/Families say MDOC is not doing enough to protect prisoners from COVID-19

Families say MDOC is not doing enough to protect prisoners from COVID-19

Bettye Bell received a phone call from her Natchez home on Sept. 28. She learned from her son that the East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Lauderdale County was currently in lockdown because some of his fellow inmates had tested positive for COVID-19. According to her son, lockdown doesn’t really mean anything. They are unable to social distance themselves from me. They are all mixed up, regardless of whether they have COVID-19. Bettye Bell stated that this is not safe. “I don’t know if (EMCF officials are) doing anything extra in regards to providing medicines or any other assistance. They aren’t doing that, I can’t tell you. It’s stressful for me as a mom.” The COVID-19 number in Mississippi continues to rise and strain hospitals, health workers, and others. Family members are concerned about their loved ones’ safety and health, and feel that they are being left out by prison officials. MDOC reports that there have been 902 confirmed cases and 1,380 negative COVID-19 tests among the incarcerated population as of Nov. 30. These numbers include both cases in state and private facilities like EMCF. The Mississippi Department of Corrections reports that approximately 5% of Mississippi’s prison population have tested positive for coronavirus. According to the CDC, COVID-19 is a condition that requires that a person be isolated from others, wear a mask and stay at least six feet from others. They also need medical attention. MDOC has listed on its website specific protocols to protect the incarcerated population as well as employees. These guidelines include the provision of masks and disinfecting procedures. Both staff and inmates should practice social distancing as often as possible. According to MDOC’s website, staff and inmates should follow the CDC health guidelines. “I feel that the problem here is that these people are incarcerated, so they aren’t deemed worthy of having the same amount of protections as us out here even though we are in more tightly confined spaces with less ability to social distance on our own,” stated Charoyd Bell’s sister Brittany Bell, who is a Natchez native and currently lives in Washington, D.C. Mississippi Today reached out to MDOC four times to ask specific questions about the distribution of masks and how often they were distributed. None of these requests were answered by the department. MDOC Commissioner Burl Cain stated in a press release that the department had been working with private prison operators to test for the virus. “We have been working all year with…private operators trying to prevent any outbreaks by strict testing each person entering the facilities while enforcing constant sanitization, masks, social ditancing and constant sanitation,” Cain said. “We have quarantined all infected inmates and stopped all movement between prisons,” MDOC Commissioner Burl Cain stated. Although Charoyd Bell was incarcerated at EMCF, Lauderdale County, since December 2019, he told his sister and mother that there had been an outbreak in his prison in September. However, MDOC reported only one outbreak at Marshall County Correctional Facility in November, since the outbreak of coronavirus in March. MDOC reports that at least 69 Mississippians are currently in MDOC custody and the latest death was reported on November 30th. Troy Guidroz (75), was held at Mississippi State Penitentiary. He had been in hospital since June. MDOC has yet to determine if Guidroz’s or any other of the 68 deaths caused by COVID-19. He died Nov. 25. “Are we getting all the information? Brittany Bell stated that two things are important to ask: “Is the system doing its best job in keeping these people safe and healthy?” The ACLU of Mississippi, MacArthur Justice Center, and Mississippi Center for Justice filed a class-action lawsuit against MDOC in May 2020 for their “inadequate response” to the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississippi’s two largest prisons, South Mississippi Correctional Institute and Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF). More than 5,350 Mississippians are currently incarcerated at these two facilities. According to the lawsuit, the prisons were too crowded and individuals with COVID-19 symptoms weren’t immediately tested or isolated to stop the spread of the disease. According to the lawsuit, Mississippians incarcerated in CMCF near Pearl and SMCI close Leakesville lived among rows of bunk beds that were four feet apart. They also shared toilets, sinks, and showers with limited access. Joshua Tom, the legal director of ACLU of Mississippi, stated that some of the cell blocks have open bays. “It’s basically a big room with 50 to 100 people in it all just packed in there without any separation, no private space.” “On top, they don’t have enough cleaning supplies or soap to clean their private bunks and common areas. These are just a few of the things. Charoyd Bell was a nonviolent offenders who was convicted of cruelty to animals and larceny in 2019. He also has obesity, high blood pressure and other health issues. MDOC and Cain have not yet reached out to her, despite U.S. attorney General William Barr’s recommendation for home arrest for non-violent offenders in the prison system. Bettye Bell stated that “there’s no way (the prison system) is) going to make the necessary steps to save (Charoyd)’s) life, if he gets sick.” MDOC, ACLU and the MacArthur Justice Center, along with the Mississippi Center for Justice, reached an agreement in August 2020. The deal stipulated that MDOC would implement safety protocols to better safeguard Mississippians incarcerated. However, MDOC has not made clear how active these measures are. Brittany Bell stated that the priority of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, and all of the prison system’s, should be to ensure it’s safest and cleanest possible. “It shouldn’t be the co-mingling of COVID-19 incarcerated persons and those without,” Brittany Bell said. “That just seems to be a complete disregard for life.”