Advocates from the Prisoner Outreach Initiative (POI) and Triad Abolition Project staged a protest march around the Forsyth County Law Enforcement Detention Center (FCLEDC) last Friday evening. Both organizations allege that the detention center and Wellpath, the county’s contracted for-profit health care provider to its incarcerated population, have mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic and misrepresented the number of infected inmates.
Judy Lilley, Wellpath’s Vice President of Corporate Communications & Public Affairs, responded to last Friday’s protest with the following statement to the Winston-Salem Journal:
“Despite the inherent challenges with social distancing in jails, Forsyth County Jail has had zero positive COVID-19 cases reported in the general population and had only three COVID-19 positive cases of new arrestees brought into the jail from the community since this pandemic started. Following the CDC guidelines, all new inmates are quarantined for 14 days, but those who test positive following their day five COVID-19 test, remained in quarantine until they had two negative COVID tests before they were put into the general population.”
Lilley’s statement is disputed by multiple inmates and their advocates, who allege major discrepancies between what actually happens inside the FCLEDC and what is reported to the public. Spokespersons for the North Carolina-based prisoner-advocacy organization told YES! Weekly that, according to their incarcerated sources, the difference between public statements and reality is particularly alarming when it comes to COVID-19 protocols.
POI was founded in 2018 amidst that year’s nationwide prison strikes, after one of its first contacts inside a Hyde County prison experienced retaliation for striking.
“They got put in the hole, and we really lost a lot of the power,” said POI co-founder Destiny, who asked that her surname not be published. “We realized that if you want to be able to organize, we have to be able to do so locally, and know what’s happened and to be able to have contacts with people inside.”
Co-founder Chris Lutz said another prisoner solidarity group in Durham helped start this organization’s letter-writing campaign, as POI was one of the few such organizations in North Carolina at the time. Lutz said that incarceration not only keeps prisoners confined but restricts their communication with the outside world.
“This makes it hard for us to know what’s going on, especially in jails. In prison, you’re there for a while, so it’s assumed that there’s going to be a lot more visitation, it’s going to be a bit more open. But in jails, there’s not an assumption that you have to be there for very long, so they don’t give you as much access.”
POI discovered that the system makes correspondence difficult for inmates.
“The biggest barrier to people writing back to us is having money in their commissary to afford envelopes,” explained Lutz, who said that responses take about a week if the inmates reply immediately.
Lutz said that, when news spread that Forsyth County detention officers were testing positive for COVID-19, POI wrote 240 letters to the detention center’s inmates. The letters asked “residents,” as the Sheriff’s Office calls them, about conditions inside the jail and how the staff was responding to the pandemic. The responses they received paint a much less positive picture of those conditions than what is described by either the Sheriff’s Office that runs the detention center or the controversial multinational company that provides its health care.
In an Aug. 10 email, Lutz wrote YES! Weekly that POI had received multiple reports of incarcerated people in the FCLEDC testing positive for COVID-19, even though none had been included on the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ list of outbreaks in congregate living settings. Although guards testing positive were listed, Lutz claimed that no inmate cases were reported to the NCDHHS. Lutz also stated that POI received reports that attempts at contact tracing were unsuccessful due to the alleged non-compliance of corrections officers.
“Given the sheriff department’s willingness to cover-up an entire murder for months,” wrote Lutz, referring to the December 2019 death of John Neville, “it seems highly suspicious to us that they report no inmate COVID-19 cases, especially when we have heard evidence of several from people inside. This seems like something that absolutely needs to be reported on the outside to those who may have forgotten that the sheriff’s ‘two disposable masks every two weeks’ policy absolutely will not contain an outbreak in the jail.”
In a Zoom call on Aug. 13, the POI co-founders told YES! Weekly that they received at least 20 response letters, and have been able to talk to several more inmates by phone and text.
“I can definitely tell you,” Lutz said, “from what we’ve heard from people inside, the officers don’t seem to take COVID safety precautions seriously.”
This allegedly included not keeping new inmates properly quarantined.
“Guards would just forget who was in quarantine and let everyone out together.” POI also allegedly received reports that guards don’t wear masks properly or don’t wear them at all. Lutz said “the best-case scenario” is that inmates receive two disposable masks every two weeks, but alleged a lack of communication between guards and inmates on how to properly use them.
“Some people wrote to us saying [the masks] were white on the outside and blue on the inside, and some wrote saying they were blue on the outside and white on the inside because no one told them this is the way you wear masks.”
Lutz also alleged that POI heard indirectly from the Sheriff’s Office that inmates who test positive for COVID-19 are not reported if they were infected prior to incarceration, rather than inside the jail. He also alleged that a source told him that many deputies “were really uncooperative in trying to report who was testing positive” and that “it sounded like they were covering things up.”
(YES! Weekly vetted POI’s source and found them to be reliable.)
Lutz said that POI’s incarcerated contacts claimed there was one positive case in July, another in August, adding that “people only know about what’s in their cell block,” as there “are 10 floors and each floor is divided into two wings.”
According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, at least two positive cases of COVID-19 must be reported in a congregate living setting before appearing on the department’s list of outbreaks and clusters. On Aug. 4, the FCLEDC was still listed on the COVID-19 Ongoing Outbreaks in Congregate Living Settings list, showing that the FCLEDC had 11 positive cases among staff and zero positive cases among residents. By Aug. 7, the FCLEDC appeared on the previous outbreaks list, where a footnote stated that those outbreaks were considered over. By Aug. 13, the FCLEDC was taken off the list completely.
Several inmate letters and grievances provided to YES! Weekly by POI allege that detention officers and medical staff do not take COVID-19 precautions in the FCLEDC seriously, have repeatedly denied inmates’ requests to get tested, and have ignored grievances and sick calls filed by inmates.
Ignored grievances are nothing new, said one inmate, who spoke on the phone to YES! Weekly on Aug. 28. The inmate claimed that, up until a mass testing event in June, they were denied a COVID-19 test and masks, despite having requested both since March. The inmate alleged that the detention center staff had denied their request and similar ones by three other inmates as “frivolous” and “an abuse of the grievance process.”
The inmate also stated that the detention staff confiscated a mask the inmate had made from a T-shirt.
“They took it from me because they said that it was the policy that we, as inmates, could not have masks. They threatened me with disciplinary actions even though I am a diabetic at-risk with underlying health conditions. They kept denying us masks and access to masks because they said the COVID was not in here, and that we were not in danger, and there was no need for a mask.”
As evidence of these claims, the inmate provided YES! Weekly with a statement, signed by a detention officer, that the mask confiscated from the inmate would not be returned, as it was considered “contraband.” The inmate also requested a copy of any policy explaining why a diabetic inmate “who is at a greater risk to contract the coronavirus is not allowed a medical mask.”
The reply to that request, dated May 5, stated: LEDC policy is not for inmates to have. It is for the employees of the LEDEC to use and follow. Therefore, you are not able to receive a copy of the LEDC policy.
The inmate also presented YES! Weekly with what appeared to be multiple requests for a COVID-19 test and for an explanation of medical staff’s alleged refusal to provide them with a mask.
One reply, dated May 6, stated, “if you are having any symptoms of the coronavirus, put in a sick call so that it can be addressed. We have a process in place. Otherwise, mask is not needed.”
The inmate said that, on June 24, a day before the FCLEDC held a mass-testing event, all “residents” were given two disposable surgical masks each, and that these had to last them for two weeks. When asked what (if anything) had changed after the mass-testing event, the inmate said, “nothing!”
After news broke in June that there were five guards who tested positive, another inmate filed a grievance alleging that staff was lying to them and other inmates about COVID-19. In a typed response dated June 18, the sergeant assigned to the case wrote that, “the LEDC had adhered to all CDC regulations/requirements pertaining to COVID-19 and this facility.”
The sergeant continued by stating that the LEDC had been forthcoming with information regarding COVID-19’s effect on operations, safety, and security, and that “all necessary information for inmate population has been disseminated through the kiosk machine and posted memorandum.”
In a document labeled “Grievance #9,” an inmate stated that they and others inside the jail were receiving inadequate mental health services, inadequate medical services, and poor nutrition. This grievance was marked “rejected” by a detention officer, with the notation that the rejection was due to the inmate having “multiple issues, multiple grievances.”
The Sheriff’s Office has not responded to requests for clarification as to whether, as this inmate claimed, multiple grievances are automatically rejected.
The inmate also provided YES! Weekly with a copy of a petition signed by 50 residents of the same dormitory within the FCLEDC. The petition is titled “INMATE LIVES MATTER” and was addressed to the Forsyth County Commissioners.
The petition alleged that Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. “failed to uphold his statement” that the FCLEDC has “remained committed to protecting the residents and team members,” and that detention staff are not following the directives outlined in the June 12 media release from the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.
It also alleged that detention staff was reluctant to wear face coverings and that the sheriff failed to enforce “any type of secure policy to ensure that FCLEDC staff properly wore (or wore at all) a face covering while in close contact with the inmate population.”
A much more recent message to YES! Weekly by an inmate, dated Oct. 3, stated that staff “haven’t given us no new mask in weeks” and “we never get hand sanitizer at all.”
That inmate noted that the last mask they received was over a month ago, although this time, it was made of fabric instead of being disposable. The inmate also said that medical staff were now wearing masks and gloves, but had only started doing so more consistently only within the past month.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and COVID protocol/ procedures
In an Aug. 24 email to YES! Weekly, Wellpath’s Judy Lilley wrote that her organization works to prevent and minimize the spread of COVID-19 and that “we follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and work very closely with local public health authorities.”
Lilley wrote that all staff and visitors have their temperature checked and screened for symptoms before they enter the FCLEDC and that Wellpath provides its staff with proper PPE, including surgical masks, gloves, eyewear, gowns, overalls, covers, N-95 masks, face shields, and headcovers.
“We are currently providing every new intake [with] two masks. The entire medical staff wears his or her mask daily— it’s required.”
When asked if the medical staff teaches inmates how to properly wear masks and educates them on other COVID precautionary/preventative measures, Lilley replied, “yes.”
Lilley’s statement about protocols was contradicted by the inmate interviewed on Aug. 28 by YES! Weekly, who claimed that the following two procedures described in a June 12 media release from the sheriff’s office are “blatantly ignored” by detention center staff:
-Detention and contract staff are wearing surgical masks while interacting with the resident population in the Detention Center.
-Newly admitted residents are held in Intake housing for fourteen (14) days before being moved into General Population (as opposed to the normal 72-hour hold).
“From the very beginning, we were told it wasn’t in here, and there was no need to wear masks because the officers had masks,” the inmate said. “But the officers were not wearing masks in March, or April or May. That is how the five became infected, and eventually the 11.”
Through a public record request fulfilled on Sept. 17, YES! Weekly obtained an email sent on July 30 from Betishia Mcintyre-Williams, Wellpath’s Director of Nursing at the FCLEDC, to Captain Charlene Warren, the center’s Commander of Operational Services, and Wellpath’s Regional Vice President Bill Kissel.
In it, Mcintyre-Williams wrote:
As of July 27th, Wellpath has no longer been issuing out masks to Residents in the entire jail. We can, however, issue out masks to our high-risk population. With this being said, is it possible for the Detention Center to provide the Residents with at least 1 mask as they enter Intake?
Warren then emailed Wellpath’s Health Services Administrator Pamela Cane; Health Services Manager Darrin Mitchell; the recently retired Detention Bureau Manager Major Robert Slater; and corrections officers Captain Debra Chenault; Sergeant Lori Wood; Captain Billy Warren; and Lt. Christopher T. Marshall.
In that email, Warren wrote:
When Wellpath originally started asking about giving masks to the inmate/resident population the facility had a concern about doing this because we were concerned about how it was going to be sustained. This was a concern because once you start something it is generally then an expectation to sustain it. We had another meeting on June 16th that included Bill Kissel and it was asked in the meeting if Wellpath could provide the masks to new intakes. Ms. Cane advised that Wellpath could for about 30 days and then Mr. Kissel said he could get more masks. We left that meeting with the understanding that as long as new intakes should be getting masks, that Wellpath could get the masks. Now Wellpath is asking the Detention Center to provide these masks.
Kissel replied on July 31 that Wellpath would be able to provide masks for the next three months. YES! Weekly emailed the Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 6, asking which party (after those three months were up on Oct. 31), would be responsible for providing masks.
Millner-Murphy responded the same day by writing, “each resident receives 2 mask, while one is in laundry they use the other... 1,200 more masks have been donated.”
However, she did not address the question of which party would be responsible for providing masks after October.
In a text message on Oct. 9, an inmate responded to this claim with “no, they never come around and ask us do we wanna rewash [the masks].” Another inmate said that they wash their masks by hand in their sink with soap and water themselves because they weren’t given specific instructions on what to do with them.
YES! Weekly also obtained the Memorandum of Understanding for COVID-19 testing between the Forsyth County’s Department of Public Health (FCDPH) and Wellpath— which was signed on July 6 and made effective June 29 of this year through June 20, 2021— after the mass testing event at the jail was held. According to the document, the agreement could be terminated by either party at any time, and the objective is listed as the detention center “wishes to have new inmate-patients tested for COVID-19 by approximately day 5 of arrival at the detention center.”
The MOU states that the county would be responsible for providing specimen collection devices (to the extent they are available), providing a template for all documents necessary to process tests, processing specimens utilizing the Hologic Panther (to the extent that equipment is properly functioning), notifying Wellpath of all daily results (to the extent that results are available) via fax, and notifying Wellpath if a specimen is determined invalid via a phone call to the Director of Nursing or Charge Nurse.
The MOU noted that Wellpath would not be responsible for the cost of provision of specimen collection devices and the cost of alternative testing resources. It also states that Wellpath would be responsible for providing the FCDPH a copy of the signed standing medical order for COVID testing, following all manufacturer instructions for collecting and handling specimens, completing in their entirety all templates required by the FCDPH’s laboratory, maintaining all associated patients’ records, providing specimens to the FCDPH’s laboratory within three days, maintaining collection devices and specimens at room temperature, notifying inmate-patients of test results (including the provision of instructions), notifying FCDPH’s Communicable Disease Section of all positive results, providing notice to FCDPH’s Communicable Disease Section of all positive inmate-patients discharged while infectious, and providing an accounting of any unused collection materials upon request (and if the MOU is terminated).
In an email, Lilley wrote that inmates had been tested at least once, and ones who tested positive “must quarantine for 14 days and have two negative tests to return back to work.” She also wrote that “contact tracing is done by informing our staff and partner that an employee tested positive, as well as signing the COVID notification correspondence.”
“There was a mass testing for the entire building June 25 and June 26,” Lilley continued. “All new intakes are tested on day five and quarantined for 14 days. Employees are tested upon request unless they have been exposed to someone who is confirmed positive or have been around someone with symptoms.”
According to the June 12 media release, five detention officers tested positive, but there were “still zero (0) confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the residents of the FCLEDC. The results have been negative for every resident who has been tested.”
While the Sheriff’s Office stated that no “residents” tested positive, several inmates have alleged that no testing had been done prior to the mass testing event on June 25.
In an Oct. 6 email, FCSO’s Public Relations Manager LaShanda Millner-Murphy confirmed that inmates were first tested on June 25. However, contrary to the wording in the June 12 and June 24 media releases, Millner-Murphy wrote that no inmate had been tested prior to June 12, which appears to confirm what the inmate alleged above.
In an Aug. 14 email, Public Affairs Officer Christina Howell wrote that, after the mass-testing event occurred, “each newly admitted resident is tested on approximately day five (5) of confinement. If a staff member exhibits symptoms or has a confirmed exposure, they are to be tested.”
If an inmate starts showing COVID-19 symptoms or is suspected of having it, Howell wrote, the resident is tested, and anyone “who tests positive is placed in quarantine within a predetermined location in the Detention Center under supervision of the contracted medical services provider. We follow the CDC guidelines, in collaboration and conversation with the Health Dept and the FCLEDC, for appropriate response to each individual case.”
Howell included a statement from Wake Forest Baptist’s expert on infectious diseases, Dr. Christopher Ohl, regarding the FCLEDC’s testing procedures.
“The Forsyth County Detention Center has a robust and well thought out testing and quarantine process for all incoming detainees. There will be COVID positive detainees brought into the Detention Center; these cases are identified and isolated appropriately. All new detainees are quarantined for fourteen (14) days as an additional precaution. The Forsyth County Detention Center is being regarded by the Department of Health and Human Services consultants as a model for how to prevent cases and integrate best practices during this pandemic.”
(After multiple attempts, Dr. Ohl could not be reached by YES! Weekly to confirm this or answer follow-up questions. )
Regarding protocols when an inmate tests positive, Lilley wrote:
“The confirmed patient is placed in the negative pressure room located within the Special Care Unit. If the patient is asymptomatic, vitals are checked for 72 hours and during the entire stay in the Special Care Unit. The provider assesses the patient to determine if the patient should be released back into his or her room (cell). If it is a new intake, the patient will go back to the intake-housing unit and complete his or her 14 days of quarantine. If the patient has symptoms, vitals are checked every shift for a least 72 hours and/or duration of time in the negative pressure room. The patient is retested on day 7. If the test comes back negative, then the patient is retested two days later. If the patient’s test comes back positive, the patient is retested five days later. In order to be released into GP, you have to have two negative tests. Contact tracing will be done.”
When asked what the protocol for a COVID-positive inmate’s roommate is, Lilley wrote, “The roommate is tested and quarantined for 14 days.” However, this protocol did not match up with the experience of one inmate interviewed by YES! Weekly.
In a phone call on Sept. 3, the inmate claimed to have been forced to share a cell with a newer inmate who had tested positive. The inmate said that, on Aug. 5, detention staff moved another person (who had just come out of intake) down to their cell. However, the next day, a detention center officer “came up here fully suited up and moved both of us— they moved [the new cellmate] to the Special Care Unit, but they moved me back to intake.”
“I asked them why I was being moved, and they said my roommate had tested positive for COVID-19,” the inmate said. “I was trying to figure out why they had moved [them] to the regular population, without doing the proper procedure— like making sure [they] were negative when they came up here.”
The inmate claimed that detention center staff put them in the same cell block that their COVID-positive cellmate came from in intake isolation for only eight days.
“Intake is a 15-day process, and they had moved [them] from there to the room with me. While I was at intake, there wasn’t a nurse or nobody that checked my symptoms or nothing— I had to put in a request form to get tested.”
The inmate alleged being isolated for eight days and tested on the seventh, with the results coming back negative.
“They moved me back to the general population— just did that one test,” they said. “I really had to file a grievance against the jail to get any kind of help—they aren’t going by any kind of protocol or procedures.”
In an Aug. 14 email, Howell stated that, per the health department, only one inmate had tested positive for COVID-19. According to an email on Oct. 7, Assistant Public Health Director Tony Lo Giudice wrote that there were currently zero cases at the detention center.
In an email on Aug. 14, Howell wrote that Wellpath reports positive cases to the health department, who then “investigates and reports to the State.” She wrote that the health department is responsible for ensuring that proper reporting occurs and that the health department was in charge of the FCLEDC’s testing and reporting.
“We met with our contracted medical services provider and the Health Dept in March to create procedures for handling positive cases within the Detention Center; the plans have been adjusted appropriately as the pandemic has progressed,” Howell wrote. “A resident who tests positive is placed in quarantine within a predetermined location in the Detention Center under supervision of the contracted medical services provider. We follow the CDC guidelines, in collaboration and conversation with the Health Dept and the contracted medical services provider, for appropriate response to each individual case.”
Lilley stated in the Aug. 24 email that Wellpath was responsible for reporting COVID cases to the health department, who then investigates and reports the cases to the NCDHHS.
“The Health Dept is responsible for ensuring proper reporting occurs; the Health Dept is in charge of both testing and reporting.”
YES! Weekly asked both Howell and Lilley, “if a resident has COVID upon entering the detention center, are those cases reported to the NCDHHS, or are the only cases reported those already within the jail?”
However, Howell did not respond directly to the question, and Lilley’s response was not entirely clear: “Yes, they are reported to the Health Dept, who reports to the state appropriately.”
When asked for clarification on contact tracing in an Oct. 3 email, Lilley did not respond.
On Aug. 20, YES! Weekly called the FCDPH and asked the assistant public health director if contact investigators/tracers had been able to conduct an investigation process with anyone who tested positive inside the FCLEDC. Lo Giudice replied, “I honestly don’t know, I do not have that information.”
Joshua Swift, executive director of the FCDPH, explained the contact tracing procedure in an email on Oct. 7. Swift wrote that the Sheriff’s Office collaborates with the health department on contact tracing by “helping identify those in the holding area or other areas of the detention center where individuals may be deemed as close contacts of positive cases, so they can be quarantined properly at the facility. “Additionally, the Sheriff’s Office notifies us whether close contacts or a person that tested positive are still present in the detention center or have been released, so the contact tracer knows whether to connect with the individual at the detention center or their phone/address on record. Then the medical vendor at the detention center also assists with contact tracing by asking contact tracing screening questions to pass along to health departments if they are working with a positive case.”
However, the inmate who alleged their roommate had tested positive, told YES! Weekly that there was no form of contract tracing, and no social distancing in the jail.
“I was kind of worried because I am already suffering from a health issue,” the inmate said, referring to a brain injury they received from a gunshot wound. “It made me really nervous that I even had a roommate or really been around anybody.”
Another inmate said, when they were recently put in quarantine, about a week ago, contact tracers did not interview them either. The inmate also alleged on Oct. 9 that there were seven others in quarantine with them right now due to exposure at the Forsyth County Hall of Justice. On Oct. 7, Clerk of Superior Court Renita Thompkins Linville sent a media release out stating that five employees had recently tested positive for COVID-19 at the Hall of Justice.
There have been 13 jail-related deaths in the FCLEDC within the last 10 years. Marsha McLeod’s Sept. 12, 2019, article in The Atlantic, “Private Equity’s Grip on Jail Health Care,” describes both the detention center and its health care provider’s controversial history in thorough detail. In it, McLeod quoted Kimbrough, who had originally campaigned on ending the jail’s contract with Wellpath, as conceding that this was easier said than done.
“If you’re the only dance in town, you can pretty much call your own shots,” Kimbrough told McLeod, referring to Wellpath’s alleged near-monopoly on the area’s prison health care industry.
And that was before COVID-19.
Forsyth County’s $4,263,236 contract (beginning Sept. 1 and ending on Aug. 31, 2021) with Wellpath was renewed by the Board of Commissioners on May 21. The renewed contract increased the cost of the previous one, which was approved in 2017 and expired on Aug. 31, by 3%.
At last Friday’s march, POI issued the following demands for the incarcerated people within the FCLEDC:
Seven masks for seven days, regular testing for all people in the jail, free phone calls and free postage, release of those at-risk and low-level offenders, and end the contract with Wellpath.
In a statement accompanying those demands, Lutz wrote that “Wellpath has shown consistent negligence in its treatment of people incarcerated in the jail, leading to several deaths, and must be replaced with a county or state-run service that can be held accountable to the people whose families are incarcerated here.”