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Oklahoma Watch: Prisoner recalls COVID-19 outbreak as '10 times worse' than he expected

Oklahoma Watch: Prisoner recalls COVID-19 outbreak as '10 times worse' than he expected

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Two weeks into his stay in the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, a guard approached Robert Lavern’s cell door and told him to gather his belongings.

Lavern was accustomed to moving. Over the course of four weeks, he relocated from his Talala home to the Rogers County jail to Lexington A&R, where newly sentenced male inmates are shipped off to prisons across the state.

This time there was no bus outside waiting for Lavern. It was mid-March, when Oklahoma schools were canceling in-person classes, restaurants were closing their dining areas and sports arenas and movie theaters went dark.

As the state corrections department suspended visitation and mandated temperature checks for staff, Lexington staff was bracing for the pandemic.

A guard led Lavern, a Talala man serving a six-month sentence for a felony drug offense, to the prison’s basement and locked him in a solitary cell.

Lavern remembers days spent in solitary confinement, reading through Psalms and Revelation, praying for his mother and children back home in northeast Oklahoma. He was later told he would be transferred to William S. Key Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison in the far northwest Oklahoma town of Fort Supply.

Inmates live in open, dormitory-style housing areas, where several dozen steel bunk beds are spaced three or four feet apart. They share bathrooms and a single dayroom area.

By late September, 82% of inmates housed there had tested positive for COVID-19. Lavern was one of them.

The Talala man, now 52, had been arrested in 2014 on a meth-related charge. He pleaded guilty and received a 10-year deferred sentence, giving him a chance at avoiding prison.

He didn’t. A judge agreed when prosecutors asked for a harsher sentence after an arrest for driving under the influence. Lavern was ordered to complete a six-month drug treatment program inside a state prison starting in March 2020.

On April 4, all state prison facilities received shipments of cloth masks that were distributed to inmates. A day later, the agency ordered its facilities to keep inmates inside their cells as much as possible. Staff and guards were instructed to wear masks at all times.

Lavern says several William S. Key guards didn’t take these orders seriously.

“It was ‘make sure you wear the mask in front of the camera,’” he said. “Or you’d have one guard scream at you to wear a mask, and the next one is in the bathroom smoking a cigarette with two or three inmates without a mask.”

As Texas and Kansas coped with raging prison outbreaks, COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma’s corrections system remained low through the middle of the summer; only 16 cases were confirmed among staff and inmates as of July 15.

On that day, facing a $24 million budget shortfall, the Department of Corrections made a decision that would trigger mass inmate movement. The board voted to close the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, a private prison housing 1,650 prisoners. All Cimarron inmates were transferred to other facilities by Sept. 1.

With that closure and changes at other DOC sites, the agency reported 4,518 inmates, 1 in 5 Oklahoma prisoners, were transferred during the pandemic.

Many of these inmates were not tested for COVID-19 before being moved.

Lavern says dozens of inmates from Cimarron arrived at William S. Key in July and August, crowding the open dormitory in A West and making it more difficult to social distance. He claims staff at the facility also put inmates in compromising positions.

“There was no separation whatsoever,” he said. “There never was the whole time I was in there. They’d scream and yell at you to wear a mask, but then they’d stick you in the lunchroom with a couple hundred people at a time. They’d line people up the whole length of the whole building to get their new masks.”

He recalls guards, with their mask hanging underneath their nose and mouth, bragging about large Fourth of July gatherings. In mid-August there was a tornado drill where hundreds of inmates, some without masks, crammed into a basement office area.

By then COVID-19 hotspots were flaring in state prisons. On July 22, corrections officials reported 87 active cases at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center. Four weeks later, 100 positive cases were reported at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, a women’s prison in McLoud. Nearly every woman housed at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility, a minimum-security women’s prison in Taft, tested positive for COVID-19 in late August.

In late August, inmates in Lavern’s housing unit started coming down with common coronavirus symptoms like a cough and fever.

The inmates who informed staff of their symptoms were moved from A West to the solitary housing unit, normally reserved for inmates facing disciplinary action.

“Lots of people would rather take a chance at dying than be sent in there,” Lavern said.

Department of Corrections spokesman Justin Wolf said he could understand why some William S. Key inmates were deterred from informing staff of their symptoms and going into solitary confinement, but ultimately that action was necessary to try and contain the virus.

“Unfortunately, we have to do what’s in the best interest of all inmates, that always comes first,” he said. “So that involves tough decisions.”

Sometime around Sept. 1, Lavern went to sleep with a slight cough. He woke up with a piercing headache, extreme nausea and overwhelming fatigue. He could barely muster the energy to get out of bed and use the restroom.

Although he suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Lavern says it wasn’t worth it to ask for medical attention. His severe symptoms persisted for two weeks, with his only relief from Tylenol supplied by an acquaintance.

“It was hell,” he said. “Whatever you think how bad it could be, it was probably 10 times worse. You hear people wheezing and coughing and wondering are they going to make it through the night.”

On Sept. 17, the Woodward County Health Department conducted mass testing at the prison; Lavern’s test came back positive a day later.

The testing revealed the full scope of the outbreak. As of Sept. 27, 897 of 1,087 inmates at the facility had tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Department of Corrections data. Two of the inmates died.

“There was a guy right there in my building who went to sleep feeling real bad,” Lavern said. “They gave him an inhaler, told him to use that and they’d check on him the next day. Well, the next day he’s dead.”

On Sept. 22, Gov. Kevin Stitt and Corrections Director Scott Crow discussed the outbreak and announced new mitigation efforts.

As of Nov. 17, 5,404 state inmates and 520 corrections staff had tested positive for COVID-19. Of these cases, 603 among inmates and 115 among staff are active. Thirty inmates have died from COVID-19.

After completing the required drug treatment course, Lavern was released from William S. Key on Oct. 13.

He spends his days at home caring for his 86-year-old mother. His joints ache constantly and his sense of taste and smell have not returned. He says he’s too weak to clean leaves out of the gutter or chop firewood. His memory is fading.

Outbreaks of more than 100 active cases are ongoing at state prisons in McAlester and Boley. Going into the winter, Wolf said the corrections department is continuing to monitor its coronavirus response and will make changes if necessary.

“We’re doing everything we can, but what does everything we can look like?” Wolf said.


Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.


Video: Oklahoma DOC director speaks in September during COVID-19 outbreak

The state Department of Corrections director said Sept. 22 that "core services are provided" and "all medical needs are addressed" in state prisons.

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