The Oklahoma Department of Corrections said its staff is working hard and touted its achievements over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as more than 1600 inmates have been infected with the novel coronavirus.
"In collaboration with the health department, we have been able to accomplish the unaccomplishable, I believe, from when we first started dealing with the virus," said Millicent Embry-Newton, DOC's Offender Services Director.
"It's an unprecedented time and there's no playbook, no guidebook, but I want to thank everybody for working together as a team," Embry-Newton said. "Other than that, we would not be able to accomplish what we have."
The Board of Corrections met Wednesday for the first time since recent dire reporting out of Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, where more than 700 women have been infected, with one symptomatic woman dying over the weekend. (DOC said they do not know if COVID was the cause of death.)
Embry-Newton said that in addition to inmates, the department knows of at least 215 positive cases in staff, but that that number is likely not entirely accurate due to no testing requirement for employees as they come into and depart correctional facilities.
"The reason why I say 'known' is because staff are not obligated to tell us if they've tested or if they're positive, or certainly the results," Embry-Newton said.
In the most recent weekly report on Oklahoma from the White House coronavirus task force, it's recommended that correctional facility staff be tested at least once a week for tracking purposes. Public health experts have said it's important to test staff of congregate living facilities, because they're liable to inadvertently bring the virus into the facilities or into the surrounding communities.
Embry-Newton suggested that part of the work of the corrections departments is to make sure inmates themselves are playing a role in reducing spread of the virus.
"There are several wardens in here that can tell you that when you have a population, whether it's 500 or 1,500, it's really hard to make sure that the inmates keep that mask on on a regular basis, but I can tell you they work hard to ensure that happens to the best of their ability," she said.
Board chair T. Hastings Siegfried praised Embry-Newton and the department for their work in attempting to prevent spread of the virus.
"Very thorough, thank you," said of Embry-Newton's presentation. "I have one comment: Working with you and hearing some of the ways that everyone's slowing down these changes is as effective as I've seen even in the private sector."
"I know it has its challenges, but thank you for what you're staying on top of, as well as other staff and employees here in this room," Siegfried said.
Remarks by DOC Director Scott Crow were listed on the agenda, but he was absent from the meeting, sending a designee in his place. The DOC did not respond to a request for comment about why the director missed the meeting.
Asked about the Eddie Warrior outbreak at a press conference on Sept. 1st, when more than 500 women had been infected, Gov. Kevin Stitt did not speak on the situation specifically, saying that, "Overall, our corrections department has kind of led the nation."