Despite criticisms, DOC officials say COVID-19 outbreak at SCI under control

Xerxes Wilson
Delaware News Journal

After weeks of criticism and protests by families of prisoners, the Delaware Department of Correction says the outbreak of COVID-19 at Sussex Correctional Institution — the largest outbreak at any state-operated facility to date — is contained. 

Through July, some 340 prisoners, more than a third of the facility's population, tested positive for the virus. Officials didn't learn the extent of the outbreak until testing every prisoner at the facility just outside of Georgetown. 

Officials have seen about 40 new cases of the virus at the prison, known as SCI, since the entire prison was tested. As of Friday, 18 of those were displaying symptoms.

Only 10 percent of those infected at the prison showed symptoms and more than 260 inmates have recovered, correction officials said.

This week, the prison began retesting those people and after two negative tests will move them back into the general population at SCI, said Correction Commissioner Claire DeMatteis in an interview. 

The outbreak has also hit prison staff, with 27 of 308 total officers at the prison testing positive. Additional staff has been transferred to the prison to make up for those quarantined. 

DeMatteis said the outbreak may be worse in number than the previous outbreak at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna — which infected 128 — but "the inmates are not as sick as they were at James T. Vaughn." 

"It is manageable," she said. 

Claire DeMatteis

The outbreak at Vaughn killed seven. 

'It should not have been like this'

On Friday, Delaware officials announced the outbreak at SCI had contributed to the death of an inmate. As of Friday, five SCI prisoners are hospitalized. Two are on ventilators. 

One of those on a ventilator is Jackie Ray Lovett, a 71-year-old man serving a life sentence for murder. He's been in Delaware prisons for more than three decades. 

Last week, Lovett's daughter was contacted by a Department of Correction official who told her that Kent General Hospital would be calling and she'd want to take the call. Her family had not previously been told he was being treated in hospital for COVID-19. 

Soon after, that call came and a hospital administrator asked for permission to put Lovett on a ventilator.

"If it wasn't for the hospital calling, we wouldn't know his condition," said Shannon Perdue, Lovett's daughter. 

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Lovett had been in the hospital for three days by then. When he went in, he was in stable condition. By the time his family knew he was hospitalized, he couldn't speak, Perdue said.  

"The system should have notified us that he was in the hospital so we could have been in contact with doctors long before him taking a turn for the worse," Perdue said through tears.

She said she knows there is a probability they will never speak again. 

"It should not have been like this," she said. 

Correction officials said they were barred by law from telling the specifics of Lovett's condition to his family until he completed a form, which they said was taken to him at the hospital the day before they called to tell his family to expect contact from the hospital. 

Jackie Ray Lovett (front right) poses with family members.

Regardless of what Perdue describes as a lack of communication, she said her father should not have been allowed to reach this point. At his age, he should have been segregated from the population before he was infected, she said. 

"If my father passes away from this, it should fall on the state of Delaware," she said. "He is paying back his debt to society, but he didn't deserve this." 

Perdue's criticisms run parallel to those issued by other family members and inmates inside the prison in recent weeks. 

Last week, protesters stood in front of the prison to criticize the handling of the outbreak. That came after a medical staffer at the prison went on a local television station with their identity concealed to say that prisoners at SCI were being treated worse than prisoners of war.  

Family members have also regularly shared criticisms and information about the outbreak on the Friends and Families of Prisoners SCI Delaware Facebook page.

Emily Klein, of Wilmington, protesting in front of the Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown Sunday. She said a friend's son is an inmate at SCI.

More than a dozen inmates and family members interviewed by Delaware Online/The News Journal said they are fearful about living conditions at SCI and confused about how the virus was allowed to spread. 

"If you took people's health seriously, this would not be as big a problem," said Heather Morris, one of the organizers of the recent protest outside the prison.  

Correction officials have hit back at criticisms and on Thursday accused inmates of "enlisting family members" to spread "false and exaggerated claims" about the outbreak through the media. 

The spread 

Officials can't say exactly how the outbreak spread to most of the housing units at the prison.

On July 1, the prison announced that two inmates had tested positive at the prison. 

One contracted the virus outside the prison and was quarantined from the population. 

Prison officials believe another inmate likely contracted the virus when treated at a local hospital and then infected his cellmate. That cellmate, initially showing no symptoms, was transferred to Morris Community Correctional Center in Dover, where he became symptomatic. 

That person was the first "hint that we potentially had it," DeMatteis said. 

How it spread from that cell to multiple buildings in the prison is not known. The open, dormitory-style layout of the housing units at the prison made the spread easier, DeMatteis said.

She thinks it's also likely officers brought it into other buildings in the prison. 

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"As community spread hit Sussex County, it is inevitable that those who live there are going to become a part of that," DeMatteis said. 

By July 6, correction officials had received 58 positive tests and announced a plan to test each inmate at the prison. In the days before, face masks were given to the larger inmate population, a point of criticism among inmates and family members. Some prisoners with jobs in the facility received masks earlier this year. 

"They didn't take preventative measures, they took reactive measures," one inmate said in a phone interview from SCI.

Corrections officials said masks were provided when there was evidence of the virus inside the prison and not sooner due to contraband concerns. 

"Very few wear them," DOC Spokesman Jason Miller wrote in an email. "They say they are hot and uncomfortable."

Inmates who tested negative, as well as advocates on the outside, are pressing for another large wave of tests.

That's partially motivated by a fear among some inmates that prisoner movements necessary to set up SCI's emergency COVID-19 unit hastened the spread of the virus.

Several inmates said prisoners were moved from the prison's Key Building into their buildings earlier this month as their tests were pending. Prison officials temporarily emptied the Key Building to outfit it as the prison's COVID-19 unit.

"You literally sleep 3 feet next to these people," said an inmate, who said he did not want to provide his name for fear of retaliation from officers or officials at the prison. 

He lives in the Medium security building and tested negative but took the test before being exposed to Key Building inmates. So now he and others in his situation want to be retested. 

Correction officials said the virus was "likely" present in the Medium Building before any Key Building inmates were transferred there and at no time has a known-positive inmate been housed in proximity to an inmate with a test pending.

Miller wrote that correction officials continue to retest some of the 650 or so inmates who initially tested negative for the virus. The priority is those who have health issues and are in buildings that were affected, DeMatteis said.

To date, 65 of those tests have been administered, Miller wrote. 

DeMatteis said the careful movement and quarantine of inmates is what rooted the virus from Vaughn earlier this summer and will contain the virus at SCI. 

"It is not negligent that it got into the community and we did not let it spread unknowingly," DeMatteis said. 

She said calls for universal testing are faulty because a test is only as good as the day it was taken. She said the system is better off continuing to conduct daily checks for symptoms prison-wide.

The system offers testing to correction staffers, but state officials have said it would not be legal to mandate testing for employees at prison facilities. 

Living conditions

Those who have tested positive for the virus are housed in the Key Building. Inmates described an evolving situation the past two weeks there. 

Multiple inmates said at first they went for days without a change of clothes.

Tony Mutschler, an inmate with incontinence issues, said he had to walk around in a shirt and a diaper for a few days because his only pants were soiled. 

Officials dispute such claims, saying inmates were issued one set of clothing initially, but the prison "began issuing additional clothing" the following day. Today, the treatment center has twice-a-week laundry service, officials said. 

Commissary and food have been another common complaint. Multiple inmates who have tested positive, but don't have symptoms, complained initially that food portions were smaller than what they'd receive otherwise. 

"Everyone else is very hungry," said Matt Butler. "There is nothing left after the meals. That is going to be a point of contention eventually." 

He said that is exacerbated by the lack of access to the commissary, which inmates often use to supplement their diet. 

Officials said nothing has changed about the food portion sizes and that people in that unit have been receiving weekly "go bags" that include snacks and soaps. Butler said his included two Banana Twins, a Twinkie, a bag of Cheese Curls, a pen, no paper, shampoo and soap. 

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Last week, he said the tension was building. 

Later that week, some 10 inmates, a group that DeMatteis said involved "known troublemakers," held a demonstration over conditions on a tier that houses asymptomatic inmates who have tested positive. 

Correctional officers standing by during Sunday's protest.

It is unclear precisely what the issue was, but Warden Truman Mears said the confrontation escalated to inmates throwing items including locker boxes at the tier door and at officers, which resulted in officers using pepper spray on the tier. 

Multiple inmates criticized the use of the spray on a tier where people are positive for a virus that includes respiratory harm. 

"Nobody could breathe," said inmate Russell Thomas. "It was the worst experience of my life." 

Bureau of Prisons Chief Shane Troxler defended its use, saying it is one of the least harmful tools officers can use to ensure their safety and that it "goes away on its own. " 

Butler, who said an officer tried to shoot him with a pepper ball gun because he couldn't get to the ground fast enough due to knee problems, said the situation changed after that.

He said meals came with extra food. Inmates were issued an extra pair of socks. 

"Keep the mob happy and you will be fine is what seems to be the motto here now," Butler said on Monday. 

Outside the COVID-19 unit, inmates said a pause on commissary was causing tension there and depriving inmates of hygiene products like hand soap and food to supplement their diet.

The COVID-19 unit at SCI.

Officials said commissary was only on hold for a week because of staffing issues and is now carrying on as normal. On Thursday, some said they still hadn't received commissary and had gone weeks without the service. 

"This issue of commissary is a little bit exaggerated," DeMatteis said. "They can't buy a bag of chips or an extra razor blade, come on." 

Inmates also complain that medical needs are not being attended to, both inside and outside the COVID-19 unit, dental problems are being ignored and anything other than a mental health emergency goes unanswered. 

Officials said dental care is on hold currently while new equipment is brought in to protect providers, but mental health visits are occurring normally and medical calls are being triaged as normal. 

No release

Regardless of the conditions in the prison, there is a continuing push by advocates to pressure state officials to release certain inmates early. 

They argue the communal setting of prison makes viruses difficult to contain and that certain offenders serving sentences for nonviolent crimes and with little time remaining should be taken out of harm's way. 

Brian Butler has been advocating for early release in emails to Gov. John Carney's office on behalf of his brother Matt Butler. 

Matt Butler has lung and heart issues that saw him hospitalized for weeks in the year leading up to his incarceration at SCI for multiple DUIs. Having been imprisoned for months on the charge and with only a month to go, Brian said he feels his brother should not have been in prison to catch the virus. 

"Is he going to see Jesus or something in that last 30 days or is he just going to die in there?" Brian Butler said. 

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The Delaware Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has an ongoing letter writing campaign aimed at pressuring state officials to release those "most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 and those within six months of the end of their sentence when "there is little to no risk to public safety."

Both DeMatteis and Gov. John Carney have said they do not support early releases and think it is unnecessary. DeMatteis said earlier this week the outbreak at SCI has not changed her thinking on the question. 

About 25 protesters stood along Route 113 in front of the Sussex Correctional Institution Sunday afternoon to protest alleged mistreatment of inmates.

She noted that it took 16 weeks for there to be a positive case at SCI, that there are currently no known cases of COVID-19 at Vaughn prison after an earlier outbreak and that active cases of the virus are now trending downward at SCI. 

"I am confident that we are doing everything we can to contain this outbreak and I think we have," DeMatteis said.

Contact Xerxes Wilson at (302) 324-2787 or xwilson@delawareonline.com. Follow @Ber_Xerxes on Twitter.