Conditions inside York County Prison likely contributed to COVID outbreak, inmate says

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Alexander Santiago found himself in the middle of York County Prison's COVID outbreak last week after he missed a court date regarding a DUI charge.

Based on the conditions there, he said, surging COVID-19 cases were no surprise. As of Thursday, prison officials reported that the outbreak appeared to be waning — down from 140 to 100 — but that still meant at least 1 in 10 inmates were sick.

"I was negative and they put me in a 'pod' where there were positive people. No one wears masks in the pod and neither do the [corrections officers]," Santiago told The York Dispatch. "Some do wear their masks properly but a majority don't."

York County Prison in Springettsbury Township Monday, August, 24, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

Santiago said he had overheard correctional officers saying that some of them feel sick but refuse to get tested.

"There are no antibacterial soaps or hand sanitizer available for inmates which I understand the sanitizer due to alcoholics," he said. "But [why not] antibacterial soap?"

Santiago, who has an immunodeficiency disorder and spent four days in prison between Nov. 20 and Nov. 23, said things were so disorganized that he missed a dose of his medication.

"I thank God that I'm healthy right now and do not have it," he said.

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The conditions Santiago described contradict Warden Adam Ogle's statements about what the prison is doing to contain the outbreak. The prison officially locked down on Nov. 24.

"It is important to note that all staff and inmates are required to wear masks, and have been throughout the entire pandemic," Ogle said Wednesday, in a written statement. "Due to the current number of COVID cases, we have mandated that all staff wear a [N95 respirator] mask."

READ MORE: COVID-19 outbreak sends York County Prison into lockdown

When asked about Santiago's comments, Ogle did not respond. Neither did officials at the Teamsters Local 776 labor union, which represents York County Prison officers, maintenance and counselors.

With a current inmate population of 976 at the prison, Thursday's COVID-positive figure of 100 means that 1 in 10 inmates have COVID, or 10.2%.

That's a reduction of 20 inmates with COVID since Tuesday and a total reduction of 40 since Monday, which saw 140 inmates testing positive.

READ MORE: One in seven York County Prison inmates had COVID-19: Warden

The prison has been under lockdown since the day before Thanksgiving. On-site visitation has been suspended and only essential travel is permitted for reasons such as medical problems, court-related matters that cannot be conducted in the prison's housing unit and releases.

When asked how many employees had COVID-19, Ogle again said he could not disclose that.

"Staffing levels at any given time are tied to security, which we do not disclose to the public," he said, in an email.

READ MORE: York County Prison, bucking Gov. Wolf, does not mandate COVID vaccine

Although Gov. Tom Wolf had mandated either vaccines or weekly testing in August for state prison employees, that mandate did not extend to county prisons.

At the time of Wolf's order, Ogle said the prison would not mandate the vaccine on advice from its medical provider, PrimeCare. 

However, PrimeCare CEO Tom Weber later said the company wasn't advising Ogle and York County Prison at large. Rather, it was simply stating PrimeCare's policy, and Weber said his company was willing to vaccinate its employees and the county employees if such a mandate was handed down.

Ogle later said he had misinterpreted PrimeCare's policy as advice. 

Newly appointed York County Prison warden Adam Ogle poses with members of the Prison Board of Inspectors. From left: Commissioner Ron Smith, York County Sheriff Rich Keuerleber, Ogle and Board president Doug Hoke.

Ogle did not respond to a request for comment Thursday on the vaccination status of prison staff or whether such a requirement could have prevented the outbreak. Instead, he directed all questions to PrimeCare, which did not respond to a request for comment.

READ MORE: COVID-19 case counts rise in York County alongside increasing demand for hospital beds

York County has seen 71,342 COVID-19 cases and 1,075 deaths since the start of the pandemic. That includes 446 new cases and one new death since Wednesday.

Pennsylvania Prison Society Prison Monitoring Director Noah Barth said the nonprofit, which advocates for humane prison conditions, hasn't heard anything from inmates, though the organization was aware of the outbreak.

In regards to the potential mixing of inmates who had tested positive with others, Barth said they'd spoken with five other county prisons that had been mixing inmates together.

"We're encouraging everyone, both on staff and in the incarcerated population, to wear a mask at all times, observe other COVID mitigation protocols and immediately get vaccinated if they have not already," Barth said.

Matt Enright can be reached via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.