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'I'm going to die': What it's like inside a federal prison where 70% have coronavirus

Inmates' families fear their loved ones are forgotten in Seagoville prison, which tops the nation in COVID-19 cases

Mary Bodley lives just 25 miles from her son.

But her firstborn might as well be a world away.

Her son, Marcus Pierson, recently sent her his will. He fears he won’t be alive much longer.

Pierson, a severe asthmatic since childhood, is one of more than 1,200 prisoners at the federal prison in Seagoville to test positive for COVID-19 – currently more than any other federal facility in the nation.

As of this week, about 70% of Seagoville’s 1,760 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19.

Credit: WFAA
Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution

“I understand that they’re criminals, but they’re still human beings,” said Bodley, a Duncanville resident. “He’s not trying to get out of prison. He’s just trying to stay alive.”

Three federal inmates housed at Seagoville have died, including 78-year-old Jacky Pace, who had served more than three decades on a drug trafficking sentence.

Pace tested positive for COVID-19 July 8, according to prison officials. He was transported to the hospital the next day, where he stayed until July 14. He was again hospitalized July 20. He died Saturday.

Besides Seagoville, another North Texas prison ranks second in the nation for cases.

The Carswell Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, which houses female inmates, had 531 active inmate cases as of Tuesday.

Another federal medical center, also located in Fort Worth and housing male inmates, has the second-highest number of deaths with 12, according to the Bureau of Prisons' website. Almost 600 inmates at the unit have recovered from the illness, the website shows.

“The only people coming from the outside were the guards and the nurses and the doctor and the warden,” Bodley told WFAA. “You know, those are the people that brought that into the prison.”

Phone call from prison

In a phone call from prison, Pierson told WFAA that the virus spread through his building after a guard came to work sick. He believes the disease spread rapidly because “the guards weren’t wearing masks and they were just mixing people together.”

Credit: Courtesy
Marcus Pierson

Because of his asthma, COVID-19 could easily be a death sentence. So he was terrified when he fell ill about a month ago.

“I had diarrhea for five days, coughing, lungs hurting,” he said. “My kidneys hurt. I went three days with a 101 temperature."

Pierson says hundreds of inmates are now ill.

“There’s a lot of coughing going on,” said Pierson, who has about a decade remaining on his sentence. “Their cure for everything is to give everybody a Tylenol.”

Emery Nelson, a prison spokesman, said any inmate with COVID-19 symptoms will be tested and placed in isolation. He also said that anyone entering the facility must have their temperature checked and that anyone with an elevated temperature is denied entry.

“As much as possible, staff are being assigned to the same posts and not rotating, as an additional measure to mitigate the spread of the virus,” Nelson said in the statement.

Two months ago, federal prison officials appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and told lawmakers they were getting the virus under control.

Credit: WFAA
Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal

“We are beginning to flatten the curve,” Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal testified. He also said his agency had a “robust pandemic plan in place.”

But in the two months since that hearing, the number of cases has exploded in the nation’s federal prisons. Of 129,000 federal inmates, more than 10,000 have tested positive for COVID-19. One staff member has died, as well as 101 inmates.

In March, Congress gave prison officials the authority to transfer any federal inmate to home confinement. A week later, Attorney General William Barr urged the Bureau of Prisons to “maximize” the use of that option. Barr's memo directed the BOP to “immediately review all inmates who have COVID-19 risk factors” and assess them for potential placement in home confinement.

‘Deliberate indifference’

In Connecticut, a lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates housed at a minimum-security federal prison in Danbury alleged that they were being kept in dangerous conditions that violated their constitutional rights. The prisoners contended that authorities had failed to transfer medically vulnerable prisoners to home conferment and otherwise properly isolate prisoners with symptoms of the illness.

U.S. District Judge Michael Shea ordered prison officials to identify medically vulnerable inmates and move quickly to transfer those prisoners to home confinement or compassionate release. The judge wrote that prison officials at Danbury were “making only limited use of their home confinement authority, as well as other tools at their disposal to protect inmates during the outbreak.

“[T]hese failures amount to deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to inmates in violation of the Eighth Amendment,” the judge wrote.

‘I’m going to die’

Kallee Howell’s dad is also at Seagoville.

The 66-year-old is serving time on a drug conviction.

“He warned me, he was like, ‘I have to do something. If I don't, I'm going to catch it and I'm going to die,’” Howell said.

Credit: Courtesy
Kallee Howell and her dad James Howell

Her father, James Howell, has diabetes, heart disease and respiratory problems.

She said her father sought to get transferred to home confinement, but was denied.

The prison system says it’s releasing prisoners to home confinement who have served a certain portion of their sentence.

But Howell did not meet the standard.

During that recent Senate hearing, prison officials were questioned about other higher profile inmates that also haven’t met the standard, but got home confinement anyway.

Carvajal told senators that he could not speak to “any individual case,” but he added that “based on our criteria we individually assess every one of these cases.”

“I don’t get involved in individual cases,” he said.

More than 7,000 inmates have been approved for home confinement, according to the BOP’s website. A prison spokesman said inmates do not have to apply for home confinement.

Dwaine Caraway

Former Dallas city councilmember Dwaine Caraway, 68, is also seeking to be transferred to home confinement.

Credit: WFAA
Dwaine Caraway after he was sentenced on April 5, 2019.

Caraway has been serving a 56-month sentence for public corruption since April 2018. He admitted to pocketing $450,000 in bribes between 2011 and 2017. His release date is 2023.

He is currently at a federal prison in Big Spring, about 40 miles east of Midland. Six staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 there, but no inmates, according to the BOP website.

“Mr. Caraway is clearly a ‘high risk’ prisoner because of his age [and] medical conditions that he suffers from,” his lawyers wrote in a motion to a federal judge.

But for every high-profile prisoner, there are prisoners like Howell’s dad, who has just over six years to serve before his release date.

‘He just told me he loved me’

On July 6, Howell’s dad sent her a message that he had tested positive for COVID-19.

She later learned that from prison officials that her dad had been in the hospital for six days.

“I was livid,” said Howell, who lives in Rowlett. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I said, ‘Y'all waited a whole week.’”

She said prison officials told her he was being put on a ventilator. She was allowed to speak to him via a FaceTime call.

“He would have to stop every few minutes and catch his breath,” she said. “He just told me he loved me. And my dad's a very strong-willed man. And I've never seen him cry before.”

Howell told WFAA she’s been calling every day to the prison trying to get information about her father.

She says no one from the prison will give her additional information on her dad’s condition, citing medical privacy.

“I don't know if my dad's alive,” she said. “I don't know if my dad's dead...I get he did wrong things and I get he has to serve this time. I 100 percent agree with that. I said, 'But the families did nothing. I myself did nothing.'”

Bodley said the warden denied her son’s request for home confinement. He now plans to file a motion asking a federal judge to intervene.

“I never denied what I did wrong,” he told WFAA on a phone call. “But I’m still a human being. At least give me the medical help that I need. My asthma, I didn’t just make up.”

Like Howell, Bodley knows that her son has to serve his time.

Credit: WFAA
Mary Bodley, mother of Marcus Pierson

But the women want people to remember that neither of their loved ones was given a death sentence.

“Nobody says, ‘Oh, when I grow up, I want to be a criminal,’” Bodley said. “Things happen in life.”

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