Rey DeJesus has been at Valley Street Jail since February, awaiting a trial for felony charges. He and his wife Krystal DeJesus talk on the phone every day, and a few weeks ago, he called to say people in the jail were getting sick.
Krystal DeJesus, a nursing assistant, gave her husband some advice:
“I said, ‘You know, the COVID is bad; it’s airborne,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘We’re wearing masks out here. You guys have no masks?’ He said, ‘No, they haven’t provided us with no masks at all.’”
DeJesus said her husband finally got a mask in late December, nine months into the pandemic. It was also around the same time that he and most inmates in his unit tested positive for COVID-19.
Now, they’re all quarantined in their cells, with one to two hours a day out to call lawyers or family. DeJesus says her husband is sick, and that despite having asthma, he hasn’t been given his inhaler. DeJesus says it got so bad, he ended up in the hospital a few days ago.
“Every day I’m wondering if he’s going to call me and it’s going to be worse,” she said. “I’m worried I’m going to bury my husband due to something that could have been prevented.”
Across the country, prisons and jails are dealing with outbreaks of COVID-19. And in New Hampshire, the crisis is most acute at the Valley Street jail in Manchester, officially known as the Hillsborough County House of Corrections. Over the past two weeks, 102 inmates there have tested positive for COVID-19. Despite the known risks of COVID-19 in correctional facilities, the jail failed to follow basic health guidance for months.
The jail is currently operating below half capacity, yet inmates with COVID-19 have been isolated in cells on the same units with inmates who tested negative. Until attorneys and the press raised concerns about a potential outbreak in late December, only a handful of inmates had been tested. And it wasn’t until late last month that inmates were permitted to wear masks in common areas.
And until last week, there was no active COVID-19 screening process for staff, in spite of 27 staff testing positive in December.
Read Sarah Gibson's previous reporting on the Valley Street Jail outbreak here.
The jail’s supervisor, Willie Scurry, does not appear to have reached out to public health officials from the city of Manchester or the state health department, nor informed county commissioners of the extent of positive cases among staff
This is not the first time Valley Street Jail has come under scrutiny for poor health conditions. In 2017, the jail’s doctor surrendered his license amidst accusations of substandard care. The jail has also received criticism for its outdated phone system, which makes it difficult for attorneys to communicate directly with their clients unless they meet in person.
Anthony Sculimbrene, a defense attorney with clients at Valley Street, said during the pandemic, reaching inmates via phone has become all the more difficult, forcing attorneys to choose between visiting the jail during an outbreak, or not providing timely counsel.
Sculimbrene said the facility also stands out for what he calls its disregard for CDC guidance on how to handle the pandemic in correctional facilities.
“I have clients in Strafford County, clients in Cheshire County, and clients in Merrimack County, and Valley Street was the only one that was not regularly masking and testing people,” he said.
Sculimbrene said he would not be surprised if the jail gets sued.
“This is a tinderbox in a lightning storm,” he said.
That “tinderbox” is now in the public eye. In the last few weeks, there’s been more media attention, suggestions of a lawsuit, and a series of bail hearings that have forced jail administrators to explain themselves to judges.
At one of these hearings, Scurry seemed unfamiliar with protocol for protecting inmates and staff, even as the virus was spreading in his jail. That included whether contact tracing was happening, whether staff should be assigned to specific units to avoid transmission of the virus across the jail, and how to quarantine people with positive cases.
After the hearing, Judge Charles Temple ordered the inmate, William James, released. He said the jail was exhibiting “deliberate indifference to the health of its inmates.”
But prosecutors say releasing inmates facing serious criminal charges is a public safety risk. People held at Valley Street - including Rey DeJesus - are often there because judges have already deemed them a danger to themselves or the public. Prosecutors say the pandemic doesn’t change that.
Scurry did not respond to specific questions from NHPR in time, but he says the jail is making improvements.
He says he’s working on updating the phone system, so inmates can communicate with their attorneys even when they can’t meet in person. And the jail’s medical staff are monitoring positive cases daily and following the state’s recommendation for testing and quarantining.
Hillsborough County Judge David Anderson recently denied several bail motions, citing these changes.
“It does seem to me at this point Valley Street is working very closely with the state health professionals to move towards a safer model,” Anderson said, “And they've made strides in that regard."
But questions remain about whether Valley Street is equipped to mitigate this outbreak and prevent future ones.
“COVID in the jail is inevitable,” said Sarah Rothman, managing attorney in the Manchester office of the New Hampshire Public Defender. “A positive rate of over 50 percent is absolutely not inevitable. Inaction is the only thing that makes that inevitable.”
At this point, most inmates are in quarantine. That includes Naresh Fuller, who recently tested positive. He said quarantine means three sandwiches a day, shoved through the space in his door; no hot meals; and no laundry to change out of fever-soaked clothes.
“We’ve been in lockdown for 22 hours for the last eight days,” he said last week. “It’s like hell. It’s not even quarantine, it’s like punishment.”
The jail is awaiting new test results for other inmates and staff this week. The state says it expects the number of positives to go up.