COVID-19 in custody: Alabama ranks 9th for inmate deaths

Alabama ranks ninth in the country for the number of COVID-19 deaths per 10,000 inmates

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — At the Bibb Correctional Facility in Alabama, the old prison chapel has been turned into a quarantine zone. The sound of coughing is constant. And some people appear afraid to enter the room.

An inmate described life in the quarantine to The Associated Press, speaking anonymously for fear of retaliation. The prison system has enforced the wearing of masks among inmates, but he said crowded dormitories like his offer nowhere to hide from the virus.

He said he became so weak he could not stand.

“He said they are just laying around like flies,” said Bonita Jackson, whose brother is a Bibb inmate who was hospitalized. “You can’t hardly hear him. He is gasping for breath.”

As coronavirus cases skyrocket nationwide, they are also rising again in prisons, which are plagued by close contact and lack of good hygiene. In Alabama prisons alone, 34 people — 32 inmates and two staff members — have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. That ranks ninth in the country for the number of COVID-19 deaths per 10,000 inmates, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press and the Marshall Project.

Criminal justice reform advocates have called for the release of vulnerable and elderly inmates and an increase in paroles to alleviate extreme overcrowding, as well as the mass testing of inmates.

“These numbers are so disturbing, but not at all surprising given the culture and conditions in Alabama prisons. The Department of Corrections has failed to provide for the basic safety of people in its custody for years and COVID has escalated those failures,” said Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.

“What people should understand is that it did not have to be this bad,” she said.

The Alabama Department of Corrections said in a statement that is has taken multiple steps to combat the virus behind bars.

“As we continue to monitor the impact of COVID-19 in our facilities, the primary goal and concern of the ADOC is protecting the safety, security, and well-being of our inmates and staff,” the prison system said in a statement emailed from spokeswoman Samantha Rose.

The agency said each inmate was given four masks, more than 200 floor-mounted hand sanitizer dispensers have been installed, and room foggers, backpack sprayers and other equipment are used to sanitize areas.

Asked about the conditions described by inmates and their families, the prison system said the old chapel at Bibb is serving as a quarantine for symptomatic inmates awaiting COVID-19 test results, but the inmates are being closely monitored.

“Using these non-traditional housing areas allows the ADOC to use all available space to quarantine positive cases, while protecting other inmates from exposure,” the system said.

Since the pandemic began, nearly 800 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, according to prison system numbers. The pandemic has also taken a toll on those that work in prisons. More than 600 Alabama prison employees have reported testing positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Most inmates and staff have recovered.

Most deaths, like those outside prison walls, have occurred in inmates with preexisting health conditions, the prison system said.

State Sen. Cam Ward, who was recently appointed by the governor as the new director of the Parole Bureau, said prison conditions where inmates are often “warehoused” in large rooms is a factor.

“When you have 400-something people in one big room, it is going to spread disease,” Ward said.

More than 1,000 people age 65 and older are behind bars in state prisons. Ward said older populations in prison include those sentenced for single violent crimes and those sentenced under the state’s habitual offender act before it was changed.

“Because of that stringent three strikes, you’re out, you have a lot of people in there life without parole, and that population in there is getting older,” Ward said.

Kenneth Glasgow, founder of the Ordinary People Society dedicated to ending mass incarceration, said he is fielding calls from inmate families daily. He agreed with Crowder that the state should have pursued the release of some offenders and increased testing early in the pandemic.

“We’ve got family members calling out the yin-yang. They are scared. They say their family member got a two- or three-year sentence for drugs, not a sickness sentence or a death sentence from COVID,” Glasgow said.

January Corbitt said she has underlying health conditions and feared catching the coronavirus before her release from Tutwiler Prison for Women this fall. One inmate and two employees at the Wetumpka prison have died from COVID-19.

“It’s scary. Right now, it’s scary,” Corbitt said.