FILE - North Carolina state Sen. Phil Berger

North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham Content Exchange

(The Center Square) – Senate Leader Phil Berger has joined a list of people calling for more transparency from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) after officials tried to hide the cause of a prison employee’s death.

Berger, R-Rockingham, sent a three-page letter to DPS on Friday demanding answers about the lack of personal protective equipment and testing at prisons after a nurse at a correctional center in his district died from COVID-19 complications.

According to an investigation conducted by seven local newsrooms, Barbara Stewart, who was a 25-year nurse at Caswell Correctional Center in Blanch, died on May 7 after battling COVID-19 for more than a month.

“This report indicates a systemic failure of accountability, competence, and execution,” Berger said in a statement Friday. “I want answers, and I intend to get them.”

DPS had not informed the public of the nurse’s death until the group of reporters pressured DPS spokesman John Bull about the incident.

An internal email to staff announcing Stewart's death, obtained in the investigation, showed Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee hid the fact Stewart’s death was coronavirus related.

DPS has been quiet about staff cases of COVID-19, excluding staff numbers from the daily reports.

Staff cases were “self-reported” and considered private, DPS spokesman Jerry Higgins told The Center Square when asked for a staff count May 14.

The investigative report also has raised questions about a mass testing initiative touted by the department that would allow more than 21,000 DPS workers to get tested for free at FastMed clinics.

Employees with symptoms will not be able to get tested under the company’s contract with DPS, the report found.

Despite press releases and photos by DPS about the distribution of masks and other protective equipment for staff and inmates, Stewart’s husband, Seasar, told reporters he had to give his wife a mask from his workshop at home to use at work.

In his letter sent electronically to Ishee on Friday, Berger gave the commissioner until Tuesday to answer a dozen questions specific to Stewart’s death, about reporting on COVID-19 cases among staff, availability of tests and safety equipment, and confirmation on the details of reporters’ findings.

Berger also requested copies of emails, texts and all other correspondence related to the incident from March 1 to May 22, including those belonging to Stewart, Bull and Caswell Correction Warden Doris Daye.

During a press briefing Friday, Ishee confirmed he received Berger’s letter and said he plans to respond soon.

“We look forward to the opportunity to answer all of the senator’s questions,” he said. “Quite frankly, we look forward to the opportunity to set the record straight.”

DPS also has faced pressure to answer questions about COVID-19 protocols from the North Carolina Superior Court.

Earlier this month, a judge ordered officials to provide a detailed list of the prisons’ COVID-19 preventative measures after a group of advocates, inmates and a prisoner’s wife filed a lawsuit.

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