Two journalists working for WTIU and WFIU tested positive for COVID-19 after witnessing the federal executions of inmates at the Terre Haute Penitentiary. Despite sharing their positive results with the Bureau of Prisons, the BOP chose not to inform other journalists and prison staff about the results.
George Hale, a reporter for WFIU, tested positive for the coronavirus on Jan. 21, one week after witnessing the execution of Corey Johnson. Johnson, along with Lisa Montgomery and Dustin Higgs, was one of three death row inmates executed by the government in the last days of the Trump administration. Hale informed the prison of his test result within a few hours, hoping to warn the staff about possible spread.
He assumed that the prison would inform the journalists who had been in the facility to witness the executions, he said.
“There was a guard in the execution chamber who I was squeezed together against. We could not have been closer,” Hale said. “I worry that person either gave me COVID or I gave him COVID. I wonder whether or not they were ever told they were exposed.”
The BOP did not immediately respond to the Indiana Daily Student’s request for comment. A BOP spokesperson told the Associated Press that reporters had been warned ahead of the executions that social distancing may not be possible, but masks were required and additional personal protective equipment was available upon request.
In an email obtained by the IDS, the BOP informed Hale it would not be conducting any contact tracing, as Hale’s positive test result occurred six days after his last visit to the penitentiary, and it was not their policy to take any action unless someone tested positive within two days of attending the prison.
“I had a pounding headache on Saturday and Sunday which I associated with the exhaustion from covering the three executions in a row that week,” Hale said.
The BOP responded to Hale’s news about the beginning of his symptoms by wishing him well, according to an email shared with the IDS.
Hale said the Terre Haute facility was not equipped to deal with the pandemic. He and two other journalists were crammed into a van that sat outside the penitentiary for 45 minutes before being allowed inside, he said. Once inside, the journalists waited inside a room that Hale described as smaller than a classroom. They waited in this room for hours while the courts resolved any last-minute appeals.
Following the execution, a federal judge ordered the Bureau to conduct a compliance report for COVID-19 protocol, as several journalists including Hale reported a member of the execution team was not wearing a mask for several minutes during Johnson’s execution.
The compliance report denied any government wrongdoing and made no mention of the positive results of either the inmates or the attendees. Johnson and Higgs both tested positive for the virus in the weeks leading up to their executions at the facility.
Hale learned of his positive test through mitigation testing conducted by IU, something Hale said is done every time a journalist visits the prison. The IU contact tracer instructed Hale to self-isolate for 10 days. He finished his isolation Saturday.
“The executions have spread COVID both in the prison and the community because they bring in people all over the country to conduct them,” Hale said, referencing the dozens of staff and hundreds of inmates who have tested positive in the facility, according to the Associated Press. “The chamber is cramped and airtight for security reasons. It’s just a wildly unsafe thing to do on its face.”