Grand Forks County jail inmates complain en masse about what they say were inadequate measures during COVID outbreak

Hannah Shirley, Grand Forks Herald
·10 min read

Mar. 6—After nearly half of the inmates in the Grand Forks County Correctional Center tested positive for COVID-19 during a November outbreak, it didn't take long for pleas for help to begin rolling out.

Lucas Wynne, a Fargo-based attorney, said that after the outbreak, his office fielded more than 120 calls from Grand Forks inmates and jail staff. Many of those people have since provided Wynne's office with written testimonials. The allegations, he said, are essentially the same.

"They put me in a unit with COVID-positive people two times," one person wrote. "I've been in jail since July 16, 2019, and no other jail/prison has exposed me to the virus until I came here. The (corrections officers) here are very unprofessional."

"No doubt in my mind GFCCC could have done a better job putting the sick with the sick and the healthy with the healthy," another inmate wrote. "I should've never been exposed."

"I had faith they were keeping me safe from it," said another. "I was wrong."

Wynne's office has sent a letter to GFCCC and Grand Forks County requesting a dialogue be opened to address the issues that resulted in the November outbreak. He wants to know how the county and jail staff plan to avoid another outbreak, either in this pandemic or the next.

If the jail and the county don't respond, Wynne said he is prepared to file legal action on behalf of his class of litigants, made up of current and former GFCCC inmates who say they were diagnosed with COVID-19 in connection with the jail outbreak. He doesn't intend to request damages or payment. He just wants change.

"Our goal is to contact the appropriate parties who control the jail and try to bring them to mediate this issue out, and get better access to cleaning supplies, better access to social distancing, and frankly, giving some humanity to the people who are incarcerated or passing through the Grand Forks County jail, even if it's on a long-term or temporary basis," Wynne said.

If a lawsuit is filed, its future could be uncertain. Grand Forks Public Health likely will have begun vaccinating GFCCC inmates by this article's publication. A judge could reason that in a case arguing that the jail failed to protect inmates from COVID-19, a vaccination program in the jail could render the case moot. That could lead to it being tossed out.

But even with COVID-19 vaccines becoming available to inmates, Wynne said there must be accountability, or he worries the next outbreak in the jail will be more devastating.

"To us, this is more a human rights violation than anything," he said.

November outbreak

The jail locked down early in the pandemic in an effort to keep COVID-19 out of the inmate population, which has been shown to be particularly vulnerable to the virus. While there were isolated positive cases of COVID-19 in the jail throughout the spring and summer, the facility was largely successful in avoiding major outbreaks — until Nov. 17, when 85 people tested positive for COVID-19 in the jail. At the peak of the outbreak, 88 people out of 195 were positive for COVID-19 in GFCCC.

There were no deaths during the jail's outbreak; one inmate had to be hospitalized, but was released back to the jail's custody. Throughout the duration of the outbreak, GFCCC Administrator Bret Burkholder said nearly all of the inmates remained asymptomatic. The outbreak more or less ended when the inmates' 10-day isolation order expired around two weeks later.

But inmate testimonials, provided to the Herald by Wynne Law Office and shared with consent of the inmates who wrote them, show that the effects of the outbreak continue to linger, and offer a glimpse into the anxiety, frustration and fear that arose in the Grand Forks County jail in November.

A timeline of COVID-19 and the Grand Forks jail:

May 1: As state stops intake of prisoners, worries grow in ND jails

May 24: As state plans to conduct mass tests in county jails, COVID-19 testing data in those facilities remains unavailable

June 16: With COVID-19 confirmed in the jail, some inmates feel frustrated, left in the dark

Aug. 16: Anxiety grips Grand Forks inmates after cellmate tests positive for COVID-19

Nov. 17: Nearly half the population of Grand Forks County jail tests positive for COVID-19

Feb. 7: Grand Forks jail may get vaccines in a month, but distribution poses challenges

Recurring themes in the testimonials included a perceived lack of cleaning supplies provided to inmates, jail staff who allegedly didn't take safety protocols seriously until the outbreak, and an alleged inability to safely quarantine in the jail.

One man's testimony described how he was transferred from a Minnesota prison after a negative COVID-19 test, only to be placed in a two-week quarantine period at GFCCC with untested people who had been brought in from outside.

Another described a touch-screen tablet that correctional officers used throughout the day. According to the testimony, inmates requiring medicine were required to put fingers in their mouths to prove they swallowed their allocated pills. Then, they signed their names on the tablet without it being disinfected between uses.

Multiple inmates described not being provided sanitizers, disinfectants, soap, clean rags or antibiotics. Some expressed frustration that many correctional officers seemed unconcerned with safety protocols until the outbreak occurred.

"Every other jail I've been to has janitors that the jail pays to clean the units," one person wrote. "All we get for cleaning supplies is watered-down Windex."

"I've asked for Lysol multiple times, since it's FDA-approved to kill COVID," one person wrote. "In my five months, I've gotten them to use Lysol one time, getting a snide comment about it as well."

"They didn't care or check on us," one person wrote. "They mingle many inmates who are tested and who are not tested."

"I was sick, severely sick, for a week before I got tested," one person wrote. "I told jail staff numerous times over three days (Nov. 9-11) that I was not feeling well. They (jail staff) finally took action when another inmate was too sick to get out of bed."

"Today I am feeling better," the same person continued. "But nowhere near pre-COVID."

Burkholder declined to comment for this article, but confirmed that he had received Wynne's letter.

"I have not been provided any details specific to protocols or any inmate statements, and as such have not had the opportunity to consider, qualify or investigate the validity of any such statements," Burkholder told the Herald.

Grand Forks County State's Attorney Haley Wamstad confirmed that the jail sent a response letter asking for more details. Tom Falck, a member of the Grand Forks County Commission, told the Herald that he also reviewed the letter, which requests a meeting with the jail administration in April, but described the allegations in it as vague.

If Wynne and the jail aren't able to resolve the issues among themselves, it would then be brought before the County Commission, but Falck declined to speculate on what he thinks the outcome of those discussions might be.

"I think it's highly likely that they'll resolve the issues themselves," he said.

In previous conversations with the Herald throughout the pandemic, Burkholder has expressed that he understands inmates' frustrations, but said that in many ways, his hands often are tied.

"We are going to do the best we can to keep the virus out of here. It's in no one's interest to have it in here," he said in an interview last summer. "Accusations of us not providing testing and so forth, it would never be because we don't want to provide something. It's going to be the logistics of providing tests at the times that they're needed, to those who need it."

Burkholder has, in the past, openly discussed challenges facing the jail during the pandemic, both to the Herald and to the County Commission. He sounded a warning early in the pandemic that the more people there were in the jail, the more difficult it would be to safely and effectively isolate sick inmates. The local court system quickly adjusted its bond schedule in order to lower the number of people in GFCCC, but the population numbers have crept back up in recent months.

Wynne repeatedly emphasized that he does not see Burkholder or the jail as at fault in the situation, and believes they did the best they could with the resources they had available to them.

"Mr. Burkholder has gone to that County Commission, I frankly don't even know how many times, and asked for additional resources," Wynne said. "And so we would hope that this would be a wake-up call for the County Commission that they can't just keep sitting around. The jail, prior to COVID, was above capacity, and so it was a perfect waiting storm."

Not enough room

Many of the jail's problems during the pandemic stemmed from the fact that it often did not have the space to properly quarantine inmates, Wynne said, and it's clear to him the county is overdue for a larger jail. The county has been considering expanding GFCCC for several years, although Falck told the Herald in December that the project had been pushed to the back burner during the pandemic.

In 2018, an architectural firm completed a needs assessment at the Grand Forks jail. The study highlighted a lack of space for medical care, a lack of single-occupancy cells, and no mental health housing or medical infirmary. It also noted that the jail was overcrowded — it has, at times, had as many as 218 inmates. The building's total capacity is 225, but has a recommended "functional capacity" of 180.

The consultant's recommended expansion to the jail, which would remedy problems highlighted in the needs assessment, would cost an estimated $20 million to $25 million. Commissioners have not made a decision on the proposal, but Falck said he's optimistic commission members can turn their attention back to the project sometime in the next year. He added that the jail is expected to be paid off in 2024, at which point funds could be directed toward a possible expansion.

In a past interview with the Herald, not related to the Wynne letter, Burkholder said there is much to revisit in the consultant's recommendations, especially after experiencing the pandemic.

"The one clear thing I would say about the pandemic that was never considered in this assessment is exactly what this pandemic did in the need for isolated housing," Burkholder said. "If they would have acted on (the assessment) right then and did everything that assessor had said, we would have ended up building an area that had dormitory space, which in a pandemic would have been useless."

He also said he expects the number of infirmary beds recommended for the jail will be reevaluated.

"The whole game plan is going to change drastically," he said.

But Wynne hopes that by entering into discussions with the jail and the county, some of the issues inmates and jail staff have shed light on can be addressed sooner rather than later — particularly the lack of cleaning supplies, inmate movement within the jail and correctional officers' treatment of incarcerated people.

"Again, we're not trying to make this into a financial thing, we're not asking any court for any monetary relief," Wynne said. "Our hope is that it will light a fire under the administration, and it will light a fire under the county to take a look at that jail and realize that something really truly needs to be done. Many of these people, these are not bad people. I guarantee you if you walk out in Grand Forks, you're walking past multiple people each day that have been in that jail at one point in their lifetime. ... It's just unacceptable, and frankly the taxpayer should want more for their money."