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Prisoners in Utah, families despair as COVID-19 spreads in jail



SALTSØBY – Tom Black’s hands were shaking so badly that it took him nine tries to call his daughter’s number from the Utah State Prison last week.

Black, 70 years old and short of breath, called to say he tested positive for COVID-19, a development that his family believes has exacerbated his Parkinson’s disease. Six other inmates who lived in the same wing of about 200 – the oldest in prison and those in poor health – have died after contracting coronavirus.

Black thinks he might be next. When others around him fell ill, he called to discuss his funeral and the money he had saved to cover the cost, his daughter, Katie Black Wood, said.

“He says he̵

7;s just going to die,” Wood said. “He feels he is dying right now. But they have not taken him to the doctor or anything. They just let them get worse where he can not even push numbers on a phone. ”

When the state confirmed that the virus had infiltrated Blacks dormitory, lawyers and family members claimed calls for the release of the most susceptible. While the prison has sent home more than 1,100 early to free up space, the remaining inmates claim a lack of medical care, even for elderly, sick men who have the virus.

Seven men aged 50 to 82 have died after testing positive for COVID-19, with three taking their last breath this week. Dozens more are hospitalized.

Fellow prisoner has reported that a 71-year-old man in the same Oquirrh 5 facility as Black had complained that he could not breathe for about four or five days before being admitted to hospital on 14 November. They claim he struggled to get up and had blue lips and nails, said Sara Wolovick, a lawyer with the ACLU in Utah who has been in contact with those inside the jail. The inmate died Tuesday.

“We have heard disturbing reports of people having severe symptoms for several days,” Wolovick said. “They may have talked to medical technicians, but are not being taken to the hospital, so the symptoms just persist.”

Katie Black Wood and her father, Tom Black, are pictured in a family photo.

Katie Black Wood and her father, Tom Black, are pictured in a family photo.
Katie Black Wood

More than 1,100 inmates – about a quarter of the population at Draper and Gunnison sites – have tested positive for the virus since Friday, according to the Utah Department of Corrections.

The first outbreak attributed to an infected medical worker treating inmates while they were asymptomatic began in late September.

In response to a question about protocol for monitoring and caring for sick inmates, the prison reiterated that the hospitals offer comprehensive medical treatment with medical staff around the clock. It also enters into contracts with external hospitals and clinics for those who need greater care than it can provide.

Prison officials have tried to reassure families by saying they have the right protective equipment and work with state health chiefs to make sure inmates are as safe as possible.

“Our staff is committed to your loved ones,” Jim Hudspeth, Deputy Correctional Director, said in a Thursday release. He urged confidence and patience, saying he recently visited an area where inmates were suffering from the virus, and although the prison lacks staff as many recover from the virus or quarantine, staff dedication and cleaning jobs impressed him.

The prison said it had long had an intensified medical presence in Oquirrh 5, and medical workers check those who have tested positive at least twice a day. It has argued that anyone who informs employees of discomfort will have access to medication and any other necessary treatment.

Calvin Hansen, another inmate who is ill with the virus and earns time for a probation violation, has a fever, severe headache and cough. But he does not want to ask for help.

“I want a truck to run over me,” said Hansen, 30. “I have teeth that have problems and I feel like I was hit in the face. My joints ache and I can not really think straight. I feel like my head is under water. ”

However, he has not asked for more than Tylenol because he is concerned that officials “isolate me in a one-man cell and just leave me in there where I am being ignored.”

Hansen applied for compassionate release because he has asthma, which can cause serious complications. But after a deputy denied his request, he said the caseworker, speaking on his behalf, refused to continue the case.

Before testing positive last week, he felt he was doing everything he could to protect himself from COVID-19. The prison canceled the programs he normally attends, so he spent most days on his bunk, wearing a thin mask made by other inmates.

Most others in the same dorm – including a couple of men with bunks just 2 feet away – had tested positive in the weeks before he did. And his first test came back negative. But two days after the jail mixed him and 18 other negative inmates into a new section, he learned he had the virus.

He is also concerned about elderly and sick inmates struggling to get the medical care they need.

“They provide little or no medical help. I want them to leave us here to die, ”he said. “I’m afraid. People just wander around like zombies. ”

If the 70-year-old black wants to ask for help, his daughter feels he is unable to communicate. His illness affects not only his hands, but his thinking and memory, so she says he can not fill out a form to request medical attention.

“With COVID, I know he’s really sick. He’s probably not coming, ”Wood said. “He’s been gone since I was 19. So I’ve gotten used to this a little bit, but it was not the way I wanted it to end because my whole career helped them get out of jail. It’s just hard to know he wants to be gone and I can ‘t do anything. ”

Her father has maintained his innocence, which she believes has kept him in jail longer than if he had pleaded guilty. A jury in 2003 found him guilty of eight counts of child sexual abuse, a first-degree felony, and he was sentenced to at least 25 years and up to life in prison.

Tom Black in 2002
Utah County Sheriff’s Office

Wood has long advocated for the convictions to be overturned after she said her father was wrongly accused. She said her efforts were partially halted as DNA evidence did not participate in the case.

A botanist who ran greenhouses at BYU for 25 years, Black is a faithful Latter-day Saint who has long attended worship services in his own faith and several others in prison, Wood said.

She believes she has exhausted every opportunity to advocate for his release after writing to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole several times since April and being in contact with lawyers. She has also asked the government of Gary Herbert and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for help in speeding up the process.

Wood notes that her father needs knee surgery and requires a walker to move around and have a long list of other health problems like diabetes. She volunteered to keep him under house arrest with an ankle monitor at her home in Layton and promised to install security cameras and hire a probation service to keep an eye on her while she was at work.

“I beg you not to let my father die this way,” she wrote to the board in an April email she shared with Deseret News.

Wood and her father assisted a social worker who filed a request for compassionate release in August. The board acknowledged his request that month, writing an optimistic black in a letter home. But nearly three months later, the board has not notified them of any determination, Wood said.

Greetings from Katie Black Wood

Wolovick said along with the ACLU that the board has not released dozens identified for compassionate release because they are dying or very ill, including some who cannot complete the treatment because virus precautions have put the programs on the shelf.

“These are individuals whom the DOC itself recommended release,” Wolovick said.

Brett Varoz, consulting consultant at the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, said his agency must weigh an effort circumstances against public safety considerations.

“Again, you have some individuals who have very serious crimes in prison and not all of them will be released based on COVID,” he said.

Prisoners who want to do so have three options.

They can request compassionate release if they have significant health problems or a tragedy occurs in their family even though there are no set requirements and the board reviews applications on a case-by-case basis, Varoz said.

Prisoners within six months of their planned release may also apply for early probation if they prove they have a place to live.

If they do not meet these criteria, they can seek special review from the parole board, a process usually initiated by a person’s attorney, although the odds of success are less likely.

Varoz said he sends several calls and emails a day from family members expressing their frustration and concern.

Wood’s father previously lived in his own cell. But as a precautionary measure earlier in the year, the prison moved each inmate with serious health problems into the dormitory with beds 4 feet apart, she said. Eventually, in October, the virus found its way there, and doctors began to record his father’s temperature and oxygen levels in the blood.

“Because it was such an open floor and there are so many people, it just went like wildfire through them all,” Wood said.

Contribution: Amy Donaldson

Katie Black Wood poses for a photo outside her home in Layton on Tuesday, November 17, 2020. Wood's 70-year-old father, Tom Black, is an inmate in the Utah State Prison and has entered into COVID-19.

Katie Black Wood poses for a photo outside her home in Layton on Tuesday, November 17, 2020. Wood’s 70-year-old father, Tom Black, is an inmate in the Utah State Prison and has entered into COVID-19.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News


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