Holy Cross asserted there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases among its Westville students. But loved ones of inmates say otherwise
Kelli Smith | Tuesday, May 5, 2020
When Westville Correctional Facility underwent a lockdown March 18, Richard Burdine was three months from graduation.
His mom, Tasha Lynn Smith, was used to counting down the days until her son’s shortened release date. Her anticipation is what motivated him to apply for and enroll in Purposeful Living Units Served (PLUS), a faith-based prison program that earns participants a time cut off their sentence after graduation.
But Burdine’s plans were ruined in early April after he began coughing up blood and struggling to breathe.
Burdine is one of many inmates at Westville who has symptoms of COVID-19. With 157 confirmed cases and three inmate deaths as of Monday, Westville accounts for nearly half of all confirmed COVID-19 infections in the 21 facilities under the Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC).
In Indiana, completion of a program in prison earns inmates a time credit. One such program is the Moreau College Initiative (MCI), which allows select inmates to take courses taught mostly by faculty members from Holy Cross and Notre Dame. For programs like PLUS or MCI, COVID-19 has left graduation and release plans up in the air, leaving family members distraught.
Burdine’s case is no exception. After Burdine began showing symptoms of COVID-19, Smith frantically called a chaplain, who spoke to the director of nursing to get Burdine out of his job in hospice. But instead of being treated, as Smith had hoped, Burdine was moved to the kitchen to work on a food program.
“He felt that his health was so bad and the safety of other inmates was at risk that he did not feel safe cooking for others and spreading germs to them,” Smith said. “So he refused.”
The refusal came with a price. A few days later, Smith says Burdine was kicked out of PLUS.
The action is representative of a greater situation occurring at Westville in the era of COVID-19: Inmates who catch the virus are at risk of being moved out of programs they are enrolled in and potentially prevented from graduating.
As of Monday, the College does not have confirmation of any COVID-19 cases within MCI, Holy Cross provost Justin Watson said.
“I think, under the circumstances — as we understand it, things are going relatively well,” he said on Friday about the MCI students.
But family members and friends of inmates state otherwise.
One MCI parent, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution to her son in Westville, said the dorm has been overrun by COVID-19. Over the last few days, her son has been experiencing body aches, tight chest, loss of taste and smell and fatigue.
But instead of speaking out about not being tested by the IDOC, her son and other MCI students are turning to each other for help in fear of being kicked out of the program.
“The reports I’ve gotten [from] other guys that have been moved is that it’s not a good thing,” the MCI parent said. “You are just left alone and that’s it. The guys would rather stay together and help each other than leave it in the hands of Westville.”
A former Westville correctional officer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation against her husband who is an employee at the prison, confirmed students in the MCI dorm are sick. She asserted Westville often chooses not to test inmates to maintain low numbers, and most of the medical request forms are being ignored since so many people are sick.
“They’re not even giving them Tylenol or doing temp-checks unless they’re actively dying,” she said.
Those in the prison programs who neglect to do what they’re told because they’re feeling sick and unable to maintain a certain level of work are removed from their respective programs without hesitation, she added.
“To [the IDOC] it’s a privilege to be a part of these programs,” she said. “And if you don’t feel good, you’re choosing not to go — you’re choosing not to have that privilege of going.”
When asked about these allegations, Watson said Holy Cross has heard from some MCI students that they aren’t feeling well, but his understanding is that none of the cases were confirmed by the IDOC.
“We were aware that several students were not feeling well,” he said. “But what that means, we don’t know.”
Watson said the health situation at Westville is out of Holy Cross’ control. Instead, he believes the College’s responsibility is to follow through on its promises to keep the program going so students can earn their degree.
“Really our students are in two worlds, right? So we run a college. What we focus on is the academic part,” Watson said. “… We hope this will either pass over our students or at least be mitigated. … This is not like at Holy Cross or Notre Dame where we’re also responsible for the living arrangements, the dorms, the health arrangements and those kinds of things. MCI, we deliver an education program. And that’s what we’re focused on.”
Watson said he has “absolutely no knowledge” regarding the allegation that the IDOC is purposely not testing inmates for COVID-19. Furthermore, if the IDOC removes a student from the MCI, he believes it is not Holy Cross’ place to interfere.
“There could be a student who’s in good standing with us at Holy Cross, and yet, they can violate an IDOC rule,” Watson said. “There is nothing we can do about that. And we wouldn’t presume to do anything about it.”
In response to a request for comment on the allegations, the State of Indiana Joint Information Center, where the IDOC directs all questions related to the pandemic, stated in an email that the IDOC is following CDC guidelines.
“The Indiana Dept. of Correction has and will continue to test staff and offenders in accordance with CDC guidelines,” the email said.
In an earlier joint statement, the Information Center also said that “no offenders enrolled in [MCI] have been negatively affected due to the pandemic” since the semester has continued through the transfer of materials onto GTL Tablets, devices designed for use in correctional facilities.
“The IDOC is working with our education partners to keep offenders on track to graduate as planned to minimize an adverse impact on educational credit time,” the statement read.
But adjustments have been no less substantial for the College and its students, as circumstances inside and outside the prison change on a daily basis.
Along with the inmate count, 51 Westville staff members have tested positive for the virus, leading to Indiana’s deployment of the National Guard for extra assistance at the prison. The facility’s outbreak incentivized dozens of protesters to flock outside the compound April 28, decrying inadequate medical and sanitary care for inmates.
The IDOC has denied the allegations, despite family members of inmates speaking to the contrary.
“The safety of our staff, offenders and the community is our top priority,” David Leonard, an IDOC public information officer, said in a press release April 27. “We are in this together, and we will get through this.”
Holy Cross receives information about its Westville students daily through public updates and direct communication with the IDOC, Watson said. Administrators correspond with students through a secure email system.
“Is it challenging? Yes. Is it working? Yes,” Watson said. “… The goal right now is just to finish out the semester just as it is on the home campuses. None of us planned for this, but we’re making it work.”
On Friday, Holy Cross announced its intentions to reopen Aug. 17 for the fall semester. But as of now, it is unclear what the future holds for students at Westville, who primarily fall under the IDOC.
“Our goal will be to reopen that campus face-to-face as soon as that is prudently possible to do so,” Watson said. “Again, I want to emphasize that word: prudently.”
Angela Grable — the organizer of the April 28 Westville protest who spoke with an inmate to learn about conditions there — described varying levels of care in the prison depending on an inmate’s location.
“Those students [in the MCI] don’t have it as rough as the rest of the population,” Grable said.
Even so, the learning environment has changed considerably. Before the pandemic, tri-campus faculty members delivered materials or photocopies of readings directly to the students in their classes. All courses were primarily taught in person at the prison.
In the world of COVID-19, however, inmates are prohibited from seeing visitors. There is no remote server through which MCI students can access online material.
The new normal involves faculty members meeting prison officials at Westville’s gate three times a week to deliver or pick up DVDs of pre-recorded lectures, reading materials, exams, quizzes and other educational materials.
“The prison authorities have done everything they can to keep the students learning,” said Justin McDevitt, who teaches a senior capstone and a career internship class at the prison. “Without them, we literally couldn’t do it.”
But for parents of students, barriers to learning inside Westville seem to primarily come from the prison itself, and it’s only harder for those who are sick. Typically, simple requests for items like paper and writing materials for the students’ schoolwork are ignored, said Patti Zipfel, whose son is in MCI.
“The guys at Westville are trying their hardest with what little Westville will let them work with,” Zipfel said. “… If the guys need some information from a teacher, it’s like pulling teeth to get that. Westville seems to consider the school an inconvenience more than a help for these guys.”
The students have come far and are close to graduation, which families and faculty both said makes the adjustment particularly difficult.
“For some, delaying graduation means they voluntarily stay in longer than they need to in order to graduate,” McDevitt said. “It’s incredibly powerful.”
Though the College plans to work with students on graduation, the loss of milestone moments — such as the annual commencement ceremony — will be felt by the inmates and their families. The length of the semester has been extended to give students extra time on assignments since they don’t have the resources to complete them, Watson noted.
“This means a lot to them — getting an education means an enormous amount,” Watson said. “That’s why things like commencement mean so much to them and being on a dean’s list. So, yeah, it’s challenging. Just like on our home campuses, right? We’re trying to do the best we can and try to make things as normal as we can.”
The College feels confident in the IDOC’s ability to handle an outbreak. Even so, the students are very concerned, Watson said.
“They’re dealing with it I think as well as could be expected under the circumstances,” Watson said. “They’re focusing on their studies. They’re adapting to this very challenging situation, but they’re getting it done.”
This report was updated May 5 at 12:48 p.m. to include the Joint Information Center’s response.