Outrage over the massive COVID-19 outbreak inside the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Okla., was on full display Friday afternoon, as advocates, elected officials, and family members of women incarcerated there rallied outside the prison gates to demand the state of Oklahoma rectify a tragedy they claim could have been prevented.
“It’s just total disregard of human life,” said Tina Goertz of Salina, Okla., co-founder of an inmate advocacy group called Journeys to Justice.
Goertz was one of roughly 75 people gathered on a stretch of road running alongside the minimum security prison’s campus, separated from inmates’ housing units by a tall chain-link fence and about 10 yards. Some inmates hung handwritten signs from the windows of their buildings, with messages including “FAILURE TO PROTECT,” “FREE THE SICK,” and “OUR LIVES MATTER.”
As of Friday, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections reported a total of 780 inmates had tested positive inside the prison, which has a maximum capacity of just under 1,000, over the course of the pandemic. One woman died after her diagnosis, though DOC has said it does not know that COVID-19 was the cause of her death and has not publicly released her name.
Merri Davila of nearby Fort Gibson said she served time inside Eddie Warrior years ago herself, and that her sister Alicia is one of the women incarcerated there currently who has contracted the virus.
“I’m out here to support the girls because I know what it’s like to be in there,” Davila said. “These girls need help.”
Tiffany Walton, a registered nurse from Taft who volunteered as a charge nurse at a hospital in New York at the height of the pandemic there, said her experience watching so many patients die of COVID-19 has given her a sense of great urgency in speaking up about the situation in her hometown.
“I couldn’t sleep. I still can’t sleep,” said Walton, who was the protest’s lead organizer. “They didn’t get a sentence to die. They don’t deserve to die.”
Many at the rally placed blame at the feet of powerful officials at the state capitol.
“We need y’all to get out of your ranch-style houses, y’all’s swimming pools, y’all’s yachts, and get your asses down here and get these girls some help,” Walton said through a megaphone, to applause.
Much of the ire was directed toward Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has not held a press conference or given an address focused on the situation at Eddie Warrior or other state correctional facilities, where, in total, 1,639 inmates had tested positive for the virus so far according to DOC’s Friday numbers. One other inmate, a man incarcerated at the Joseph Harp Correctional Facility in Lexington, has also died after receiving a COVID diagnosis.
“One sister died and that’s one too many,” said Pamela Smith, a criminal justice advocate, former Eddie Warrior inmate, and founder of the nonprofit Pamela Smith Foundation. “We don’t want no more sisters to die. Enough of this foolishness in the state of Oklahoma, where the state officials are abusing their power.”
“I plead to the governor. I plead to you, J. Kevin Stitt: If this was your mother or your daughter or your sister, would you allow them to stay in a facility that’s infected, with over 700 women that are crying out for help?” Smith said.
“I’ll get on one knee to the governor and God today,” said demonstrator Angie Pitts, kneeling. “These people matter. These people matter, Governor. I’m pleading with you.”
“These girls matter,” said Pitts, who said she served time at Eddie Warrior in the past and was also demonstrating on behalf of her son, incarcerated elsewhere in Oklahoma, who she’s concerned may contract the virus.
The governor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. At a press conference in Stillwater earlier this month, Stitt told a reporter who asked about the state’s prison outbreaks that while he couldn’t speak to specifics, “Overall, our corrections department has kind of led the nation.”
Reached by phone on Friday, before the demonstration, DOC spokesperson Justin Wolf said the agency understands the worry and anxiety that families have expressed.
“I’m a father, and my mother has multiple comorbidities, so I’ve been worried every day to some degree that this virus is going to affect my family. And there’s no exception to that for people whose loved ones are incarcerated,” Wolf said.
Still, Wolf stood by the agency’s pandemic response plans.
“We responded very early on, we took the steps that we needed to take, and we’ve done everything that we can,” Wolf said. “And some of those steps were dramatic. Things like canceling visitation and volunteer access, frankly, were not popular with everybody, and some people thought we were doing something that was unnecessary. When we secured inmates within their cell areas, that was also something that was criticized by some as being unnecessary.”
“There’s not a lot of things that anybody’s saying that we could do better or that we could implement that we haven’t implemented to the best of our ability already,” Wolf said. “We’re doing everything we can and we’re reevaluating all of those decisions to see if there’s anything more we can do, and we’re doing that on a daily basis.”
One protocol which advocates and public health experts have said would help is a mandatory testing policy for staff members. Millicent Embry-Newton, the agency’s offender services director, told the Board of Corrections during a presentation at an open meeting on Wednesday that she knew of 215 confirmed infections in staff, but that that figure may not be an accurate representation of how many staff members were infected.
"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.
Dr. Jennifer Clark, a professor of community health at the University of Tulsa’s Oxley College of Health Sciences, said that outbreaks in places like prisons, nursing homes, and other congregate living facilities can spread beyond the facility -- or trigger the outbreak in the first place -- as individuals come and go.
"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,” Clark said.
In a Thursday letter to Gov. Stitt, the Democratic Caucus in the Oklahoma House of Representatives requested staff testing be required. The most recent report for Oklahoma from the White House coronavirus task force that has been released by the state, dated Sept. 6th, recommends prison staff be tested weekly.
“While your administration has made statements labeling prison outbreaks as isolated events that do not affect the rest of the state, DOC employees are continuing to work in highly contagious environments and then returning to their communities without being tested. Additionally, DOC has a responsibility to protect the inmates in state custody,” wrote House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman).
Wolf, the DOC spokesperson, acknowledged that the virus can be transmitted by asymptomatic carriers, referring to staff as “potential vectors.” As of Friday, DOC reported a total of 17 staff at Eddie Warrior had reported a positive test since the start of the pandemic.
“Obviously, the virus can’t start from within a facility,” Wolf said.
On the matter of requiring testing of employees, though, Wolf said it had not been recommended or cleared by the agency’s lawyers, who have been examining such a policy “since day one.”
“There are employment law elements to requiring something to be part of a job, and so that’s not just something you can do without other implications and other challenges being faced on an employment law angle, if you will,” said Wolf. He said the agency does offer tests to staff members on a voluntary basis.
Asked whether there was a specific statute in state or federal law in question, Wolf said he didn’t know of one.
“It’s not that there’s a law that says that you can’t not do it, if you will,” Wolf said. “There’s not an authority to cite that says we can’t do it.”
“The current body of employment law presents challenges to suddenly introducing a new job requirement of existing staff,” he explained.
Asked whether the department would want to implement a mandatory testing policy for staff if it were found to be legal, Wolf said he “couldn’t answer that right now.”
“I’m not buying that,” said Cedric Johnson, chair of the legal redress committee of the Muskogee chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), responding to the DOC’s legal explanation.
“That’s a copout,” Johnson said. “There’s a way you can do that.”
“This position is without legal basis,” Virgin wrote in her Thursday letter. “Other states have already implemented staff testing programs to protect their communities. Oklahoma must follow suit.”
Lelia Foley-Davis, former mayor of Taft and a current member of the city’s council, expressed worry that the outbreak could affect her community.
“They’re bringing it in, and when they go out they’re taking it out,” Foley-Davis said. “Something has to be done. You can’t just contain someplace with 720 residents who have COVID and not do anything about it.”
“This is a hotspot, you know? If this was anywhere else, I feel like the governor would have already been here, but they haven’t been here to talk to us, the city council,” Foley-Davis said. “And we have made requests through our representative and state senator to request that they come and visit us.”
Walton, the nurse and protest organizer who lives in Taft, said, until recently, the city had a non-incarcerated population of 250.
“It is 249 of us now, because one of them already died of COVID,” Walton said.
“So now we have 249 -- pretty soon, all we’re going to have is some pigs, cows and dogs, if we wait on the government,” she said.
In the neighboring city of Muskogee, officials have also expressed concern over the potential of spread of the virus through their population.
"Yes, that is a concern. I know quite a few of the workers at the correctional facilities reside in the City of Muskogee," Tyler Evans, Muskogee’s director of emergency management, said in an email when the outbreak first made the news. "We are asking and encouraging our residents to follow the CDC guidelines, practice social distancing, wash and sanitize their hands often, and utilize a face covering when out in public."
On Friday, inmates yelled to family members and demonstrators through cracked-open windows.
“They do not care,” one woman said. “We’re not just saying this because we’re locked up. We understand we’re in prison and we have to do our time, but we are affected by COVID-19. It is in this prison. We are positive. They are not taking the procedures to keep us safe.”
“We’re sick. I just now got my smell and taste back. We do have symptoms. Don’t believe that damn news,” the woman continued. (Wolf, the DOC spokesperson, said Friday morning that only three women in the prison’s initial outbreak out of the hundreds infected experienced symptoms of the disease.) Malinda Haliburton of Muskogee was yelling back, asking women for their names and departmental inmate identification numbers so she could put money on their commissary accounts to buy things like hand sanitizer and additional masks.
“It’s scary for them. They know that they have done wrong, and they have accepted the consequences for the crime that they committed. What they can’t understand is, why do they have to die from a virus that they didn’t ask for?” Haliburton said.
Haliburton said she is currently raising the 13-year-old daughter of one of the women inside Eddie Warrior who tested positive.
“She’s very terrified,” Haliburton said. “When she found out that her mom has COVID, along with the rest of the women, she asks me every day: ‘Is my mama going to die? Is my mama going to die?’”
“This is a minimum security facility. I don’t believe anybody’s in there for murder – and even if they were, you’re still a human and you still have rights, and all of those human rights are being violated,” said Haliburton.
Goertz, the advocate from Salina, said she hopes the protest will be successful in its goal.
“I hope that everyone with a loved one in prison unites and gets a stronger voice, and lets our legislators know, lets DOC know, that we’ve had enough,” Goertz said. “The abuse and mistreatment that they have suffered, even before COVID, has got to stop. We’re not going to put up with it anymore.”
Before the protest ended, Walton spoke directly to the women inside the prison via her bullhorn.
“Ladies, do not give up. Every single time, I’m going to make sure I keep coming out here with more and more people,” she said, to cheers and applause from the women inside.