Hudson, 52, never worried about an inmate hurting him. If you show inmates respect, he says he learned over the years, they will return it in kind. Still, Hudson always had his eyes open for possible trouble.
But it was the danger Hudson could not see that he thinks he brought home from the jail. In March, both he and his wife fell ill. Her coughing became so severe that she was rushed to a D.C. emergency room and tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Diane Robin-Hudson was hospitalized for 10 days, an agonizing time for Hudson, who was not allowed to visit and could only get updates from harried nurses over the phone.
Days later, Hudson, too, tested positive for the coronavirus. His last day at work was March 25, the day his wife went to the hospital. It was also the day the city announced its first positive coronavirus test among inmates.
“My job comes with risk. I get that and accepted that years ago. But my wife, my family, shouldn’t be in danger just because I went to work every day to put food on the table,” Hudson said, his voice cracking over the phone. “How do I live with this?”
It is a worry shared by health-care professionals, police officers, firefighters, grocery store employees and other essential workers. While they are concerned about contracting the virus at work, an even greater fear is spreading it to loved ones.
The couple cannot be certain how the virus entered their home. Until her illness, Robin-Hudson was a general manager for an IHOP restaurant in Arlington, Va.
Still, Hudson, who believes he contracted the virus at work, remains guilt-ridden as they slowly recover. As inmates became sick with what everyone thought was the flu, Hudson escorted many of them to the infirmary. Then he developed a cough.
When Robin-Hudson also began coughing, her family thought her bronchitis had flared. She also suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma, her husband said.
The 50-year-old’s condition grew worse, and she began vomiting and coughing up blood. She also had a fever, chest pains and dizzy spells. At the hospital, she spent a week on a ventilator. Doctors recently allowed her to return to her Northeast Washington home with her husband and son, but she still uses an oxygen tank and wears a mask.
Nationwide, defense attorneys and other advocates have been pushing for the release of many inmates as they fear the spread of the virus in detention facilities. But corrections workers and their unions say more must be done to protect them as well.
In the nation’s capital, the pandemic infection rate within the jail of about 1,400 inmates has surpassed that of the city itself. The jail reported that 152 inmates had tested positive as of Sunday. One inmate has died.
District officials also said one longtime jail employee has died of covid-19. Theresa Capers, 55, worked as an administrative assistant.
As of Sunday, 61 Department of Corrections employees had been infected, according to the latest city data. The city says 86 employees are off work after testing positive or quarantined after having come into contact with someone infected. That has meant extra and longer shifts for those employees who are able to work, union leaders say.
Last month, the Fraternal Order of Police representing the jail’s correctional officers filed a class-action lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court on behalf of five correctional officers, including Hudson, contending that the city failed to do enough to ensure worker safety.
The lawsuit alleged the city required employees to work alongside infected inmates and colleagues without proper personal protective equipment. The suit also said the city and jail failed to properly identify inmates or jail employees who might have come in contact with an infected person.
Attorney J. Michael Hammon, a leader with the jail union, said officers who have not tested positive are using their sick days to avoid going to work. That means even fewer officers in place to quell any violence.
Last month, correctional officers had to use pepper spray to suppress a protest, according to the union. The following morning, the union said, workers subdued an inmate who refused to return to his cell and two inmates were hospitalized.
In a decision in the union’s favor, the District’s Public Employee Relations Board last month ordered D.C. jail officials to bargain in good faith with union leaders regarding safety conditions during the pandemic and the jail’s decision to expand shifts to 12 hours.
Keena Blackmon, a spokeswoman for the jail, said in an email that the longer shifts enable the jail to be more fully staffed consistently. “The mayor’s priority is to have a safe and secure facility,” she wrote.
Last week, Blackmon said, jail officials informed employees that masks and gloves would be provided to everyone entering the facility. Additionally, staffers assigned to work with infected inmates will also receive gowns, eye protection and N95 masks. The jail is also requiring all employees to participate in PPE training.
The new equipment and training policies were also ordered by a federal judge late last month following a class-action suit filed on behalf of inmates by the city’s Public Defender Service and the ACLU.
Correctional officers elsewhere are facing similar challenges.
Oluwadamilola Olaniyan works at the Jessup Correctional Institution in Anne Arundel County, which has the highest number of positive coronavirus tests of any Maryland prison.
As of Monday, 18 inmates there have tested positive, according to corrections officials. Two of those inmates died after being hospitalized. In addition, 22 correctional officers have tested positive, state officials said. At other Maryland state prisons, another 149 correctional officers and 43 inmates have become infected, according to the latest state figures.
The possibility of carrying the virus home, Olaniyan said, weighs heavily on him and his colleagues. “We’re all concerned about our families,” he said. “We sacrifice by going in there.”
Olaniyan knows 20 of the infected officers at Jessup. Two who were hospitalized told him they thought they were going to die. One started writing his will.
“Thankfully, everyone has made it so far,” said Olaniyan, a shop steward with the AFSCME state employees union. “They’re coming back to work.”
Two weeks ago, after learning a colleague had tested positive, Olaniyan got tested and quarantined himself in an area of his home. Days later, he received the results and burst out of the room. “I’m negative!” he exclaimed. His three young sons started dancing, said Olaniyan, who has since returned to work.
The prison provides gloves and face shields for officers and recently replenished supplies of hand sanitizer, Olaniyan said. But much-needed N95 masks, he said, remain in short supply. “We need many more of them,” he said.
Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Monday that “the department’s number one priority continues to be the health and safety of its employees and the incarcerated.” Speaking of the state prison system in general, Vernarelli said there is a “sufficient supply” of N95 masks, which are being cleaned after use and rotated back into service. He said inmates have made more than 10,000 bottles of hand sanitizer for use in prisons and sewn thousands of cloth masks for use by inmates and correctional officers.
The constant worries about the virus, Olaniyan said, are offset by the sense that he is doing essential work. “How are you holding up?” a neighbor recently asked while the two were outside their homes. Inside the prison, two longtime inmates recently thanked him for coming to work — something he had never heard in nine years on the job. “They said, ‘Thank you for what you do,’ ” Olaniyan said.
Hudson doesn’t know when he will be able to return to the D.C. jail. He also fears for his 25-year-old son, who lives at the house since graduating from Virginia Union University.
His cough has weakened into occasional hacking. His doctor told him to drink hot tea, wash his hands and sanitize frequently, and use decongestant medications.
“I’m just trying to keep my family safe and together since no one else, not the city, not the jail, no one is working to keep us safe,” he said. “They all let us down.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.