brought to the jail. Inmates granted the ability to work in the community are now being held on a violent offender housing block, four inmates independently told lehighvalleylive.com this week.
The inmates also said the healthy are being forced to live among those who have tested positive for COVID-19 on quarantined cell blocks.
Lehighvalleylive.com communicated with the inmates through an online app used by the jail. The news website has verified their names, reviewed their criminal backgrounds and has agreed to grant them anonymity for this story because they fear retribution for speaking out about jail conditions.
Inmates’ family members and correction officers, many of whom also declined to be identified for this story for fear of retribution or losing their jobs, described their ever-growing concerns about health and safety in the jail. They said they’re dismayed by silence from officials who have been contacted for help.
“My concern is for the healthy people, innocent people, or people here on petty charges or violations being exposed to the virus in here. No one is safe inside this building. What’s it gonna take for something to be done? Someone dying?” said one inmate, who has tested positive for COVID-19.
The inmate, who is being held on a probation violation stemming from a drug possession case, declined to be named for this story.
As of Thursday, the county reported 53 positive inmate cases, according to Grammes. Nine days earlier, the county reported 24 inmate cases.
A total of 64 staff members have tested positive and 23 have recovered, Grammes said.
Lehigh County Department of Corrections Director Janine Donate, reached by a lehighvalleylive.com reporter on Friday, deferred questions about the inmates’ accounts of jail conditions to Grammes.
Grammes, who handles all media inquiries for the county, did not respond to requests for interviews with jail officials, but did address some questions about conditions there.
She said the jail began universal testing of inmates this month, and by Thursday 731 inmates were tested.
All new jail admissions are being tested upon arrival, she said, and the county is working to test all residents and reorganize the housing units accordingly.
The testing of all new admissions and surveillance screening/testing will help to prevent or limit the spread, Grammes said.
Asked about inmates who have tested negative being quarantined on housing blocks with inmates who tested positive, she said the jail has designated housing units for positive inmates and negative inmates. There may be other considerations made based upon an inmate’s individual needs, Grammes said via email, but she did not elaborate.
Grammes was also asked about precautions for inmates that fall in high-risk categories, including older inmates. She said those inmates are frequently assessed by the jail’s medical staff and, if appropriate, are reviewed for possible alternatives to incarceration.
A worsening infection rate behind bars
Prisons, jails and correctional facilities have been hotbeds of COVID-19, as large groups living in small, enclosed spaces are prime conditions for a virus that is spread person-to-person via respiratory droplets.
But the most recent surge in coronavirus cases across the country is hitting prisons and jails harder.
Since March, the Marshall Project has been tracking COVID-19 cases and deaths in prisons. There were 276,107 cases of coronavirus among prisoners in the U.S. as of Friday, according to the nonprofit news site that focuses on criminal justice.
The infection rate in prisons is worsening, and the site reported new infections this week reached the highest level since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pennsylvania had more than 2,000 cases this week.
The Associated Press reported Friday the infection rate in state and federal prisons is more than four times higher than the general population, and that one in every five prisoners in the U.S. has tested positive for the coronavirus.
The coronavirus has also spread among staff, guards, and correction officers. Infection and exposure risks are so high, the federal Bureau of Prisons plans to give the new coronavirus vaccine to staff. Inmates would not be included, according to the Associated Press.
‘We can’t … protect ourselves against it.’
The inmate with COVID-19 in Lehigh County Jail who agreed to be interviewed for this story said he is currently being held in quarantine on his block of about 40 people.
He said initially about seven inmates were removed from the his block because they had COVID-19 symptoms. By the time the inmate was tested earlier this month, there were 28 inmates from his housing block who tested positive for the virus.
He said inmates are given a piece of paper informing them they tested positive for the virus.
Families are not notified if an inmate tests positive, Grammes said.
“I was worried for myself and the other inmates getting the virus in here, just for the fact that we can’t defend and protect ourselves against it. I’m on a block where there are four-man cells that are about 15 by 20 feet at most. How can people keep 6 feet distance from each other?” he asked.
The inmate began feeling ill, starting with what he called a terrible sinus headache that turned into chills and cold sweats for a few nights. He said he started to feel better, before completely losing his sense of smell and some sense of taste.
“My nasal passageways feel like I got chlorine up my nose,” he said.
The inmate learned he was COVID-19 positive last week, he said, and said all but four inmates in his block now have the virus.
Laundry has piled up and on some days inmates are not given access to showers, the COVID-19 positive inmate and other inmates said. Inmates have the same two cloth masks that were issued when they first entered the jail, the COVID-19 positive inmate said.
Grammes, the county spokeswoman, disputed the inmates’ claims about showering and laundry. She said when inmates are given limited time out of their cells, they can shower, make a phone call or have a video visit.
Those options are available on a daily basis, the spokeswoman said, and laundry is being completed according to the facility laundry schedule.
As lehighvalleylive.com worked on this article, inmates said Friday morning that policy was just put in place.
Grammes added that inmates can also use tablets while in their cells. The inmates reported tablet use was limited to 30 minutes per day.
Advocates on the outside
People housed in the jail include defendants waiting for trial and non-violent parole violators who are being held much longer than they had been pre-pandemic due to court delays, inmates said.
It’s the opposite of the goal earlier in the pandemic, when the focus was keeping people out of the jail for fear of spreading the virus. Courts were closed, and tools to keep prison and jail populations lower included low or no bail in pre-trial cases and early release for non-violent offenders.
Family members of those in the jail and the work release program said they’ve reached out to officials, lawyers and groups, including Gov. Tom Wolf, to raise the alarm about the virus’ spread, but nothing has changed.
Rebecca Bennett has reached out to civil rights lawyers, county commissioners and the governor, but has gotten nowhere.
The Coplay woman’s fiance, Justin Treese, learned last week he has COVID-19.
Treese said before he was tested, he was concerned about how the county would handle a potential outbreak and how they would protect the inmates not infected. Treese is being held on a probation detainer in an out-of-county case and resisting arrest and disorderly conduct charges in Lehigh County.
Before the universal testing, he said, about seven inmates were removed from his block for feeling sick and were moved to a medical area.
Treese said he was previously in a cell with two other inmates, and was moved to another cell with one other inmate. His previous cellmates and current cellmate tested positive, and the housing block is now a COVID-positive quarantine block.
Now, Treese is worried about how the jail will get the current surge under control, especially since he said positive and negative inmates are being housed in the same block. Inmates to do not have regular access to showers, laundry or clean linen, he said.
“I mean, the list of things handled poorly or flat out wrong, and the level of disrespect and mistreatment inside these walls has escalated and gotten way out of hand,” he wrote.
Bennett is worried and angry, both about the inmates’ health and how the county is handling the spike in cases.
“Denying showers and clean linens is not good hygiene, which can cause sickness. Denying them tablets and time out and phone calls is not mentally good because all they have then is whatever is in those closed walls, which is not much! I feel they should look into releasing inmates that are not there for violence or crazy crimes and giving them court dates. It would stop so many people being on top of each other and continued spread of the virus. They just keep adding more bodies to a small confined space,” she wrote.
The inmates said they are kept in the dark about the spread in the jail, and only learn of test results and cases from one another.
“They’re not telling them anything,” Bennett said.
After a previous article about the virus in the jail, staff reached out to a lehighvalleylive.com reporter, but declined to quoted or identified for fear of losing their jobs.
Staff are not permitted to be interviewed by the media regarding any Department of Correction issues without prior coordination with the director, according to county documents provided to lehighvalleylive.com.
“The staff have been faced with very difficult circumstances and challenges over the past several weeks. As the communities experienced a sharp spike in the numbers since Thanksgiving, our jail community has also been affected,” Grammes said. “The staff have been working overtime to support the vacancies of those that are still at home recovering and should be commended for their strength and dedication throughout the pandemic, and particularly recently. They are the backbone of this facility and have gone above and beyond to support the operation.”
The Lehigh County Community Work Center was temporary closed Dec. 4 in order for those employees to provide “additional staffing support” at the jail, Grammes said.
Asked about staff members testing, and if it is done at an outside facility, Grammes said staff members follow the direction and guidance of their primary care physician with regards to testing.
“The timing of results varies depending upon the individual situation,” she said in an email.
Officials with the guard’s union did not respond to requests for comment, but this week Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association issued a statement that its officers are overworked, exhausted and working massive amounts of overtime due to COVID-19 illnesses among staff.
PSCOA Western Region Vice President John Eckenrode called on the governor to lockdown the state’s prisons and stop inmate transfers as COVID-19 cases surge across the state.
“Our system is on the verge of being overcome,” Eckenrode said. “Our members need relief.”
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Sarah Cassi may be reached at [email protected].