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State Reports Death of 2nd Woman at Taft Prison with Massive COVID Outbreak

Facebook / Oklahoma Department of Corrections
Vernita Watts, 70, in a 2017 photo of her graduation from a cosmetology program for incarcerated women, posted by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections Facebook page in 2017, edited by KWGS to obscure the identity of others.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections reported Wednesday that a second woman incarcerated at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft has died, possibly of COVID-19.

The agency said Wednesday it was unable to confirm her identity due to medical privacy laws, but family members, inmate advocates and a cosmetology program for incarcerated women identify her as Vernita Watts, 70. Watts' status in the DOC's publicly available inmate database was changed from "ACTIVE" to "INACTIVE" at some point on Wednesday or Thursday.

"It is with deep sadness that I say goodbye to my friend, student and graduate Vernita," reads a public Facebook post from The RISE Program, a non-profit which provides free training and licensure in cosmetology for incarcerated women. "She fought the good fight and went home to be with The Lord. She loved Jesus and I know that I will see her again. She was a mighty prayer warrior and a great Master Instructor. I celebrate her life and I cherish the wonderful memories I have of her and will hold our time together dear to my heart. My heart goes out to her family; please remember them in your prayers."

On Sunday, a Twitter post from someone identifying themselves as Watts' nephew said his aunt had been "fighting covid the past few weeks."

"They said we can't have a funeral," the tweet finishes.

At a protest outside the facility on Friday, when over 700 women had been reported infected and the DOC was acknowledging one death there possibly linked to the virus, women yelled from housing unit windows that a fellow inmate was on life support at a hospital. It is unclear if that woman was Watts, but as of Thursday morning DOC had reduced their publicly reported number of hospitalized Eddie Warrior inmates from 1 to 0.

As of Thursday morning, DOC had not confirmed that any of the five deaths of inmates statewide they say are possibly related to COVID-19 were caused by the disease, saying they are pending medical examiner confirmation. 

Advocates and elected officials will host a rally and candlelight vigil for Watts and Deanna Thomas, the first woman to die at Eddie Warrior, outside the prison beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Friday.

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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