‘They never separated us’: Inmates, staff allege lax quarantine efforts during prison COVID outbreak

EDITORS NOTE: On the PULSE used some anonymous sources for this article. We chose to do this because the inmates and staff who spoke with us feared repercussions if they spoke publicly. Other staff members refused to even speak anonymously for fear of losing their jobs.

WILLIAMSPORT – After 10 months of successfully preventing the COVID-19 virus from penetrating the walls of the Lycoming County Prison, positive cases began surging through the facility in late January. 

The prison recorded 107 positive cases as of March 18, but officials say there are currently no active cases. 

Despite the dip back to what Warden Brad Shoemaker called a “more normal routine,” allegations from inmates and some prison staff claim that poor planning and inadequate quarantine procedures left those inside the prison walls vulnerable to exposure.  

“The whole prison had it,” said Brian Lee, who was released from the county prison in early March. “They just didn’t really care … they never separated us. Everyone stayed on (the) block together.”

During the peak of the outbreak, the prison housed roughly 200 males and 21 females within the prison, according to prison records. The pre-release center housed an average of 24 males and four females. 

Prison lockdown

At a March 12 Prison Board meeting, Shoemaker outlined the prison’s efforts to quell the surge within the building. 

“We initiated quarantine,” Shoemaker said, adding that the prison enhanced cleaning protocols, changed its food service procedure and met with medical personnel to “discuss how to address an outbreak in the jail setting.” 

In a later statement to On the PULSE, Shoemaker said the prison “instituted many mitigation measures to keep COVID out of the prison, understanding the influx and release of inmates on a daily basis.”

A female inmate who asked to remain anonymous said she tested positive for COVID-19 toward the end of January. 

“If you tested positive, they didn’t really do anything different,” she said. “They didn’t really move people off the block.” 

The lockdown required inmates to stay in their cells for 23 hours of the day. For one hour they could use the showers or call their family on the phone. Each prison block has one phone that all the inmates on the block are able to use. 

According to the female inmate, a rag and disinfectant spray was left by the phone to be cleaned by the next person to use it.

Each of the inmates who talked with On the PULSE claimed that prison correctional officers moved back and forth between COVID-positive and negative inmates on the block. Staff members who spoke under the condition of anonymity also stated they were not told who tested positive or negative for the virus. 

Warden Shoemaker responded saying prison staff were given information daily about which blocks had positive cases.

“When the outbreak occurred, the prison went into a facility wide lockdown and enhanced measures were further developed and executed to contain the spread of COVID,” Shoemaker said. He added that the lockdown created smaller cohorts and the physical layout of the prison “imposed limitation of shared facilities.” 

“Staff knows which cell blocks contain inmates who have tested negative or are beyond the contagious phase of the virus and have more freedom of movement,” he said. “Staff is aware which cell blocks contain inmates who tested positive and are presumed contagious or who have refused testing.”  

Tanya Hall, a foreman at the county pre-release center who left her job in early March, said the staff were not informed which inmates tested positive and which tested negative. 

According to Hall, they were told this would be a violation of HIPPA regulations. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA) is meant to secure an individual’s private health information from the general public. 

However, the HIPPA regulations do make some concessions for prison correctional officers. According to the act, “HIPAA allows correctional facilities to obtain or use protected health information if necessary for providing health care to an inmate; for the health and safety of inmates, officers, or staff; and for administration and maintenance of the safety, security, and good order of the correctional institution, including law enforcement on the premises of the facility.”

It is unclear if this section of the act would apply to the COVID-19 outbreak. When asked, Shoemaker did not comment on the prison’s HIPPA regulations. 

Hall and another former pre-release staff member who asked to remain anonymous, said in the year leading up to the outbreak, they were never informed by the prison wardens what the quarantine procedure would be should an outbreak occur. 

“(I’m) not surprised that they had a positive breakout like that,” Hall said, pointing to a history of lax procedures during the year of COVID-19. 

“They did a lot of cleaning at the beginning of COVID-19, but it got lax overtime,” Hall said. She added that when staff travelled the prison’s directive said they should quarantine before coming back to work, “but they never made us.” 

In addition, pre-release inmates often would travel in packed busses to work sites where social distancing was impossible, according to a staff member who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

“When you have supervisors going to the Carolinas …. and staff not quarantining when they get back… it doesn’t surprise me at all,” the staff member said. 

Mass testing

Increased cleaning and temperature checks took place in the prison, however inmates and staff agree that COVID-19 testing did not occur until after the outbreak began in January.

However, Shoemaker told On the PULSE that “from the beginning of the pandemic, all symptomatic and some asymptomatic inmates were tested for COVID.”

Some normal operations at the prison had to continue as inmates became eligible for release or to be transferred to the Pre-Release Center.  According to Hall, inmates transferred to the center from the prison would be tested and if they were positive for the virus, they would be sent back to the prison. 

She added that the existing residents at the pre-release center were never given mass COVID testing, even after the outbreak began in late January. 

One mask each 

Lee was an inmate of the county prison since before March, 2020. He worked in the kitchen and, for much of his time, stayed in the minimum security block of the prison. 

After the start of the pandemic in the Lycoming County area, Lee and the other inmates were given one cloth mask to wear at all times. They were responsible to clean the mask themselves with soap and water in the sink. 

According to Lee, if inmates placed their masks in the prison laundry, they ran the risk of losing it amongst the other inmates’ belongings and they would be relegated to their cell until the mask was cleaned. 

A female inmate who spoke on condition of anonymity also confirmed that each inmate was given one cloth mask for the duration of their incarceration that they were responsible for cleaning. 

‘I think they did a pretty good job’ 

According to members of the prison board, Shoemaker gave daily reports to board members, relaying total positive cases and protection measures. 

Commissioner Tony Mussare, president of the prison board, said he is very pleased with how the warden handled the situation, given the struggle of having so many people in an enclosed space. 

“It spread, I thought, pretty rapidly,” Mussare said. “It was talked about prior, but implementation and planning, they are two different things.” 

Mussare said he heard no complaints from staff or inmates and is “pleased and really thankful for the COs that hung in there.” 

Commissioner Scott Metzger, also a member of the prison board, added that he believed the prison did an “outstanding job.” 

“The fact that no one had to go to the hospital is very good,” Metzger said, adding 

Metzger said he was told by the warden that “(positive) inmates were isolated and they were kept in separate cells and a separate block of the prison.” 

However, county Controller Krista Rogers, who also is on the prison board, said she was surprised to hear the statements from inmates and staff. She is out of the office on personal leave, but said she would look into it more upon her return. 

Shoemaker declined to comment on how many members of the prison staff tested positive for COVID, citing security concerns. 

On the PULSE currently has a Right to Know request with the county asking for all internal documents from prison management discussing the policies and procedures concerning a COVID outbreak at the prison.

Author

  • Anne Reiner has been a journalist for over eight years. She lives in Lycoming County and founded On the PULSE to create a new and engaging way to bring local news to the region of Northcentral, Pennsylvania.

On the PULSE

On the PULSE is an online media outlet in Northcentral, Pennsylvania. We specialize in in-depth journalism, human interest content and video features. Our mission is to build engagement in community through local news.