Montgomery County: Inmates Dispute Jail’s Account of Pandemic Safety Measures

Inmates incarcerated during the pandemic say the Montgomery County Correctional Facility may not deserve the health care compliance award it received in December.

Inmates incarcerated during the pandemic say the Montgomery County Correctional Facility may not deserve the health care compliance award it received in December.

The jail was commended for its efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and keeping their staff and residents safe.

In a transcript of testimony to the Pennsylvania State Senate, Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, the chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, commended the work the jail and Warden Julio Algarin did in order to limit the spread of COVID. 

“Preventing the spread of COVID-19 within congregate settings, especially correctional facilities, continues to be a challenge facing governments at all levels,” Arkoosh said to the Senate. “Montgomery County Correctional Facility has been diligent in its efforts to stop the spread.”

In her testimony, Arkoosh highlighted the steps the jail took to slow the spread, including extensive cleaning, mandating masks in the prison, implementing quarantine units and frequent testing and temperature checks.

But according to inmates incarcerated during the onset of the pandemic, the newly implemented safety measures may not have been followed as precisely as explained by county officials.

Crystal Barber spent time at MCCF from March to October and said, especially during the onset, there was a lot of confusion, little regulation and lack of communication.

“It seemed like they didn’t know if they had any type of policy and then they kept changing everything,” Barber said.

Arkoosh said between April and December four facility wide tests were conducted and temperatures were taken twice daily. 

Dylan Ludy was incarcerated at MCCF for three months starting in August. He said he was tested only once in the first two weeks of his sentence. 

According to Barber, the first nose swab tests weren’t implemented until late May. She said the women received their lab results about a month later and noticed that almost every result listed the women as males and some results were labeled with incorrect birth dates. She said she took this concern to the medical staff who explained it as a typo.

She also said by June or July, temperatures were taken once weekly, or sometimes once every two weeks.

Barber told a story of her friend who believed she had COVID symptoms and was visibly sweating from her fever, but her temperature check read 97.5 degrees. 

“Even the nurses, when they were doing rounds for testing, some of the nurses even said, ‘We have no idea what we’re doing,’” Barber said. “Some of them would stick the thing all the way up your nose and some would just swab the outside, so they weren’t even properly trained.”

Barber said once the first tests were administered the facility distributed masks. She heard corrections staff were given one N95 mask per week. For inmates, cloth masks made by female inmates were distributed.

“Initially, we only wore masks at work and they were cloth masks that the jail sewed up,” Barber said. “It was like breathing through a blanket, it was thick and they held on wrong.”

Again in testimony, Arkoosh said MCCF adhered to cleaning protocols set forth by health officials, including extensive sanitizing and the use of personal protective equipment.

“I still stand by this, that the cleaning supplies they give us in the jail, that does not clean COVID,” Barber said. “It was an ecological type of cleaning supply, it hardly cleans a table.”

Barber also mentioned that cleaning products weren’t always accessible, saying she and the other incarcerated women would have to beg the correctional officers to be given more cleaning supplies.

“Cleaning supplies were available but not easily accessible,” Ludy said. “You had to ask to get them and if the guard didn’t feel like it you wouldn’t get it.”

MCCF also restricted inmates’ movement in efforts to minimize the spread of COVID. Arkoosh said MCCF implemented designated quarantine units and isolation housing. The movement restrictions also called for the closing of gyms, weight rooms, libraries, inmate jobs, and religious services.

Barber said despite the implemented social distancing guidelines, some women were still sitting in pods with 20 women, saying it was impossible to maintain distance. Mask wearing also wasn’t enforced within the cells, just while moving around. 

“It was brought to my attention we were being mixed in with new people every few days, coming in off the streets who could have been exposed,” Ludy said. “They were just sent in with the rest of us without testing.”

Text by Monica Mellon.

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Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.

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