No COVID-19 boosters for Raleigh women’s prison, inmates say. ‘People are getting sick.’

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Susan Rouse, an inmate at North Carolina’s largest prison for women, reports that neither she nor the 100-plus prisoners in her unit can receive boosters for COVID-19 despite repeated requests and the rapid spread of the virus.

In December, according to Rouse, she even signed a document stating she had received her shot on the promise that it was coming soon.

But after filing a grievance with the N.C. Correctional Institute for Women, which houses roughly 1,700 people at capacity, she remains on medical quarantine without the booster’s protection.

“People are getting sick, and that’s not what they’re telling the news,” said Rouse, 74, who is serving a 14-year term for embezzlement. “I don’t want my obituary to say Susan Rouse died in NC Correctional Institute for Women.”

‘They’re scared’

Rouse’s experience in the prison’s minimum-security Canary Unit, which houses inmates on work-release, is backed up by family and friends of at least two other inmates there.

The prison in Southeast Raleigh has seen multiple outbreaks since the pandemic’s beginning, and three people there tested positive for COVID-19 over a weekend in early January, according to NC Health News. Multiple offenders in the women’s prison say they have been told there will be no more testing.

“They’re scared,” said Kerwin Pittman, director of policy for Emancipate NC, a nonprofit social justice group with a client in the Canary Unit.

The NC Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh.
The NC Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh.

As of Thursday, DPS reported it had vaccinated more than 21,000 of its roughly 29,000 inmates statewide. Its COVID-19 dashboard shows 773 active cases, or 2.7% of the total prison population.

In an opinion piece for The News & Observer in December, Commissioner Todd Ishee noted that almost 77% of the offender population is vaccinated. “And our staff have proven themselves to be heroes during this prolonged public health emergency,” he wrote.

But the vaccination numbers do not include booster shots, said John Bull, DPS spokesman, in an email Wednesday.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends a booster shot for anyone older than 16, and a Harvard University study shows the booster is needed for immunity against the omicron variant.

No specific figures for women’s prison

As of Wednesday, the state had given booster shots to 6,600 prisoners, said John Bull, DPS spokesman, who did not have specific figures for the women’s prison. But he noted every inmate in the Canary Unit has been tested for COVID-19 between Jan. 3 and Jan. 11, some more than once.

“Keep in mind offenders in that housing unit are under medical quarantine because they were potentially exposed to others in that housing unit who tested positive,” Bull said in a Wednesday email. “As a result, they do not interact with offenders in other housing units while they are kept under close medical observation and tested again if they show symptoms of COVID-19.”

At the women’s prison in Raleigh, the state reports 46 active cases, up eight from Wednesday. Nobody in the Canary Unit has gotten a booster, Rouse said, and despite being confined to their dorms, inmates are increasingly being removed. She added that prisoners are getting their temperatures taken on their foreheads as a precaution but others report no regular COVID-19 tests are happening now.

“I guess if you run a fever, you’re out,” Rouse said. “I think they are scrambling.”

Even before the omicron variant, inmates reported tight conditions worsened by pandemic.

“Now that Covid-19 is in the prison, there are no classes, very few jobs, no visitation, limited recreation time, and no relief in sight,” Natasha Purvis wrote the N&O in September. “We are packed 36 women in a dorm, 20 to 21 hours a day on our beds, struggling to stay sane.”

‘They would not give me one’

Kimberly Ann Case, who got out of the women’s prison on Nov. 28, said she asked for a booster shot near the time of her release because her mother lived in a nursing home and was vulnerable to the spread.

“They would not give me one,” she said.

She also reported difficulty getting tests.

“Unless you have a fever,” she said, “they will not give one.”

At DPS, Bull said the prisons have conducted more than 200,000 tests since the pandemic’s beginning. Asked if those seeking boosters needed to continue waiting, or if DPS is facing issues with supply, he said, “We’re giving booster shots and we’ll continue to give them.”

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