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Hundreds Of Prisoners Have Died In U.S. From Coronavirus

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

People living in close quarters, like nursing homes, are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, and that goes for prisoners, too. By one count, at least 25,000 inmates in American prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus, with 373 deaths. Jake Harper with Side Effects Public Media reports from Indiana.

JAKE HARPER, BYLINE: At least 17 Indiana prisoners have died so far during the pandemic. The very first was Scottie Edwards. He was 73 years old, serving time for an attempted murder in 2001. Edwards was at a prison called Westville.

JOSH: He had been sick for about - approximately about a week and a half.

HARPER: An inmate named Josh told his mother in a recorded call that Edwards started showing COVID symptoms in early April. He asked to be identified by his first name because he's afraid of retaliation from prison staff.

JOSH: He went over to medical several times, and they just kept saying, oh, you're fine. They kept sending him back.

HARPER: Two other inmates corroborated the story. They said Edwards was short of breath, dizzy and sweaty. He couldn't even make it to see medical staff on his own. Other prisoners pushed Edwards in a wheelchair. Each time, he was sent back to his dorm.

JOSH: One day, he made it halfway through to the bathroom and almost fell.

HARPER: Josh said two inmates got Edwards to sit on a toilet. An officer called the medical staff.

JOSH: They let him sit over here in the bathroom for about 45 minutes. Then they finally took him out on oxygen. And then next thing we know, five hours later, he died.

HARPER: Those prisoner accounts contradict the official story from the Indiana Department of Correction. Edwards died on Monday, April 13. The next day, the department put out a release. It read, quote, "The offender, a male over the age of 70 who did not have indications of illness, reported experiencing chest pains and trouble breathing on Monday." The Westville inmates emphasize that Edwards didn't wait until that Monday to report his symptoms. He had complained to staff for days.

Dr. Kristen Dauss is the chief medical officer for the Department of Correction. She declined to explain the different accounts of his death.

KRISTEN DAUSS: We do not talk about specific cases and patient clinical status.

HARPER: Advocates have asked Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb to order early release for some inmates, such as the old and sick. Governors in the nearby states of Ohio and Kentucky have ordered such releases, but Holcomb has refused. He says it's up to local judges to decide on a case-by-case basis. In the meantime, Dr. Dauss says Indiana prisons are taking steps to control the spread of the coronavirus.

DAUSS: We move quickly and, in fact, immediately to separate those who are sick from those who are not sick.

HARPER: But according to accounts from numerous inmates, that kind of quick isolation of sick prisoners doesn't always happen. Three inmates at a prison in Plainfield described another COVID death. Lonnell Chaney died April 19. Chaney kept complaining he couldn't breathe, according to a fellow prisoner who later told his girlfriend what happened over the phone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He had constantly been trying to get the shift sergeant to send him to medical. And he sent him back to his bed.

HARPER: Another prisoner recalled that medical staff came to check on Chaney but left him in the dorm, where he later died in his bed. Prisoners say watching other inmates die like that is scary, and they worry it'll keep happening.

Before Scottie Edwards got sick, he shared his anxieties with his sister Gloria Sam.

GLORIA SAM: He said, I am afraid of this virus because we're in here close together. And if it comes out, it's going to spread like wildfire.

HARPER: She says her brother stopped calling in early April, which was unusual. The day after he died, she got a call from prison staff. She thought they were going to say Edwards was sick.

SAM: They said he had passed. I said, passed? What do you mean passed - he died? It's just the - it's one of the most hurtful things I've experienced in my life.

HARPER: That was April 14. If he hadn't died, Edwards would have been released from Westville prison on May 1.

For NPR News, I'm Jake Harper in Indianapolis.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story comes from NPR's partnership with Side Effects Public Media and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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