Little did Rory Adams know that Christmas in a small rural West Virginia hospital would be the last time he would see his wife alive. She had entered prison in early January 2021 to serve a 42-month sentence for non-collection of social charges. She was supposed to return to North Carolina, their two adult children and their quilting business this summer.
But when he saw her, she was heavily sedated. A ventilator was helping her breathe as she battled covid-19. Rebecca “Maria” Adams, 59, died 18 days after Christmas in the same hospital bed.
The pandemic has proven particularly deadly behind bars. Prisoners are more than twice as likely to die from covid as the general population. And the dead keep piling up.
Adams was the second of three women incarcerated at Alderson Federal Correctional Camp to die of covid in less than a week in January. The prison which holds less than 700 inmates had 50 cases as of February 8. When the number of cases in the United States increased in December due to the Omicron variant, an understaffed and still underprepared federal prison system was again overwhelmed with covid cases.
The deaths of these three women imprisoned in West Virginia reflect a federal prison system plagued by chronic problems exacerbated by the pandemic, including understaffing, inadequate medical care and few compassionate releases. The most recent statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons report that 284 inmates and seven staff have died nationwide from covid since March 28, 2020. Medical and legal experts say these numbers are likely understated, but the federal prison system lacks independent oversight.
Alderson, where Adams was incarcerated, was one of the first federal prisons to have a covid outbreak in December during this latest national wave. But by the first week of February, 16 federal facilities had more than 100 cases. More than 5,500 federal inmates and more than 2,000 BOP staff had tested positive for covid, according to BOP data. At a prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi, more than 500 inmates — nearly half the prison — tested positive in late January. Including Alderson’s three wives, 12 federal inmates died while sick with covid in January.
The Bureau of Prisons has come under fire in recent months after investigations by The Associated Press and the Marshall Project alleged widespread corruption and called the agency a “hotbed of abuse”. In January, before the deaths of the three Alderson inmates, BOP leader Michael Carvajal announced his resignation, although he will remain in charge until a successor takes the helm.
Criticism of the agency continued in congressional testimony in January after Alderson’s deaths. Legal and medical experts in the federal system, as well as members of Congress, have accused the BOP of hiding covid deaths and cases, repeatedly failing to provide adequate health care, and failing to properly implemented humanitarian release program intended to move at-risk detainees to home isolation. Five recently released inmates, two incarcerated inmates and six family members of women incarcerated at Alderson confirmed these allegations to KHN.
Alderson inmates and their families reported denial of medical care, a lack of covid testing, retaliation for speaking out about conditions, understaffing and a covid-overrun prison. Absences of prison staff made ill by the virus have resulted in cold meals, dirty clothes and denial of items like sanitary napkins and drinking water from the commissioner.
In an email, BOP spokesman Benjamin O’Cone said the agency was not commenting on what he called “anecdotal allegations.” He said the BOP is following covid advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
O’Cone pointed to the BOP’s online dashboard of covid statistics when asked how many inmates had died since Dec. 1 and how many had tested positive for covid prior to death. A day after KHN emailed the BOP regarding the deaths of the three Alderson inmates, two appeared on the dashboard and press releases were issued. The women had been dead for almost a week.
The three women – Adams, Juanita Haynes and Bree Eberbaugh – had requested compassionate releases due to pre-existing medical conditions that made them more likely to die from covid, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart failure congestive, obesity and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. .
Nationally, more than 23,000 people were released from the federal system from March 2020 to October 2021, but more than 157,000 people remain imprisoned. After the first pandemic releases, the prison population in the United States is rising back to pre-pandemic levels. Part of the first decline was due to inmate deaths, which rose 46% from 2019 to 2020, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
For people like Adams, compassionate release never came. The BOP reports that only two women have been granted a humanitarian release from Alderson since the outbreak began in December. One was Haynes, who was released while intubated. She died four days later in hospital.
“They will literally be set free so they don’t die in chains,” Alison Guernsey, an associate clinical professor of law at the University of Iowa, said in congressional testimony in January. She called BOP facilities “death traps,” referring to the BOP’s “inability or unwillingness to control the spread of covid behind bars by engaging in aggressive evidence-based public health measures.” .
Guernsey testified that the BOP’s death data is “suspicious” due to reporting delays, the exclusion of deaths in prisons run by private contractors and those released just in time to “die free”. Haynes’ death, for example, is not counted in the BOP data even though she fell ill with covid while incarcerated because she was released on compassionate release just before her death in January, months after the refusal of his first requests.
Guernsey questions the BOP’s covid infection figures because the agency does not report the number of tests administered, just the number of positive tests. “The BOP can hide whether the low infection rate is due to low Covid cases or inadequate testing,” she said. All of these factors mean the number of deaths and cases is likely “significantly” higher than reported, Guernsey said.
The impact of incorrect data carries over to the refusal of requests for release on humanitarian grounds. One factor the judges consider is the level of covid cases and risk in that prison. Eberbaugh, the third Alderson inmate to die in January, requested in March 2020 a compassionate release from her 54-month sentence, citing pre-existing medical conditions.
In August 2020, a court denied Eberbaugh’s motion, citing in part the lack of covid cases in the prison. A few days later, she responded in a handwritten letter, bringing in an attorney from the Public Defender’s Office. “Your Honor, it’s only a matter of time before he gets here and I fear for my life,” she wrote.
The court dismissed that appeal in April 2021. Within nine months, she had died of covid.