A grieving family asks: Why aren’t county jails doing more to stop spread of COVID-19?

County jails struggle with ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks

NORTH CAROLINA - Darrell Kersey’s family knew something was wrong.

When he called his wife from the Durham County Jail this past summer, he said he had a sore throat and headache, and that he had lost his appetite.

“I said, ‘Darrell, you need to tell the nurse,’” recalled his wife, Teresa Kersey, who spoke to her husband at least once a day while he was in jail.

From left, Teresa, Kensley, and Kelli Kersey sit for a portrait outside home after an interview about Darrell Kersey, their husband, grandfather and father, who died of complications from COVID-19 which he tested positive for while incarcerated in the Durham County jail, on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in High Point, N.C.
From left, Teresa, Kensley, and Kelli Kersey sit for a portrait outside home after an interview about Darrell Kersey, their husband, grandfather and father, who died of complications from COVID-19 which he tested positive for while incarcerated in the Durham County jail, on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in High Point, N.C. (Source: Casey Toth)

After that conversation, the phone calls from her husband stopped. Teresa Kersey soon learned her husband was in the intensive care unit at a local hospital after contracting COVID-19.

Darrell Kersey had been in jail since December on charges of stalking, domestic violence and communicating threats, so he had clearly caught the virus there, his wife said. At least 34 inmates and staff members at the jail have tested positive so far.

On the afternoon of Sept. 16, with family members by his side, Kersey died after he was taken off the hospital machines that were keeping him alive. He was 59. Now his family has a host of questions. Chief among them:

Why didn’t the jail do more to stop the spread of COVID-19?

In interviews with jail officials, advocates and experts, the NC Watchdog Reporting Network found that a number of county jails in North Carolina have been less than rigorous about infection control. Consider:

  • Some jails, including those in Union and Bladen counties, generally don’t issue masks to inmates or require staff members to wear them.
  • Some don’t quarantine new detainees for 14 days, a step experts say can prevent the virus from getting a foothold in jails.
  • And some jails have packed large numbers of inmates into relatively small spaces, making it easier for the virus to spread.

According to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, jails in 12 of the state’s 100 counties have ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks. More than 270 COVID-19 cases have been reported at those jails.

Each county’s elected sheriff runs the jail. While jails must report some data to the state, no statewide authority directs the COVID-19 response in jails. Infection control practices vary widely from jail to jail.

Officials with a number of sheriff’s offices in North Carolina say they’ve been vigilant about curbing the virus' spread.

Transylvania County Sheriff David Mahoney, who heads the N.C. Sheriffs' Association, said he’s not aware of any jail that is disregarding the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Compared to nursing homes, he said, jails have had far fewer outbreaks.

“It just tells me that prison administrators and jail administrators and sheriffs are doing something right,” Mahoney said.

Most sheriffs have worked with county prosecutors to reduce the number of people in the jails, Mahoney said. From February to July, almost every county saw a reduction in its jail population. Since then population numbers have leveled off or even increased again in about half the state’s jails.

Still, the numbers remain lower, statewide, compared with the number of people held in jails this time last year, according to research by Jessica Smith, a professor of public law and government at UNC-Chapel Hill. That has made it easier for jails to keep inmates at a safe distance from one another.

Officials for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office say they tested all of the jail’s detainees and employees in early October, and found no positive cases. They say they issue masks to all staff members and detainees, and require everyone to wear them.

But those who advocate for inmates paint a different picture, saying many county jails are falling short of healthy infection control practices.

“The jails are doing the bare minimum,” said Kristie Puckett-Williams, an ACLU of North Carolina official who leads a campaign for judicial reform. “They’re not really doing anything to address the threat of communicable disease.”

Unlike the state prisons, which were required by a court to test all inmates, the county jails are under no such mandate. Most of the 11 sheriff’s offices contacted by the NC Watchdog Reporting Network are not doing mass testing. Research conducted since May by Felicia Arriaga, a sociology professor at Appalachian State University, confirms that mass testing at jails has been extremely rare.

Consequently, it’s unclear how extensively the virus has spread at those jails.

“If they did mass testing, they’d find a lot more people with COVID-19,” said Charlotte lawyer Tim Emry, who works with a group of advocates trying to make conditions safer inside Mecklenburg County’s jails. “... They’re more concerned about avoiding bad publicity than the health and safety of the residents.”

The result, he said, is that carriers without symptoms can spread the virus to others.

When Emry visits clients in the jail these days, he does it by video.

“There are still dangerous conditions there,” he said. “I’m trying to minimize my risk.”

Infectious diseases can flourish inside jails and prisons because inmates live so closely together. And when outbreaks occur inside jails, they can endanger people on the outside, too. That’s because jail employees go home each day — and because many of the people who are booked into county jails quickly post bond and return to their communities.

‘No way to socially distance’

Puckett-Williams, of the ACLU, spent hours inside Mecklenburg County’s Jail Central on May 29 and June 11, after being arrested while protesting. She and her fellow protesters weren’t given masks either time, she said. While she and other protesters were waiting to be processed, they were sitting fewer than six feet from other detainees, she said.

Charlotte lawyer Tin Nguyen, who was also arrested after protesting on Sept. 21, spent about 10 hours in the jail. He said he was there about 20 minutes before he was given a mask. Nguyen spent much of his time in the jail with four other protesters in a holding cell that was roughly 10 feet by 15 feet. Other cells of the same size held seven to nine people that day, he said.

“There was no way to socially distance,” he said. “The whole time I was in there, I was pretty scared I was going to be exposed to COVID. It just didn’t seem like a safe place. There were so many people crammed together.”

Each holding cell had a toilet and a sink, but no soap, Nguyen said. Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Capt. Kent Rhoades said officials don’t keep soap in the holding cells because they’re concerned detainees could use it to deface windows or clog vents.

On a recent visit to Jail Central, a reporter watched as a man entered the jail lobby, where he was directed to a nurse who asked him a few quick screening questions and checked his temperature. The entire process took about 10 seconds.

A few minutes later, six people entered an elevator at the jail, standing about three feet apart until the elevator doors opened. Inside the jail’s arrest processing area, all sheriff’s employees were wearing masks. But one Charlotte Mecklenburg Police officer there was not.

Mecklenburg Sheriff’s officials say they now issue masks immediately to all new detainees. They said all staff members are required to wear masks, while inmates are required to wear them in common areas.

Across the state, mask policies are inconsistently applied in jails, despite being “one of the most important pieces of personal protective equipment proven to significantly reduce the spread of the virus,” said Dana Rice, an assistant professor who studies public health and correctional systems at UNC’s School of Public Health.

“It’s highly recommended that everyone wear masks, especially when inside, within 6 ft. of others, especially around those individuals that are in quarantine,” Rice wrote in an email to the Watchdog Reporting Network.

After detainees enter Mecklenburg’s jail, they go into an isolation pod for five days. There, they are monitored for symptoms. If they are free of symptoms, they enter the general population.

The CDC recommends a quarantine of 14 days following close contact with someone who had COVID-19. Since jails don’t know who new detainees have had close contact with, the full quarantine is recommended.

Like most sheriff’s offices that reporters contacted for this story, the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office is not testing all detainees for COVID-19. Sheriff’s officials say they generally test only those who show or report symptoms.

As of Oct. 21, a total of 77 inmates and 34 staff members at Mecklenburg’s two jails had tested positive, sheriff’s officials said. In August, a longtime Mecklenburg jail officer — 51-year-old Coretta Jean Downing — died due to complications from COVID-19.

But Mecklenburg sheriff’s officials say they now have no active cases.

“We’ve been very deliberate about COVID, trying to stay in front of the evolution of the pandemic,” Chief Deputy Rodney Collins said. “By and large, we’ve done a tremendous job of keeping everybody safe.”

At some jails, wearing masks isn’t required

At the Wake County Detention Center in Raleigh, all new detainees are tested for COVID-19.

Four air-tight “zero-pressure rooms” at the jail are designed to house inmates with illnesses that can be spread by air. Those cells are not connected to the central air system for the rest of the building, a sheriff’s spokesman said.

Sheriff’s officials say they issue masks to all staff members and detainees and require them to wear them.

Dawn Blagrove, executive director for the advocacy group Emancipate N.C., said that, when her group was bailing out protesters after recent civil unrest, many employees inside the Wake jail were not wearing masks. A spokesman for the sheriff’s office said the office has “reviewed that concern and corrective actions have been taken.”

Other jails, however, appear to be less stringent in their efforts to control the virus' spread.

In a recent petition, more than 20 inmates at the Bladen County Jail contended that staff members and detainees weren’t wearing masks, and that newly arrived detainees were sometimes put in quarantine for just eight days before they were moved into cell blocks with others. They also claim staff move from the quarantine unit to other units without ever wearing masks or gloves. They also said they are issued one shirt and pair of pants at a time, and that those clothes are washed just once a week.

Officials at the Bladen jail issue masks to staff members and suggest — but do not require — they be worn. They do not issue masks to detainees unless they are leaving the jail for a court appearance or a medical appointment, according to Capt. David Shaw, administrator of the Bladen County Detention Center, northwest of Wilmington.

“There’s no real reason (for detainees) to wear them if they have not been outside the building in six months,” Shaw said.

But that strategy still leaves detainees open to exposure. CDC guidance says to wear masks as much as possible and for staff to keep at least six feet of distance from detainees at all times. If staff aren’t following those rules, then detainees could be exposed, and therefore should be wearing masks, the guidance says.

Shaw took issue with some of the detainees' claims, saying inmates' clothes are washed regularly and that new detainees are put in quarantine for 14 days, not eight.

Like officials in some other jails, staff members at Bladen use a sanitizing machine that allows them to quickly clean each jail cell after it’s vacated. They’ve also begun using a body scanner to ensure that inmates aren’t carrying contraband when they enter — or reenter — the jail.

“If somebody has COVID, we don’t necessarily have to put our hands on them,” Shaw said.

Did lack of masks contribute to outbreak?

Two former inmates at the Alamance County Jail reported that they saw no other detainees there who wore masks, according to a September email to the county commissioners by Amy Jackson, a volunteer for the advocacy group Down Home America.

One of the former inmates reported that no staff members were wearing masks in July, Jackson said. The other reported that only some staff members were wearing them in September, she said.

“If the sheriff’s office refuses to enforce mask wearing, then no one should be surprised to see a COVID outbreak at the jail,” Jackson wrote.

At least 130 inmates and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Alamance jail. As of Friday, the jail is not reporting any active cases.

Byron Tucker, a spokesman for the Alamance Sheriff’s Department, said in an emailed response this month that all inmates are now issued masks, and that all detainees and staff members were tested during a recent outbreak.

“We take the care of our inmates and staff very seriously and we will continue to follow the local, state and national guidelines to help stop the spread of Covid-19 in our facility,” Tucker wrote.

Losing the fight

At the Durham County Jail, 26-year-old Ladarrious Alston said that for a month he had to share a pod with a man who had repeatedly tested positive for coronavirus during that period.

“They would let him walk around and eat with us,” Alston said.

And sometimes, he said, deputies pull their masks down when they are talking to detainees — a practice that he feels is putting the jail’s residents at risk.

Kelli Kersey holds the ashes of father Darrell Kersey who died of complications from COVID-19 which he tested positive for while incarcerated in the Durham County jail, on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in High Point, N.C.
Kelli Kersey holds the ashes of father Darrell Kersey who died of complications from COVID-19 which he tested positive for while incarcerated in the Durham County jail, on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in High Point, N.C. (Source: Casey Toth)

Darrell Kersey’s family, meanwhile, is still grieving.

Before Kersey was taken off the ventilator, his two children, his wife, and his brother paid him a final visit at Duke University Hospital. Each of them put on a gown, rubber gloves, a face mask and a face shield.

Teresa Kersey held her husband’s hand and rubbed his head. “I told him that I loved him, not to leave me,” she said. “I told him, ‘Darrell you told me you were going to fight this.’”

Kelli Kersey, 31, climbed into the hospital bed with her father, put her head on his chest, and begged him not to go.

After about four hours, Teresa and the two kids left the room to give Robert Kersey a final moment with his brother.

Robert Kersey, 60, held his brother’s hand.

“It was a great life while it lasted,” Robert Kersey said he told him. “I wish it could have been longer.”

This story was jointly reported and edited by Jordan Wilkie, Kate Martin, Laura Lee and Frank Taylor of Carolina Public Press; Ames Alexander, Gary Dotson and Gavin Off of The Charlotte Observer; Virginia Bridges and Jordan Schrader of The News & Observer; Nick Ochsner of WBTV; Emily Featherston of WECT; Travis Fain and Randall Kerr of WRAL, and Jason deBruyn of WUNC.

Copyright 2020 WECT. All rights reserved.