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With COVID-19 Rapidly Spreading, Inmates Worry They Can't Stay Safe

Photo by Jackie Finn-Irwin via Flickr Creative Commons

COVID-19 is spreading rapidly through the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord. As of Thursday, the state says there are 49 active cases of COVID-19 among inmates and another 16 among staff. The men say they have very little ability to social distance, and because New Hampshire’s prisons only test inmates with symptoms and those who have been in contact with positive cases (unless they are exiting or entering the prison, or live in transitional housing), they’re worried the virus will spread unchecked.

Zebadiah Kellogg-Roe, currently incarcerated at NHSPM, says that last spring, when he realized the coronavirus likely would find its way into the prison, he shrugged.

“I don’t want to be cavalier about it,” he said, “but back last April I kind of made peace with, 'Oh, I’m going to be exposed to an infectious agent. We’ll see how my body deals with it. Hopefully I won’t get sick and die.'”

Kellogg-Roe is 50 years old, and until recently he was living in his usual pod of about two dozen inmates. When one tested positive, that inmate was pulled from the pod, and the rest quarantined together. And then Kellogg-Roe’s roommate began coughing - but there was nowhere Kellogg-Roe could go to keep his distance.

“I can’t proactively move to a healthy place. This is considered a healthy place now that they’ve moved the sick people out," he said. "I can’t say, ‘I feel at risk.’”

Kellogg-Roe didn’t know if his roommate was tested. He says mask compliance in the pod is not great, and as recently as last week, he was playing Monopoly as usual with a friend in the common area.

“I kind of decided that if I’m not the one to bring corona[virus] onto the pod, and I’m not the one to give it to my roommate, I am willing to engage in risky behavior.”

NHPR spoke with four inmates at the prison this week, and all of them said they feel worried about the virus but are unable to protect themselves from it.

New Hampshire Department of Corrections commissioner Helen Hanks declined our request for an interview. In a written statement, the DOC said it is following CDC and state guidelines.

To keep up with the status of outbreaks in prisons, jails and other correctional facilities, visit our COVID-19 tracker here.

Some of the men we spoke to said others have tried to hide their symptoms because they don’t want to be sent to quarantine, which is held in either solitary confinement or in large areas where COVID-19 patients can spread out – in the gym or in “dorms.”

Inmate John Gosselin says that being in quarantine means leaving behind the friends in and relative comforts of the pod - and inmates can’t take any personal items with them.

“The inmates aren’t cooperating, you know. Because they don’t want to be punished, because it’s like a punishment thing,” he says.

Robin Malone is an attorney and president of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She’s been working with clients in prison during the pandemic.

“In a perfect world, [separation] would not be the result of a positive test or a suspicion of symptoms. In a perfect world, inmates would keep their belongings and would be housed humanely. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the prison is doing anything intentionally inhumane. I think, again, it’s out of necessity.”

Malone says right now the prison’s options for keeping inmates safe are limited. There simply isn’t enough space to keep all inmates in separate cells all the time, and Malone says it’s unclear if more isolation would be good for inmates’ mental health, since they’ve already been denied in-person visits since March.

She says she will be pushing for a compassionate release program of some kind.

“We have to do something, because it’s going to get worse, and people are going to die.”

The DOC reported its first death due to COVID-19 on Wednesday, of an inmate at the State Prison for Men. For privacy reasons, the department declined to confirm that person’s identity.

One woman we spoke to believes that inmate was her father, 72-year-old Ransford Lovely Jr. His death certificate shows COVID-19 as one cause of his death on December 16th.

Amanda Lovely says she was notified by a chaplain about an hour after he died. She says it had been hard to keep up a relationship with him while he was incarcerated and that she knew nothing about his living conditions before he went to the hospital. She didn’t even know he was sick.

“I just feel like I was robbed of any opportunity to say goodbye…He was treated as a third-class citizen, and I don’t think that’s fair, to my sisters, myself, even my mother.”

Lovely says her father had diabetes and high-blood pressure but would have lived much longer if it weren’t for COVID-19. She says she has reached out to Commissioner Hanks of the DOC but has received no response.

Meanwhile, things for Zebadiah Kellogg-Roe have gotten worse: In an email to NHPR dated Wednesday, Dec. 30, Kellogg-Roe says he tested positive for COVID-19 and is now quarantining with 18 other inmates.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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