Muskogee County Women's Prison Outbreak Grows; More Than 700 Infected

Sep 4, 2020

Hundreds more women incarcerated at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft have tested positive for COVID-19 since the state initially reported a major outbreak there last week.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections said that, as of noon on Thursday, 721 women had active cases of the disesase caused by the novel coronavirus, with three hospitalized. The facility houses around 900. Eddie Warrior is a minimum-security facility, with open dormitory-style housing units.

Ellen Stackable, executive director of the nonprofit Poetic Justice, which provides therapeutic and restorative writing and arts program for incarcerated women, said the organization has held regular in-person classes for women at Eddie Warrior for a number of years. She said that the program currently serves at least 40 women inside the prison via correspondence, due to visitation restrictions caused by the pandemic.

Stackable said she has deep connections to many of the women living through the outbreak, which is so severe that it's caused the Muskogee area to be ranked the largest outbreak per capita of any metropolitan or micropolitan area in the United States, according to a New York Times data analysis.

"I try not to think about it, because I am very anxious," Stackable said. "And I think the reason I've been working so hard that people understand what's going on there is if I didn't do everything I could, and somebody I loved there died, I wouldn't be able to live with myself."

Asked about the outbreak at a press conference in Stillwater on Tuesday, Gov. Kevin Stitt said he thought the Department of Corrections "has kind of led the nation" in its response to the pandemic, but did not comment on the situation at Eddie Warrior or any other specific facility. 

"Honestly, I was appalled at the governor's news conference, with how little time and care he gave to, essentially, a small town that is probably 95% positive," Stackable said. "I want people to know: these are people who matter. They are people of inestimable worth. These are women that are doing everything in their power to turn their lives around. Almost all of them have such severe childhood trauma that I can't even comprehend it. And that childhood trauma often leads to why they're in prison." 

In a Facebook post shared by multiple Poetic Justice volunteers, an anonymous inmate inside Eddie Warrior is quoted as writing: "I should have a choice to keep myself safe. DOC took my choice from me by holding me in an open dorm and then willfully compromising my environment. They got us sick and now we are being punished for being sick. Lives are in danger and no one is being held accountable."

At the Tuesday press conference, Oklahoma State Department of Health Interim Commissioner Col. Lance Frye said that, "As far as I know, last I heard, those number of positives, none of the staff. Those were all inmates. No staff members were infected, which shows that they're doing an extremely good job."

At the time of Frye's remarks, DOC was publicly reporting 15 confirmed infections in staff members at Eddie Warrior on their COVID-19 web dashboard. That number had increased by one, to 16, as of Thursday.

Stackable said that she believes prison staff are doing their best, and that incarcerated women have expressed concern for the wellbeing of their corrections officers.

"I think there's a lot of strain on personnel. One of the women wrote, 'they are doing things they never signed up for,'" Stackable said. "'Caseworkers are cooking our meals. Guards are bringing us our food and our meds, and doing laundry.'" 

"This is from women who are in prison. Not from other guards. That's the compassion they have for people who're there," Stackable said.

The DOC does not require its staff undergo regular testing, which some public health experts have questioned. 

"The interplay that you get concerned about is the people that are leaving and coming into the facility, and then going back out into the community," said University of Tulsa community health professor Dr. Jennifer Clark.

In April, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma said they believed ODOC was not prepared to adequately handle the pandemic, and the matter needed more attention.

"I don't think people think about all of the Oklahoma families who are worried about their loved ones who are incarcerated," the ACLU of Oklahoma's Nicole McAfee told Public Radio Tulsa in an April interview. "I also think that folks don't think about what higher rate of spread in custodial facilities means for the broader public."

Stackable said, beyond the issue of the outbreak but even more urgently now, her organization's goal is to confront the public with the question, "Can't you see these are human beings who matter?"

"I don't think it's just an Oklahoma problem," Stackable said. "I think it's a problem all over our country. We just happen to incarcerate more women than anyone else in the world."