Jonna Wolf is worried there are a lot more than the two COVID-19 cases being reported in Oklahoma’s population of nearly 24,000 prisoners.
Her fiancé, Griffin Davison, is finishing up a five-year prison term for convictions stemming from possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. He has less than a year left.
One week in April saw over 6,000 new coronavirus infections in U.S. prisons. Wolf, prisoner advocates and public health experts are questioning whether Oklahoma’s COVID-19 testing policies are capturing the true number of prisoners who have the disease.
The Department of Corrections has a spreadsheet showing how many COVID-19 prisoner tests have been conducted. It also lists the number of prisoners in quarantine as a precaution and how many are in isolation because they’re sick.
On May 4, the sheet showed one person in isolation for the entire prison system. Wolf says that’s unbelievable.
“They don’t have to have COVID but to have one person coughing in the whole state of (approximately) 24,000, that doesn’t happen in the regular world,” Wolf said.
The Department of Corrections and Oklahoma State Department of Health are only testing prisoners if they meet specific standards, such as showing symptoms or having contact with someone who is positive.
Mass testing revealed thousands of infections
Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She researches incarceration’s effects on health outcomes in the school’s Department of Social Medicine.
She says because prisons have tight quarters and are often congested, the people inside them are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.
“These factors make it almost impossible to engage in social distancing,” Brinkley-Rubinstein said.
There have been over 14,500 infections in prisons around the country. But, more than 75% of the infections weren’t reported until the last weeks of April. There was a spike in positive tests largely because several states began mass testing prisoners. Many showed no symptoms.
“So we’ve seen at prisons in Ohio estimates that 88 percent of the population have COVID-19,” Brinkley-Rubinstein said.
The Ohio prison system says most of its positive prisoners were asymptomatic. The same thing happened in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas.
Arkansas began “wide-spread testing” inside the state’s largest prison and a much smaller community corrections center after finding positive cases.
Dina Tyler, a former spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Corrections said last week the state found 923 prisoners infected with COVID-19.
Tyler says most of those positives came from the prison and more than half the prisoners there had the disease, but similar to other mass testing states, most showed no symptoms.
Wide-spread testing is possible in nursing homes, why not prisons?
The increases in these states make Professor Brinkley-Rubinstein suspicious of Oklahoma’s low number of positives.
“I think that it’s very unlikely that those are the only two cases. Examples in states have shown that … when there’s just one, if you engage in really comprehensive testing you find many many more,” she said.
When asked about determining who is tested in state prisons, Scott Crow, the director of the Oklahoma Department Corrections said he couldn’t get tests for everyone because the state doesn’t have unlimited supplies.
Brinkley-Rubinstein agrees testing limitations are real obstacles for states across the country, but she said limited supplies haven’t stopped states from mass testing in assisted-living facilities and nursing homes.
In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration wants wide-spread testing for 42,000 people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
Brinkley-Rubinstein asks if system-wide testing is possible for long-term care facilities, why not prisons and jails?
“I can’t answer that question without thinking about the biases that we have about the people inside of these facilities,” Brinkley-Rubinstein said.
She says not identifying coronavirus behind bars makes it easier for the virus to spread to communities surrounding prisons and overburden hospitals.
Jonna Wolf is losing faith
“I can’t tell (Griffin) to pray on this,” Jonna Wolf said.
Wolf has been begging state officials to release nonviolent prisoners who are at risk of catching COVID-19, like other states are doing.
The Department of Corrections doesn’t have the power to release people. But it can recommend vulnerable prisoners with preexisting health conditions for medical parole. Last week, the agency recommended 14 people.
Wolf says it’s not enough and she’s afraid of what’s coming.
“The inmates see that they are not cared for. They feel like that,” Wolf said. “If you do nothing and these inmates lose people, you are setting up for a very angry, upset … if you treat people like trash and they’re (expendable), they’re going to act like that.”
Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow told StateImpact the prison agency is increasing COVID-19 testing to make sure symptomatic prisoners and those scheduled for release are checked.
The agency reports there have been 990 COVID-19 tests conducted for prisoners as of May 5. Two prisoners tested positive. One recovered and the other was released.
Crow said positive tests are low because the agency isn’t letting prisoners move freely and is cleaning regularly. He added that discussions to expand testing are “certainly on the table.”
The State health department and Gov. Kevin Stitt did not answer requests for comment.