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'They're scared': Raleigh inmates claim they're denied COVID-19 boosters, tests

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RALEIGH — 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.”

Rouse’s experience in the prison’s minimum-security Canary Unit, which houses inmates on work-release, is corroborated 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.

Multiple inmates 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.

As of Thursday, the N.C. Department of Public Safety 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 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, a spokesman for the prison system. 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 an 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.

“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.

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 tested.

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


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