On November 14 of last year, Robert McIntyre, a 70-year-old man incarcerated at Central Prison, was admitted to the UNC REX medical facility in Raleigh for pneumonia, COPD complications, and a non-ST-elevation myocardial infarction, a type of heart attack. He received medical care and tested negative for COVID-19.

Then, he was sent back to Central Prison.

Less than a month later, McIntyre returned to UNC REX on the evening of December 13, suffering from shortness of breath. His oxygen levels fluctuated between 85 and 89 percent, and his heart rate was abnormally high at 150 bpm. At 11:51 p.m, McIntyre was pronounced dead. 

The death certificate issued clearly states COVID-19 as a contributing cause of death, but the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) has never included Robert McIntyre in its official COVID-19 death count—making McIntyre at least the seventh incarcerated person in North Carolina whose death the state has failed to report either entirely or in a timely fashion.

Bungled process, broken promises

After a February 2021 investigation by North Carolina Health News and VICE News found that the North Carolina DPS was misleading the public about the numbers of COVID-19 deaths of incarcerated people, the state promised to do better by changing its policies to ensure accurate COVID death counts.

Before, the state agency received death certificates but chose to ignore them. DPS, which is tasked in part with oversight of state prisons, had exclusively used its own medical reports without cross-referencing external documents including those produced by external state-contracted medical examiners. 

That didn’t work and led to information presented to the public via the DPS website that, in some cases, starkly conflicted with the reality understood by family members of the deceased.

At the time, the state’s chief medical officer for the prison system, Les Campbell, told VICE and N.C. Health News that there was no reason for DPS to “try to hide or conceal” the reason for an inmate’s death.

DPS went on to publicly adjust its count in March, updating it to include Billy Bingham, 61, and Daryl Washington, 51, two men in DPS custody whose COVID-related deaths were uncovered in the N.C. Health News/VICE report. The agency said it would start checking its own numbers alongside official death certificates.

Yet a third person in DPS custody whose death certificate named COVID-19 as a cause of death, Luther Wilson, still hasn’t been added to the count. The agency has also known about and excluded the death of Wilson, who was 60, due to renal failure and COVID-19 complications, for at least five months.

Death certificates for three more incarcerated individuals who died in custody—McIntyre, Thurman Mosley, and Oliver Johnson—all have COVID-19 named as a primary or related cause of death, but none of the men are included in the count. 

DPS has known about Mosley and Oliver’s exclusion from their count tally for months. 

“It angers me, but what I need to do now is research and challenge the state of North Carolina to make them include him in this,” Mosley’s brother, James Mosley, said. 

Billy Bingham’s brother, Jay Bingham, says he feels like there’s been no closure surrounding his brother’s death. 

“I’ve sat back and waited—August third is coming up—and it’s gonna be a year,” Bingham says. “And I have not heard any feedback [from DPS]. I have not heard any follow-up or any kind of condolences on the whole situation, on what’s happening, or what’s going on, or what’s going to change to make it better. I have not seen that.” 

An ongoing problem of wrongful reporting

In addition to the failure to report at least seven COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began, DPS reporting is laden with mistakes. 

Even when its officials were informed about the errors, the agency took months to correct false information posted to its own website.

On March 29, DPS communications officer John Bull was made aware of a mistake in the bungled reporting of the death of David Scudder, 73, who was incarcerated at Hyde Correctional Institute at his time of death on January 16, 2021. 

Scudder’s death was counted twice. On March 19, DPS posted a correction online to include a “previously unreported” January death, bringing its total from 52 to 53. 

On June 9, a second correction was finally issued explaining that Scudder was mistakenly counted twice—meaning that the agency’s own March correction was an error.

Also on June 9, DPS added a previously unreported death to its list: Alexander Correctional facility resident Jerry Combs, 55, who passed away in November.

In keeping with its policy, DPS did not release his name. Instead, the agency simply referred to Combs as “a male in his mid-50s.”

Combs’ death certificate lists cardiovascular disease—not COVID-19—as his cause of death, as does a medical investigation conducted after his death. The medical investigation also states that following Combs’ death, the North Carolina Baptist Hospital advised DPS to request the performance of an external examination and a COVID test. 

The June 9 correction states that a positive COVID-19 test result was received three days after Combs’ death. 

Lucy Combs, Jerry’s mother, said DPS never informed her that her son could have possibly died from COVID-19. She said that she got home from church on Sunday, November 15, and, shortly after, an Alexander Correctional Institute employee called her and told her that Jerry had died. 

Lucy communicated with the prison system one more time—to request medical records—and then never heard from the agency again. 

“After he passed, I called Raleigh Central Prison to get medical records (and) about two weeks later they called and told me I had to send a death certificate, which I did,” Lucy says. “They sent me a box of medical records of 2,700 pages . . . and then they charged me $50 for the papers.” 

The last letter Jerry sent to his mother was dated November 3, 2020. 

“I see at the top when I open the letter he had put at the top, big letters, ‘Listen, put your gloves on before reading. I’ve been a little sick and they tested me for COVID-19. I don’t think it is. I’ll find out soon. Stay safe,’ ” Lucy says. 

When asked about the June 9 correction detailing Combs’ death, Bull, the DPS spokesman, said in a statement that when the agency concludes an incarcerated person’s death was due to COVID-19, the website is updated “in the interest of transparency.” 

“We’re not going to address anything about a particular offender,” Bull said in the statement. “State law prohibits us from discussing an offender’s medical condition, including his or her cause of death.”

The costs of inaccurate reporting

DPS’s repeated failures in accurately reporting COVID-19 deaths within its facilities point to a level of bureaucratic incompetence, says Aaron Littman, deputy director of the UCLA Law: COVID Behind Bars Data Project. 

“It’s a major state agency with a very large budget that should have no problem sharing accurate information in a timely fashion,” Littman says. “The fact that it isn’t doing that is, I think, reflective of a choice to be opaque.” 

Bull said in a statement that the agency has nothing to gain by not reporting an incarcerated person’s COVID-19 death. 

For family members of incarcerated people, the lack of accurate information surrounding COVID-19 deaths in DPS custody has lasting impacts. 

“I’ve had three dreams—and this is crazy—where my brother told me in the dreams that he died unjust, that he was a person, too,” Bingham says. “And he was in prison, but he was a person that deserved proper care and he deserved medical attention and he didn’t deserve to lay back there and he couldn’t even breathe. He didn’t deserve that. Nobody does—no matter what the situation is.”

Hannah Critchfield contributed to this report. 

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