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ACLU Suspects Okla. Correctional Facilities Unprepared For Increasing Virus Risk

The Joseph Harp Correctional Facility in Lexington, Okla.
The Joseph Harp Correctional Facility in Lexington, Okla., where the Oklahoma Department of Corrections says a staff member has tested positive for COVID-19.

The Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Association has alleged that Governor Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow are knowingly downplaying the risk of the coronavirus to both staff and people in custody at the state's correctional facilities.

In a Wednesday press release, the ACLU of Oklahoma said they are joining chapters around the country in petitioning for public records from state and federal authorities responsible for prisons and jails. 

"Our requests for records will reveal what Oklahoma knew about the impacts of COVID-19 on our prison system ahead of its spread, and what they failed to discover by relying on faulty models," the statement reads, attributed to ACLU of Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel.

Nicole McAfee, the Oklahoma chapter's director of policy and advocacy, said that the possibility of a widespread outbreak in Oklahoma's custodial facilities, like the ones currently happening in prisons and jails around the country, have impacts far beyond prison walls. 

"I don't think people think about all of the Oklahoma families who are worried about their loved ones who are incarcerated," McAfee said. "I also think that folks don't think about what higher rate of spreads in custodial facilities means for the broader public."

McAfee cited research partially conducted by ACLU researchers that concluded as many as 200,000 people, including incarcerated people, staff, and those in the larger society, could die as the result of a lack of aggressive mitigation of spread in corrections facilities.

She said Governor Stitt's plan to reopen Oklahoma's economy could also spell trouble.

"As Oklahoma begins opening up, we see a new and increased risk for spread in custodial facilities," McAfee said. "We want to know how the Department of Corrections and the governor are taking that into account."

In a statement, the Department of Corrections said that it  "has taken the COVID-19 pandemic seriously since the outset," and that only two persons in custody have so far tested positive for the virus. The full response from DOC is reproduced below.

An April 30th statement from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections in response to the records request and press release issued by the ACLU of Oklahoma.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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