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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Did COVID-19 Start at the Talladega Federal Prison Camp?

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on April 26, 2020

In December 2019, about 10 inmates contracted a mysterious viral disease of unknown origin at the Talladega Federal Prison Camp. All of these inmates exhibited symptoms like non-productive coughing, fevers of 101 to 104, shortness of breath, diarrhea, and nausea. After weeks of listening to these inmates coughing, fellow inmates complained to Health Services about a contagious outbreak of a flu-like disease in their dorms. Health Services took the temperatures of the infected inmates and eventually removed them from T-Dorm and V-Dorm. They were quarantined in Y-Dorm for two weeks.

The Health Services Unit at the Camp monitored the inmates's temperatures daily and assumed that they were victims of an identified strain of the flu. According to the affected inmates, they were treated with Promethazine for nausea and/or prescription strength Tylenol III for pain. They were ordered to rest all day, each day. All of these inmates returned to their respective dorms at the end of the quarantine period.

Mack Smith (Reg. No. 59923-019) was one of the infected inmates who resided in T-Dorm. Smith, a 69-year-old white male, had underlying health conditions when the flu-like virus broke out. Even though Smith never fully recovered from the outbreak, he was placed back into T-Dorm in January. His non-productive coughing continued unabated for the next three months. Prior to the outbreak, Mack Smith had applied to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for a compassionate release due to his rapidly deteriorating health condition. His request was denied. Smith, a non-violent, first-time white-collar offender, also applied for a transfer to home confinement, which was pending at the time of his death.

Mack Smith's condition worsened in March. In early April, Smith's co-morbidities required hospitalization. On Friday, April 24, 2020, the Camp's staff cleared out Mack Smith's locker in T-Dorm. Fellow inmates later learned that Smith had died early Friday morning. On Saturday, the men in T-Dorm held a moment of silent prayer for his soul.

The Camp's Protocol for Contagious Diseases

According to inside reports, Health Services did not collect viral cultures from the noses and mouths of the inmates who were infected in December with the unknown virus. Likewise, there is no indication that Health Services sent any information about the outbreak of the unidentified flu-like virus to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as a public health advisory or alert, even though the medical staff at the Camp never identified this particular strain of the novel virus causing the inmates' flu-like symptoms. None of the infected inmates was given the standard COVID analytical test to determine what kind of virus caused their respiratory illness. Additionally, none of the inmates was evaluated or treated by a board-certified pulmonary doctor who specializes in respiratory illnesses affecting the lungs.

It is not known whether the medical records of the infected inmates were reviewed by a board-certified epidemiologist. Also, there is no known evidence that Camp administrators or Health Services staff made any effort to trace the contacts that these infected inmates had with staff members and/or visitors leading up to the December outbreak.

After the infected inmates came out of quarantine, some of them were placed into the BOP's transit system for transfers to other prisons within the nationwide system. Some of the recipient prisons are now hotspots for the COVID-19 virus.

As of Friday, 24 federal prisoners have died from the novel coronavirus. The number of confirmed cases for the coronavirus stands at 730 for federal inmates and 317 for staff members. Included in the number of staff members are 5 correctional officials at the Talladega correctional facilities.

It remains to be seen whether Mack Smith's death was related, in any way, to complications from the coronavirus. A forensic medical investigation, including an independent autopsy, is needed to answer this important question with confidence.

BOP Healthcare Protocols Raise Critical Questions

Did the Talladega Prison Camp outbreak in December involve the first strain of the "novel coronavirus" in America? Was the outbreak ignored by BOP central office officials because it occurred inside a federal prison facility? Was this virus transported from the Talladega Prison Camp to other BOP prisons? If so, did the asymptomatic inmates in transit infect other inmates and staff members within the BOP system? Did the Talladega Prison Camp take all of the reasonable and necessary steps to detect, isolate, and limit the spread of the unidentified novel virus in December?

The CDC and Congress need to thoroughly investigate the BOP's handling of this matter. The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus stands at 52,400, as of Saturday. The number of confirmed cases stands at 927,000. At some point, CDC epidemiologists will have to determine whether the contamination at the Talladega Camp in December caused or contributed to the deadly coronavirus outbreak in the United States.

In recent weeks, several inmates have exhibited incessant non-productive coughing. Yet, the Camp's Clinical Director has repeatedly denied written inmate requests to test them specifically for COVID-19. Some of these requests have come from inmates who fall squarely within the CDC's highest at-risk group for contracting COVID-19. Without administering the CDC's standard analytical test for COVID-19, Camp administrators boldly and repeatedly claimed that no inmate in the Camp is infected with the coronavirus.

Last month, President Donald J. Trump publicly declared that any U.S. citizen who wants the COVID-19 test can get one for free. Inmates who have requested the test after Mack Smith's hospitalization earlier this month have been told that they must show symptoms of the virus before testing is administered to them. This BOP testing protocol is particularly troublesome in light of the CDC's April 21, 2020 report of an asymptomatic carrier rate of 30% among the tested general population.

Late Friday, Dr. W. Mark Holbrook, MD, the Camp's Clinical Director, said, "We will continue to follow BOP guidelines regarding testing." The BOP guidelines are far below the CDC's guidelines announced for COVID-19 testing and the generally accepted standard of medical care for detecting, isolating, and limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

The Alabama Department of Health Standards of Care

Dr. Holbrook, a licensed Family Medicine physician, also stated that the Camp's Health Services Unit was following the "current recommendations from the State of Alabama Health Department [on COVID-19 testing]." It is universally recognized that Alabama's standards of healthcare for patients who are wholly dependent upon government-sponsored medical services is one of the lowest standards in the civilized world.

What is worse, Alabama is the only state whose Health Department officially sanctioned secret medical experimentation on unsuspecting human beings during the 40-year "Tuskegee Syphilis Study." The Department's unethical medical experimentation ended in 1972 only after it was exposed by national media organizations. Additionally, in the early 1970s, Montgomery-based U.S. District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson issued court orders to end an Alabama Health Department-sanctioned program that forcibly sterilized poor women in the state's prisons and mental hospitals.

Finally, five years ago, national media attention led to the defeat of a bill sponsored by State Rep. Steve Hurst (R-Talladega) that would have required the physical castration of select male inmates in the Alabama prison system. The Federal Prison Camp in Talladega, Alabama is located in Rep. Hurst's House District. The facility draws most of its professional consultants and employee workforce from the Talladega and Birmingham metro-areas.

PHOTO: Federal Prison Camp in Talladega, Alabama

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