At the start of December of last year, there were no known cases of COVID-19 among the men incarcerated at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin. By Christmas, there were 84. The state Department of Corrections says it can’t pinpoint how the virus got in. But now, a group of more than 40 inmates have signed a petition blaming the state Department of Corrections.
Thirty-eight year old Anthony Lantas was imprisoned at the Men’s Prison in Concord last year on a parole violation. In early December, as he was getting ready to transfer to the state prison in Berlin, he says he started feeling symptoms of COVID-19.
“It was my smell that went first. I couldn’t smell anything.”
At the time, he was living in quarantine, as required by the CDC before transfers take place, in a part of the prison known as Reception & Diagnostic, or R&D. There he was kept in a cell separated from the common space only by bars, which meant he was breathing air shared by inmates in other cells. And they were breathing his. He also mingled with the other men during meals. Then it was time to move to the state prison in Berlin.
“The day I was being transported, they lined us up with a nurse, with a temperature-gauger. And they said, ‘You aren’t feeling all right?’ I said, “I really can’t smell anything and I feel like I got a cold.’ He took my temperature and said, ‘You’re good to travel.’”
Once in Berlin, he says the DOC put all 15 transferees into the general population—in this case, in “Delta Block,” with about 70 men, housed in most cases two per cell with a common space. They all mingled together, new arrivals and men already there.
“No quarantine whatsoever," Lantas says. "The same day we arrived is the same day we got into the block and that was on a Tuesday and by Friday the whole unit was sick.”
By December 16th, the DOC says there were 35 cases of COVID-19. By the 19th, there were 55, including Anthony Lantas, who says he never should have gotten on that van to Berlin.
"Neither should anybody else," Lantas says. "There should have been no transports period until everything figured out Because we told them we weren’t feeling well, and they took our temperature and said, 'You’re OK.'"
I spoke to seven of the 15 men who were moved up north. Most reported having two negative COVID tests before moving to Berlin, though not always on the day of the transfer.
The infection rate in the New Hampshire prison system is more than double what it is outside of prison walls—but still better than in most other states. That’s according to a recent analysis by the New York Times.
The federal Centers for Disease Control says prisons should limit transfers unless absolutely necessary, to avoid spreading the virus. The CDC doesn’t require testing before transfers, but urges state agencies to “consider” it.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Helen Hanks says the DOC looked for alternatives to the transfer, but in the end they had no choice.
“We, during the time, had maximized our quarantine space and other spaces and had to, because of stressors on the bed space at the Men’s prison in Concord, transfer those 15 people.”
Hanks says the DOC’s internal investigation found each man was interviewed and had their temperatures taken before the transfer
“The risk still continues to be low that the transfer was the cause of the outbreak at NCF,” Hanks said.
And she says the R&D unit in Concord is appropriate for quarantine.
"Yes, people were going to be breathing in the same area of one another," she says. "That would be true for any household, all of our schools, and things of that nature."
And while the CDC recommends quarantining COVID-positive inmates in single cells, Hanks says these inmates weren’t confirmed positive. Nor did they need to complete a two-week “intake quarantine” when they arrived in Berlin, because she says they weren’t considered new intakes.” They were already in DOC custody.
BIELLO: “Why not do it though, out of abundance of caution?”
HANKS: “You’re asking why not adjust our standards beyond what the CDC and public health has proposed?”
HANKS: “Well, I think it’s something we can discuss at this point, but we have certainly been following the national standards of guidance.”
Juan Santos was one of the fifteen men transferred from Concord to Berlin in early December. He says the DOC should have treated him and the others like “new intakes” because they were new to the facility. And he says everyone should have been tested on the day of their transfer, just to be on the safe side. Especially because COVID was spreading in the Concord facility.
“So now you’re going to take people out of a facility that’s having a major outbreak down there and bring them to a whole new facility without tests? Now, come on really. What sense does that make? These are people’s lives. We’re actually human beings. Just because we’re an inmate doesn’t mean that we don’t matter."
Santos was one of those who came down with COVID days after the transfer. He’s mostly recovered, but months later described his sense of smell as “questionable.”
COVID-19 spread to DOC staff as well. The DOC reports that nine of its Berlin employees filed claims for having caught COVID-19 on the job last December. Of those, six were approved. The DOC says none of these employees caught COVID-19 outside the prison.
However the virus got in, it spread beyond Delta block. 57-year-old Angelo Hernandez, also incarcerated in Berlin, died of COVID-19 on January 8th. He’s one of three men under DOC care to die of COVID since the pandemic began. His daughter declined to comment for this story.