Inmates describe jail conditions

·10 min read

Oct. 15—Two female inmates jailed on procedural, court-related charges had a front-row seat last week when a rash of COVID cases wreaked havoc in the Haywood County Jail.

One of the whistleblowers saw the county news release in The Mountaineer and complained it was untruthful.

She disputed the claim that standard COVID protocols were followed and said the statement that those entering the jail are tested for COVID when booked wasn't true.

She, along with another inmate she met for the first time Tuesday, Oct. 5, said they had no access to hand sanitizing products, soap or hot water and said while staff did have face masks around their necks, few used them to properly cover their mouth or nose.

In addition, both said their serious medical conditions were ignored during their time in the jail.

An Oct. 6 news release announcing the COVID cluster at the jail stated seven incarcerated persons had tested positive and that "everyone who enters the jail is tested for COVID upon booking and before they enter the general population."

The release later quoted Sheriff Greg Christopher stating, "detention center staff has continued to work diligently to protect our inmates and fellow team members from the virus. We are following guidelines put forth by the CDC and our public health department."

In an interview, Christopher said that in 20 months, there have only been two COVID clusters in the jail.

"With the number of people who come in and out on a daily basis, that is phenomenal," he said, "that we have been able to take care of and do the things that needed to be done to keep this from happening any more than it has."

He credits following the advice of County Medical Director Mark Jaben and Public Health Director Sarah Henderson with tamping down jail COVID cases.

In a letter to the commissioners Christopher sent Friday, Oct. 8, he stated there were 126 inmates in jail as the detention center struggled to keep numbers down and COVID out of the jail. He thanked Judge Kristina Earwood for unsecuring bonds and taking pleas that Friday, though Haywood County Clerk of Court Hunter Plemmons said the court routinely holds video arraignments each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and more often if a judge is available.

The hearings for 17 people resulted in nine being released and given a later court date or released for time served.

"Our situation with overcrowding and COVID has taxed our nursing staff to their limits, and I have asked for assistance from the nursing company," Christopher's letter stated. "We literally contacted every jail from Cherokee County to McDowell County looking for beds for our inmates this week and found very little help because everyone else is in the same situation we are in."

COVID protocols ignored?

Both Tami Nicholson and Eleanor Black were picked up in other jurisdictions and transported to the Haywood County Jail Tuesday, Oct. 5, where they first became acquainted and remained for several days as COVID was spreading in the jail.

The women, who were interviewed separately by The Mountaineer with no time in-between the phone calls to allow for collaboration, said they were in a holding cell more than one and a half days before they were given a COVID test.

Nicholson even questions the way the tests were administered.

"I used to be a nurse, and due to cancer, hospitals and surgeries, I've had lots of COVID tests," she said. "If done right, it feels like you are being stabbed in the brain from the eye. All this girl did was swab the nose area. I didn't even know she did the test."

In addition, unsanitary conditions and practices did not mirror the COVID protocols widely preached by public health officials, according to their accounts.

In addition to the delayed testing, both said there were no hand sanitizing stations, and there was no hot water or soap in their holding cell.

The holding cell was filled with trash, including a bloody sanitary napkin, Nicholson said, and there are no garbage cans in the holding cell, so any trash must be passed out the small opening where food is served.

Upon seeing the filthy condition of the small area, both Nicholson and Black said they asked for cleaning supplies and a broom to do the cleaning themselves but said their requests were ignored.

In the Florida jail where she was first held on a warrant awaiting extradition, the shared phones were sanitized before and after each use, Nicholson said, noting that wasn't the case in the Haywood County Jail.

"There was a pay phone attached to a hand truck, and they would open the food door so people could reach through it to use the phone," she said.

Both Black and Nicholson said their temperature was checked when they entered the Haywood County Jail, but that was it, and both said they had significant health issues that were ignored.

Nicholson's story

Tami Nicholson had never been in jail before she was picked up in Florida on a warrant for not appearing in court. Nicholson has been the center of several video gaming arrests in Haywood and said she has never missed a court date. She wouldn't have missed the May court date, either, she contended.

"My attorney said court was being put off again, back in May," she said, noting she spoke with him while in a Texas hospital being treated for Stage 4 metastatic cancer.

She said she has a recording of the conversation, but the missed appearance triggered a series of events that led to her being picked up on a warrant in Florida in September.

Her entire case that dates back to 2019 is based on a grudge and trumped-up charges, she claims. "When I'm guilty, I plead guilty," she said, referring to a much earlier case that was precedent-setting for those in the gaming industry who needed to test the legality of a state law.

This time, however, she said she can prove Nudge games were legal and are the same ones widely used in convenience stores across the county routinely ignored by law enforcement. In addition, the types of games she said she was wrongfully accused of running are in the process of being legalized in North Carolina.

Still, she was charged with nine felonies, even though her connection to the operation was as the building owner where another person was running the business, she said, as well as for a business owned and operated by her husband in Canton.

Though she said she's been given several chances to plead guilty to the charges, she's refused.

"You can't lie in court, and if I say I'm guilty, I'd be lying in court," she said. "They are trying to make it sound like I'm running from the law. They had my address and knew exactly where I was."

In the Florida jail, Nicholson said she received medications prescribed for her cancer diagnosis, as well as life-saving medication to help her function without a thyroid. She was also able to get Ensure since only 10% of her stomach still works.

She received none of her medications that had been sent through a chain of custody from Florida to the Haywood jail until the fourth day she had been there — the very day her family had arranged for her bail.

Many in the holding cells and the large cage in the middle of the intake area appeared to be unhealthy, Nicholson said.

"Everybody just looked bad and you heard the coughing," she said. "I don't know how people look when they are withdrawing, but I assumed that was what was happening because the methodone lady comes and they perk right up. Here I am just wanting my thyroid medicine, and I'm ignored."

Nicholson was interviewed Monday morning just before going to the local hospital to see about the COVID symptoms she said she developed during her jail stay. While she wanted to return to Florida where her two young children are enrolled in school, her cancer doctor feared she was too weak to travel. Plus, her COVID exposure at the jail meant her children must quarantine for two weeks.

Nicholson said she's been warned that a COVID diagnosis puts her at a serious risk of death because of her many underlying medical conditions. Because of the experimental drugs she's on for her cancer treatment, she was advised to not get vaccinated.

"I wasn't even found guilty and they basically could have handed me a death sentence," she said.

Black's story

Black, who was ordered to serve seven days in jail on a contempt of court charge, said she was transported to the Haywood jail from Caldwell County where she was picked up and held for transport.

Black, who said she has a food truck and another small business, spoke of unmasked jail staff.

"I had my personal mask, and when I got to the Haywood jail, some were masked and some were not," she said. "Some jailers had their masks around their neck, including one of the sergeants."

After sitting in the general booking area a few hours, she was taken to one of several holding cells where she found the floor was filthy. A request for a broom was ignored, and when she received a sleeping mat about as thick as a ream of copy paper, she had no confidence the plastic had been cleaned, let alone wiped down with bleach.

"Given the state of the cell we were in and how dirty it was, I highly doubt it was clean," she said. "There was no soap, no hot water, no sheet and a very thin blanket that I know was dirty because brown pieces of something stuck to it could be picked off."

Because there was no other way to clean their hands, Black said several in the cell resorted to using orange peels as a cleanser, especially since some food needed to be eaten with their hands.

The cell was also extremely cold, she said, noting the detention center staff was aware she was anemic; hypoglycemic and needed anti-seizure medicine. Still, the staff declined to call about medications, she said.

The next day when a fourth person in the cell was released, another girl who was barely breathing was brought into the room, she said, noting, "it was then they came around with COIVD tests."

With a paralegal background, Black said she knew she couldn't be held over 24 hours without a hearing, but detention officers in both Caldwell and Haywood County told her that wasn't their concern, she said.

"At one point Tami (Nicholson) looked at them and said they had sworn to uphold the law, and if doing that wasn't their job, whose job was it," she said. "I felt that we were animals sitting in a jail, just pieces of trash. Nothing we said mattered."

Toward the end of her stay, she was coughing a bit and lost her voice, a condition that persisted until she was finally released from jail and dropped off at a truck stop on the county line.

She had no phone, no money and only a thin summer dress to wear in the pouring night rain. She'd had no shower or change of clothing for three days.

There weren't many people at the truck stop, but she spoke to several as she was trying to borrow a cell phone to call for a ride. Ultimately a good Samaritan truck driver was going toward Lenoir and dropped her off.

What she didn't know at the time was that the loss of voice is a rare symptom of COVID, but said she didn't learn about the COVID cluster at the jail until early in the week.

She now fears she could have contracted the virus and spread it to those kind enough to help her get home, including the truck driver who she was in the truck with for nearly two hours.

"I hadn't been self-isolating because I didn't know I could be contagious," she said Monday afternoon. "The jail never told me anything and here I was putting additional people at risk. It makes sense we were exposed to COVID, though, given what was happening in the jail."

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