Billy Bingham, a 61-year-old prisoner housed at Albemerle Correctional Institute, passed away August 3, 2020. His family was told that Bingham did not have COVID, but the state medical examiner’s investigation turned up positive testing performed on July 5, and his death certificate listed COVID-19 as the cause of death.
The Vice-NCHN investigation turned up three separate cases of prisoners dying of COVID-19 within the first seven months of the pandemic which were not reported by the NHDOC—Bingham, Luther Wilson, and Daryl Washington. Public health experts are worried about how many more COVID-19 related deaths have gone unreported.
The Marshall Project reported that by the end of 2020, at least one in five prisoners in the United States had tested positive for COVID-19. Policy and treatment plans are based off of data supplied by prison systems. Underreporting total deaths can have a significant effect on prisons systems, state laws, and health care, not to mention the effect it has on the deceaseds’ families and potential to promote conspiracy theories. Moreover, North Carolina is not the only state possibly underreporting, most other states are likely obfuscating the numbers.
“To anyone who has worked in the correctional system, it’s blindingly obvious that prisons and jails both operate with impunity a lot of the time, and prize their opacity,” stated UCLA School of Law professor and COVID Behind Bars Data Project director Aaron Littman. “We have been concerned from the outset that there would be a variety of kinds of underreporting.”
HIPPA rules and state law declare prison medical records confidential and protected from public review. Most states identify a death and its cause in public reporting but leave out pertinent information such as the individual’s name or the prison where the death occurred. Observers believe this gives the prison authorities an opportunity to avoid accountability and insist that the system needs more transparency.
Vice and NCHN submitted a freedom of information request to the NCDOC for every prisoner who had died while in custody in 2020. From there, the news investigators took the prisoner’s full name and date of death to submit a public information request for the death certificate from the register of deeds office of those who had died between February 29 and September 20, 2020 with the medical examiner’s investigation and autopsy reports when available. They then tallied the number of stated COVID related deaths and compared them to the reported total from the NCDOC. Thus, it was determined that these cases were underreported.
Former North Carolina chief medical examiner Deborah Radisch and CDC National Center of Health Statistics, Mortality Statistics Branch chief Robert Anderson both said the three deaths discussed should be reported as COVID caused or COVID related after reviewing the documents. Investigators contacted NCDOC’s chief medical officer, Dr. Les Campbell and asked if the NCDOC was going to update its COVID death tally with this new information. Dr. Campbell said the agency was in discussion with the health department about updating their totals.
Accurate reports are necessary for proper decision-making, and even then those who had never been tested for COVID prior to their deaths or those who were found to be positive, released, and then died a COVID related death are not taken into consideration, skewing decisions which may have a great impact on policy. “This information is important for politicians, judges, sheriffs, and governors—people who have decision-making authority—to know what the true scope of impact of COVID-19 in prisons and jails is,” said Littman. “It helps them weigh decisions about reducing population and protecting medically vulnerable people. There’s a debate going on about who should be prioritized for the vaccine—and the fact that people are dying at a high rate in prison is strong argument in favor of prioritizing them.’’
The federal Bureau of Prisons and Texas are the only two government agencies that release names of prisoners who have died from COVID-19, and Texas only after an independent investigation of the death conducted by the state’s Office of the Inspector General. They investigate all records, examinations, and autopsy reports before deciding if the death is truly COVID related. “For us, it’s a transparency issue,” said Jeremy Desel, of the Texas Department of Ciminal Justice. “Not all elements of HIPPA expire after death, but the name of the offender does.”
University of Texas Law School and attorney Michele Deitch said that transparency helps to hold prison agencies accountable. “Texas has been hard-hit, but they’ve been relatively good at transparency,” she stated. “This is not just a COVID issue. This is an all-data issue—we need more transparency when it comes to the data about what’s going on in prisons and jails, deaths are one pieces of it.”
In response to a request for more independent oversight, Washington has been the first state to create a body to access all prison operations and conditions and report findings on-line. Titled the Office of Corrections Ombuds, this agency is responsible for finding and reporting all areas of potential problems in the Washington Department of Corrections.
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