It started with the Tiger King.
In the early phase of the pandemic, when the coronavirus was tearing through the federal prison system, Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, was locked up in the Grady County Jail, about a 45-minute drive southwest of Oklahoma City.
The star of the Netflix show, convicted in a murder-for-hire case, had been moved to Grady as a pitstop on his way into the federal prison system. When the coronavirus hit the jail, he was moved along with at least eight other Grady prisoners to the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas. Within a week, the medical center recorded its first COVID-19 case, according to Bureau of Prisons testing data. In just over a month, more than 600 prisoners were infected, and 12 eventually died.
There’s no way to know for sure what sparked the outbreak at Fort Worth; it could have easily been brought by staff or another prisoner. Maldonado-Passage’s husband denied that the Tiger King had tested positive for the coronavirus, saying he was merely being quarantined for 14 days as a precaution.
But it wouldn’t be the last time a transfer from Grady County would coincide with a federal prison turning into a COVID hot spot.
Nearly eight months into the pandemic, the Grady County Jail has earned a reputation as a super-spreader, linked to outbreaks at federal institutions across the country. In an internal Bureau of Prisons email sent in August and obtained by VICE News, a senior regional official warns staff, “Should you receive inmates who have been housed in Grady County (OK) Jail, it would be a good idea to assume they are positive for COVID-19.”
The U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement pay Grady County a daily rate of $64 to warehouse up to 330 male and female prisoners for weeks or months at a time, in cramped conditions that serve as a tinderbox for coronavirus.
VICE News and the Marshall Project twice previously identified incidents where infected Grady County prisoners were shipped into federal prisons, and new evidence suggests federal officials are well aware of the problems but either unable or unwilling to put a stop to it. The problem extends beyond Grady across a network of state, local, and private jails throughout the nation, where over 52,000 people are held under contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service and the Department of Justice.
The vast detention network operates under a hodgepodge of coronavirus protocols and limited oversight. The Bureau of Prisons email obtained by VICE News warned staff across the Midwest that the contract jails were rumored to be “transferring inmates with Tylenol or another over the counter type medication to temporarily reduce temperatures of outgoing inmates in an effort to circumvent COVID screening procedures.”
Kevin Lasley, a senior corrections officer at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, said his federal facility recently received five Grady County prisoners — all positive for COVID-19 — who said they’d received Tylenol to pass a temperature check.
Alarmed that the same thing could be happening all over the country, Lasley, who leads the staff union at his jail, raised the issue with the regional leadership of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals, writing in an email: “This hillbilly county jail is jeopardizing our staff all over the agency.”
“Whoever is running that operation down in Oklahoma City, they need to get their shit together.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Lasley told VICE News. “The Marshals need to be held accountable. Whoever is running that operation down in Oklahoma City, they need to get their shit together.”
An official at the Grady County Jail acknowledged receiving an inquiry from VICE News, but the facility’s federal liaison did not comment or respond to subsequent emails and messages.
Lynzey Donahue, a spokesperson for the U.S. Marshals Service, said in a statement to VICE News that “the issue of COVID-19 testing on prisoners has been carefully researched and analyzed by USMS subject matter experts, including medical professionals, to determine the benefits versus the risks, as well as the feasibility of implementing a program in facilities that USMS does not own or operate.”
Donahue said that effective October 5 — the same day the Marshals received an inquiry from VICE News — “all prisoners outbound” from Grady County and two other jails with federal contracts in Nevada and Mississippi “would be tested before they are transported to their designated BOP facilities,” with the tests conducted by local personnel at the “holdover sites.”
“The goal of this testing is to ensure, to the best of USMS’s ability, that prisoners have tested negative before they are transported, thus reducing the chance that COVID-19 is spread by asymptomatic prisoners,” Donahue said.
The rest of the jails in the U.S. Marshals network continue to operate with the agency’s standard pre-transfer screening, which is a temperature check and questions about symptoms and exposure — not a test.
The impact of COVID-19 on both federal prisoners and their jailers has been devastating, with the Marshals reporting 5,450 prisoners infected and 17 dead, plus 153 infections among staff and three “contract employees” dead. The BOP has seen over 15,000 prisoners infected and 125 deaths, along with nearly 2,000 positive cases and at least two worker deaths. A federal prisoner at Grady, 52-year-old William Dean Brame, died from COVID-19 in April.
The latest outbreak traced back to Grady happened at a low-security federal prison for women in Waseca, Minnesota. More than 445 prisoners (over 75% of the women housed at Waseca) became infected after a bus carrying Grady County prisoners arrived in late August. According to a Waseca staff member and prisoner who spoke with VICE News, four women have been hospitalized and dozens remain severely ill inside the prison.
Ryan Burk, a corrections officer at Waseca and the president of the prison’s staff union, said the bus from Grady had 22 women on board, and all but one tested positive for COVID-19. The incoming prisoners were sent to a 14-day quarantine, but the virus still managed to escape. Waseca had recorded fewer than a half dozen cases through early August, and Burk felt the prison had “dodged a bullet” — until the bus from Grady hit.
“Bringing positive inmates into a facility that doesn’t have any infections and watching it erupt … it just blows my mind they did this.”
“Bringing positive inmates into a facility that doesn’t have any infections and watching it erupt — there’s no denying it’s a screw-up,” Burk said. “It just blows my mind they did this.”
The BOP considers 375 women at Waseca “recovered,” but Channing Lacey, a prisoner who tested positive, said many in her housing unit are still wheezing and gasping for air. One woman’s hair was falling out, Lacey said, and another suffered frequent asthma attacks. Lacey described having “the COVID brain” — lingering headaches and fatigue — but said she was doing her best to nurse those around her in worse shape.
“Some of these girls in here that they consider recovered are not recovered,” she said. “Like, they are sick. They can't breathe. Their voice is gone. They're winded. I look at them and I'm telling you, they look like death. It's scary to me.”
Lacey, 33, was featured in the VICE podcast series “Painkiller: America’s Fentanyl Crisis,” and had been in contact from Waseca’s minimum-security satellite camp, where she’s serving 11 years for distributing fentanyl that caused a fatal overdose in an Oregon jail. Things at Waseca were calm, Lacey said, until the Grady prisoners and two other buses arrived. More new prisoners have kept coming even during the outbreak, she said, and the prison’s UNICOR factory has continued operations, with prisoners still at work manufacturing clothing.
“You guys brought this shit into this prison and then you're just gonna, you know ignore it pretty much,” Lacey said, speaking of how prison staff handled the outbreak. “I get it: They don't want to take the shit home to their family. But at the same time, we have families out there too.”
Justin Long, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons, said the outbreak at Waseca has been handled according to agency procedures, with newly arriving prisoners screened by staff in protective gear and isolated for 14 days. Long said the BOP has “no authority to refuse inmates brought to us by the U.S. Marshals Service,” and the agency is doing its best to mitigate the spread of the virus. As for the medical care at Waseca, Long said, “Any inmate displaying symptoms for COVID-19 will be tested and placed in medical isolation.”
Lacey said the Grady County prisoners at Waseca have mostly recovered from their infections and have been enlisted to work in the prison’s kitchens and laundry, since the women who normally perform those jobs are still sick. Burk, the Waseca union president, confirmed that the prison has many women suffering “lingering effects” from their infections who are nevertheless classified as “recovered” because 10 days have passed since their positive test.
Burk and other BOP staff who spoke with VICE News were not reassured to hear that Grady County had started testing prisoners for COVID-19 before transferring them into the federal system. According to BOP staff union officials in nearby Oklahoma City, Grady County has only been equipped with an Abbott Rapid Test machine, which is less reliable than a lab test.
Brian Mueller, vice president of the union for staff in the BOP’s North Central region, which includes Waseca, said at least five of the 17 prisons in his area had large outbreaks that were sparked by incoming prisoners from Grady, with nearly every other facility reporting isolated cases brought by inmates transferred from other federal contract jails. Mueller said the rapid testing at Grady would do no good unless coupled with strict quarantine procedures.
“We think flipping a coin would be about as accurate as that rapid test is,” Mueller said, noting his own staff has stopped relying on the Abbott machines. “And if they’re still allowing inmates to mingle and cross-contaminate in different pods and units, it really is irrelevant if you’re rapid-testing them or not.”
Even after the severe outbreak at the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, the facility continued to receive prisoners from Grady County, according to Greg Watts, the local union president. Watts, a corrections officer at Fort Worth, said at least two buses carrying Grady prisoners arrived in June, and testing showed several were positive for COVID-19 upon arrival.
“The lack of communication from the onset of this really put a lot of people at risk,” Watts said. “I wish they could have done some things differently.”
Three staff members at separate BOP institutions told VICE News that even with the testing at Grady, they would continue to treat all incoming prisoners from the jail as if they were positive for COVID-19 until proven otherwise. Joshua Lepird, the union official in Oklahoma City, said his staff confirmed that an Abbott machine was delivered to Grady, but said outgoing prisoners were still not traveling with paperwork documenting negative test results.
“As far as if and how they are using tests,” Lepird said, “no one knows except Grady County.”