pandemic in prisons
Department of Corrections director Scott Crow speaks to media about COVID-19 mitigation and cases in state prisons Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (Tres Savage)

Amid a “spike” of COVID-19 outbreaks at its facilities, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections is beginning mandatory employee testing and will be considering other mitigation efforts, such as wastewater sampling.

“All Oklahoma lives matter, whether it is someone in the public or someone incarcerated in our prison system,” said Oklahoma DOC director Scott Crow at a press conference this afternoon. “Every time I learn of a new case, it really makes me sick. This is extremely important. A positive case makes me sick, but an inmate death makes me sicker.”

So far, nine people incarcerated in Oklahoma prisons have died from the novel coronavirus, which has led to the deaths of 962 Oklahomans so far. The Department of Corrections updates its online COVID-19 dashboard regarding prison statistics on weekdays, and 3,168 inmates have tested positive so far. Of those, 1,398 are active cases and 22 are currently hospitalized.

Crow said more than 90 percent of inmates who have tested positive have shown few to no symptoms. ODOC employees have also tested positive.

“Today we have tested 590 staff, 278 cumulative positives, 63 current (cases),” Crow said. “It’s difficult. This is a very complex situation for the public. It’s an even more complex problem for us in prisons simply because we do not have the ability to socially distance.”

‘Those folks have incredibly difficult jobs’

Gov. Kevin Stitt called Tuesday’s press conference with Crow and Commissioner of Health Lance Frye after media asked about the spiking COVID-19 cases in state prisons last week.

The governor noted the DOC announcement that correctional employees working in prison “hot spots” will receive $2 extra per hour for hazard pay.

“DOC will be increasing pay for those employees who are dealing with the virus in hot spots across our state,” Stitt said. “Those folks have incredibly difficult jobs, and it’s important to provide them with this little bit of extra support if we can.”

Crow noted that “hot spots” are defined as prison units or entire prisons where 20 percent of inmates in celled housing test positive or 15 percent of inmates in open bay housing test positive.

Crow indicated hot spots currently exist at eight facilities:

  • Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft
  • Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington
  • Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center in Vinita
  • Bill Johnson Correctional Center in Alva
  • Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in McAlester
  • North Fork Correctional Center in Sayre
  • Enid Community Correctional Center in Enid
  • William S. Key Correctional Center in Woodward

Frye, the commissioner of health, said 25 percent of all ODOC staff will be tested each week, which means all staff will be tested monthly. He said the Department of Environmental Quality could also begin tracking wastewater from prisons soon in an attempt to identify cases before they turn into outbreaks.

“There will be more to come,” Frye said of his agency’s guidance for ODOC.

Crow said corrections employees were already being tested at a high rate, but that there had been no mandate. He said early in the pandemic, Oklahoma’s prisons were seeing low infection rates, somewhat thanks to the suspension of prison transfers and the receipt of prisoners from county jails.

“That model was not sustainable long term,” he said.

Crow said inmates are now eating and exercising in shifts to limit population densities throughout the prisons. Correctional facility managers are designating certain housing units for isolation and quarantine when necessary, but Crow said inmates are still able to make phone calls.

The ODOC’s new phone service provider is offering one free five-minute phone call per week to each inmate.

“Trying to manage the COVID process but also trying to manage the inmate population for security issues or violence or things like that [is difficult],” Crow said.

He added that Oklahoma Correctional Industries — which operates a series of programs where private companies use low-wage prison labor — has remained operational throughout the pandemic, expect when a facility with an industry program experiences a hot spot that causes the work program to be suspended.

In Woodward County, an outbreak at William S. Key Correctional Center bumped the rural county’s COVID-19 case count up more than 800 percent this week. The state’s seven-day rolling average is currently showing more than 1,100 new COVID-19 cases each day in Oklahoma.

OPEA wants Stitt to spend CARES Act money

The Oklahoma Public Employees Association distributed a press release Tuesday afternoon calling for Stitt to fund the hazard pay for correctional officers from federal CARES Act money.

“While we appreciate the Department of Corrections approving temporary pay increases for some of their employees working in correctional facilities, the proposed plan calls for raises to be paid out of the department’s current budget. It would be more efficient to use CARES Act funds to pay for them,” said OPEA director Sterling Zearley. “CARES Act funding is available to pay for DOC’s hazard pay increases and testing without taking resources from other agency needs,” Zearley said. “The plan announced today uses funds from the department’s FY 2021 budget that could be used elsewhere in the agency and we believe Gov. Stitt could authorize the use of CARES Act funds instead. Oklahoma County jail authorities recently approved “hero pay” for their employees using CARES Act funding. The state received federal funds to assist with COVID-19 and mandatory testing and hazard pay increases certainly COVID-19 related.”

Asked about why CARES Act funds were not being used to fund the DOC employee hazard pay, Stitt said during Tuesday’s press conference that he was not sure. But he said Crow had the ability to cover the costs out of his existing budget.

“I don’t know specifics about why we didn’t use CARES Act dollars,” Stitt said. “We have to make our dollars stretch where we can.”

Crow nodded as Stitt offered the answer.