May 8, 2021 07:00

Death of Alabama Inmate, 94, Highlights State’s Struggle with COVID-19

Walter Lee McCoy, 94, died on Nov. 30 inside the infirmary of Alabama’s Hamilton Aged and Infirmed prison. After his death, McCoy, who was being treated for an advanced medical condition, tested positive for COVID-19.

McCoy joins 43 other incarcerated men in Alabama prisons who have died while positive for COVID-19.

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has struggled to control the spread of the virus, which has infected at least 1,033 incarcerated people and at least 729 workers.

But advocates say the state could do a lot more.

Dillon Nettles, policy and advocacy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said that ADOC is obligated to provide appropriate safety and health measures for people incarcerated in their care.

“After multiple lawsuits and Department of Justice investigations exposing the unconstitutional conditions and treatment within ADOC facilities, we expect the department to take their responsibility more seriously than ever before,” Nettles told APR.

“The bottom line is that ADOC has failed in their duty to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in its facilities, and Mr. McCoy is the latest victim of their neglect.”

Two prison workers have died from the deadly disease.

Because testing isn’t mandatory, and because several inmates have told APR in recent weeks that they decline to be tested even if they have symptoms, for fear of being quarantined alone, the true extent of the spread of COVID-19 in Alabama’s prisons is unclear.

Most of the facilities house inmates in dorm-like settings where social distancing is impossible.

It wasn’t until September that the ADOC began broader, and all voluntary, testing of inmates and staff, despite calls from advocates for months to begin doing so, and even after that testing began, it was slow-going.

Last week, ADOC announced 105 inmates in the Bibb Correctional Facility tested positive for COVID, bringing the total of infected inmates there to 161.

Additionally, nine inmates at the Donaldson Correctional Facility and four at the Easterling Correctional Facility also recently tested positive. Out of 3,441 inmates who volunteered to be tested in those four facilities, 118 tested positive.

As of Sept. 30, ADOC had tested just 2,738 of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates.

ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose said in a written message to APR last week that the department is providing free COVID-19 tests to ADOC staff and contracted healthcare staff using fixed and mobile testing sites.

“Additionally, we are testing inmates in facilities that house large numbers of medically vulnerable inmates,” Rose said.

ADOC has conducted voluntary testing among inmates at 18 of the state’s 26 facilities, according to Rose’s statement, and has tested staff on a voluntary basis in 22 facilities.

ADOC hadn’t replied to a question as of midweek sking how many inmates in those facilities had been tested.

Responding to a question regarding whether ADOC has discussed with the Alabama Department of Public Health the need to vaccinate those incarcerated persons most at risk from coronavirus, Rose responded, “this is an important topic, and one on which we are working closely with the Alabama Department of Public Health.”

“Once information becomes available, we will share it with the public via our ongoing COVID-19 updates,” Rose said.

Despite the dangers facing older and sick incarcerated people, and a large number of older and sick inmates who are at greater risk from COVID-19, just 13 people had been released on medical furloughs as of September, the latest report ADOC has made publicly available.

There have been concerns for months about how ADOC has managed the health crisis.

One worker at Hamilton Aged and Infirmed told APR in May that another officer who was exposed to a COVID-19-positive inmate at a local hospital was forced to immediately return to work at the Hamilton facility.

Hamilton Aged and Infirmed houses the state’s inmates most vulnerable to COVID-19, older inmates who have medical conditions.

“Over the summer, ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn assured the public that the department would pursue mass testing for every person in custody, yet today they still are far short of that goal with just 7,000 people tested,” the ACLU’s Nettles said

She added that confirmed cases among staff, who also pose a risk of rapidly spreading the infection within facilities, are at the highest levels seen.

As of Dec. 4, the latest information made publicly available by ADOC, there were 240 active cases among prison staff.

McCoy pleaded guilty on Aug. 20, 2001, at the age of 75, to shooting to death a man in connection to an argument over money the man owed McCoy, according to court records and news accounts. He had served 18 years and 11 months of his 20-year sentence when he died.

Eddie Burkhalter, a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter, is a  2020 John Jay/Langeloth Justice Reporting Fellow. This an edited and condensed version of a story posted on the Alabama Reporter.  The full version is accessible here.  You can email Eddie at eburkhalter@alreporter.com.

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