Susan Rouse has been in prison since 2013, when she was sentenced to more than 14 years after being convicted of embezzlement in Wake County.

Rouse, who celebrated her 74th birthday on January 8, is serving her sentence in the honor-grade “Canary Unit,” a minimum-custody facility at the NC Correctional Institution for Women (NCCIW) in Raleigh.

Rouse says she received the Moderna vaccines early last year but that corrections officials have not made available booster shots for her and other inmates housed in the Canary.

“We’re not getting what we need,” Rouse told the INDY this week. “We’re not getting what the CDC is recommending. I don’t have a big fear of dying. I just don’t want to die here.”

Rouse described a near-surreal atmosphere at the state’s largest women’s prison, where fear is predominant among inmates and staffers alike.

“The other day one woman walked in here with a plastic bag over her head, like she was going to Mars,” Rouse said. “I’m making a joke, but it’s very, very serious.”

What’s the latest with the more than 1,000 women behind bars in Raleigh who are housed in one of two facilities—“up the hill” at the main prison on Bragg Street and the “down the hill” Canary Unit—and who are under the supervision and care of the state while paying their debt to society? Are they being provided with booster shots during this latest COVID-19 outbreak?

“Boosters are being given at [the] North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women, and will continue to be given,” John Bull, a spokesman with the NC Department of Public Safety (DPS), answered in an email to the INDY last week.

In a follow-up email Monday, Bull said that “so far boosters have been given to 5,700 eligible offenders, meaning they are at least six months from their last shot. Around 33 percent of eligible offenders have received the booster shot.”

But Bull said he was unable to disclose how many women behind bars in North Carolina have received a booster shot.

“I don’t have a breakdown of boosters administered by gender, facility, or housing unit,” Bull wrote.

The most recent data from DPS’s online COVID-19 dashboard indicate that there are 317 active COVID-19 cases in carceral facilities across the state. In NCCIW, there are currently 27 active cases, according to state data. But without boosters administered in time, there could be more. 

Multiple sources have told the INDY that in the roughly three months booster shots have been available, the women housed at the main facility and in the Canary Unit still have not received COVID-19 booster shots. Family members and activists are particularly worried about the risks posed by inmates who have jobs in the larger community as part of the DPS work release program.

The spouse of one woman serving time at NCCIW spoke to the INDY but requested his name not be used out of fear that she would face retaliation. He corroborates Bull’s statement to some degree but also corroborates Rouse.  

“I think they have started giving boosters in the main prison, but they haven’t done anything at all at the Canary, which seems kind of crazy to me because that’s where the work-release inmates are,” the spouse told the INDY on Friday. “People on work release have a greater opportunity to bring it back to prison, where it spreads like wildfire, or out in the community.”

The spouse added that as of one week ago “15 or so” women in the Canary had tested positive for the virus, including a work-release inmate who he says had been working at the governor’s mansion without a booster shot. 

DPS’s online dashboard showing 27 positive cases at NCCIW was updated Monday. Bull said in an email Monday that “advance treatment is available to any offender who needs it.” 

But Rouse says, so far, it hasn’t been available to her and other inmates. 

“The bottom line is we can’t even get a booster,” she says.

Rouse says on December 12, prison officials distributed a two-page form to inmates to complete in order to receive the booster shot. There was a place for them to sign on the back page, and just above it, a place for the nurse to sign after the inmate received the shot. Rouse completed and returned it to prison officials.

“Then all of a sudden, nothing happened,” Rouse says. “It was like signing a blank check.”

After weeks passed and she did not receive a booster, Rouse says she wrote a grievance on January 4 after being told by a nurse that prison officials would not honor her request unless she filed one.

Then another outbreak happened and the women are now confined to their rooms 21 hours a day.

 “It’s like the prison is hamstrung because there’s not enough staff,” Rouse says. “There’s only two officers, and they are scared to death to walk down the halls.”

Meanwhile, the spouse of the woman behind bars told the INDY on Monday the “outbreak has exploded at NCCIW.”

“So many people in the Canary Unit are sick that DPS is no longer testing inmates,” he said in a text message to the INDY. “And sick women are being housed with elderly, infirm women living in the assisted living ward, which is to court disaster. The outbreak wouldn’t be nearly so bad if the prison had offered booster shots in the fall as soon as inmates became eligible.”

In an email Tuesday, Bull said “the allegation that testing is not being done is not true” and added that, at times, prison staff has had to place asymptomatic positive cases in assisted living, in medically isolated single rooms.  

“I can assure you every offender in the Canary Unit at NCCIW has been tested,” Bull wrote. “Anyone who tested positive has been moved into medical isolation.”

Inmates who may have been exposed to someone who tested positive are quarantined for 14 days and subjected to twice-daily temperature checks, close observation, and additional testing, Bull said in an earlier email. 

“[Prison] nursing staff is laser focused at this point on meeting the ongoing, routine medical needs of the offenders in their prisons, while conducting a substantial number of COVID tests every day.” 

Kerwin Pittman, a social justice activist and director of policy and programs with the prisoners’ rights nonprofit Emancipate NC, spoke with the INDY on Friday.

Pittman said an Emancipate NC team member incarcerated at NCCIW confirmed that her fellow inmates in the Canary are not receiving the extra layer of protection against the worst effects of the coronavirus. 

“They are scared they are going to die from COVID, due to not being able to keep up with Centers for Disease Control guidelines,” Pittman added.

The women serving time have reason to be fearful.

As the INDY previously reported, at the height of the pandemic in 2020, the women’s prison experienced more positive COVID cases than almost every correctional institution in North Carolina—only Scotland, Albemarle, Warren, Craven, and Tabor reported more cases. Tabor prison in Columbus County had the most in total, reporting 563 in 2020 (and two deaths, the same as NCCIW).

The reports that boosters haven’t been available for one of the state’s most vulnerable populations seem counterintuitive to public health officials’ efforts to promote a means of strengthening community members’ chances to fight off the virus, even if they contract it.

Moreover, individuals who are serving time in the state’s prison system during the pandemic are particularly vulnerable. Owing to limited space and even less privacy, the state prison population may be even more at risk of contracting the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Last week, NC Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kody Kinsley and other state officials noted that nearly 80 percent of the more than 30,000 people housed in the state’s prisons have been fully vaccinated. 

Bull said a “more aggressive booster campaign for both offenders and staff” began within one week of FDA and CDC approval in late October of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters.

“As with the population at large, individuals continue to take time to consider whether or not to take the booster,” Bull explained. “This is exactly the case within [prisons].” 

Meanwhile, Rouse says she’s speaking out for all of the women at the prison, particularly the older ones who have been behind bars “for years and years.”

“I shouldn’t be condemned to die here,” she said, “and that’s certainly what it feels like.” 

Correction: An earlier version of the story stated the Emancipate NC team member was working at the prison. The article has been updated to reflect she is an inmate. 

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