Prisoners unable to follow safety measures amid pandemic, inmate says

An inmate at North Central Regional Jail in Doddridge County recently said she and others in the facility are unable to follow safety protocols recommended by health experts and state officials, are not receiving proper hygiene products and cleaning supplies and have not been tested for COVID-19.

“The correctional officers are all wearing masks, and they did come hand out bars of soap for all of us, but still, there is just no way to have social distancing inside the walls of prisons or jails,” inmate and activist Crystal Saltsman said. “Because of the confinement, we are too close to each other. There is no way for six feet of social distancing at any time.”

Saltsman called in for about fifteen minutes Monday, the amount of time allotted to inmates for individual calls, during a virtual town hall with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stephen Smith.

“If we are going to have a state that works for everybody, it means we don’t get to pick and choose who ‘everybody’ means,” Smith said. “We’ve been incredibly proud to have on this program pastors, faith leaders, nurses, frontline workers, union members, teachers, principals, young people, senior citizens, people pitching in to create their own masks or to run for office, and, in this movement, we also welcome people who are incarcerated—people who are doing the best they can to make right a harm they may have done or who are simply caught up in a system that is designed to catch people up for being sick or being poor.”

Saltsman continued to say that lunch tables in the facility are not six feet apart and are less than six feet long themselves, meaning social distancing is impossible. She said four people generally sit at each table.

Saltsman said the inmates are forced to stand in crowded lines several times a day for various reasons, including to receive meals and necessary medications.

“We have to line up for chow three times a day,” she said. “We line up two feet apart. If you step out of line, some of the officers threaten to take away your medicine.”

Saltsman said inmates also lack adequate access to cleaning supplies and other resources necessary to keep themselves safe.

“They don’t really give us cleaning supplies either,” she said. “We get them one time a day, but most of the time they’re dirty when they give them back. I think we need to get cleaning supplies at least three times a day to clean after every meal. On Sunday, they didn’t bring us any cleaning supplies at all. It gets dirty in here, (and) they didn’t bring us anything to clean with.”

She said female inmates often also lack access to necessary feminine hygiene products.

“There is a lack of proper hygiene for females,” Saltsman said. “I hear the men are provided hygiene properly, but we have to argue to get issued toilet paper and for feminine products such as pads. Some of these women don’t have anyone on the outside to send money in to get shampoo, soap and toothpaste and things. And they only give us these twice a week. They only give women three pads at a time. We need more than that.”

Saltsman said no one in her section of the facility has been tested for COVID-19.

“As far as we know, I don’t think they’re actually testing anyone in this facility,” she said. “Within our section, they haven’t tested any of us. They do come in about once a week to check our temperatures, but that’s about it.”

Saltsman said the coronavirus pandemic has only worsened the difficult conditions and circumstances inmates and their families are forced to deal with on a daily basis. She said inmates must pay $2.50 per phone call and calls are allowed on 15-minute intervals. She said she tries to speak with her children over the phone every day, but doing so is expensive.

“It’s been pretty tough for my kids,” she said. “Their dad passed away in 2015. The guy I’m with now is trying to step up to the plate and play the dad role, but they still want their mom. And I’m stuck in here on a parole violation. I take full accountability for my actions—it’s my fault. But my kids are having it pretty hard. I talk to them every day, but it is expensive.”

As her 15-minute interval for the phone call ended, Saltsman left listeners with a bit of hope and optimism to consider moving forward.

“There is always a positive in every negative,” she said. “You just have to find it. There is beauty in every bad thing if you look for it.”

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected]