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Pressure Builds in Jails and Prisons as COVID-19 Spreads

Chain link fence with barbed wire
There are now 456 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Virginia inmates, and advocates and prison staff say conditions in the prison system are accelerating the spread.

Advocates in Virginia and across the country warned early on that jails and prisons would be powder kegs when, not if, the virus permeated the walls of these facilities. Now, the number of people who are sick inside Virginia correctional facilities is on the rise. Two offenders have died.

As of Wednesday, 456 offenders in state-run facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections. Staff have been impacted as well, with 64 employees and contractors testing positive for the virus, more than half of whom work at Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland.

At the same time, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice has, separately, reported 41 cases at its facilities, including staff, although most residents have already recovered.

Inmates have begun filing civil rights lawsuits against Governor Ralph Northam, including one housed at Haynesville Correctional Center, which has 109 cases of the coronavirus.

VPM spoke to one employee at Virginia Correctional Center for Women, who said they tested positive for COVID-19.

“When I first got it, I thought this could easily be a death sentence for me,” the employee said. 

The employee spoke to VPM on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared retaliation for speaking to the media. VPM independently confirmed their identity.

The employee said, initially, they were told at briefings before their shifts not to wear masks or gloves, for fear of upsetting the offenders.

“The only way that this comes in is if somebody brings it in, which has happened,” they said. “Why wouldn’t you want us wearing gloves and masks?”

All offenders and staff are now required to wear masks that are issued to them, according to the Department’s website.

At the same time, the employee said a policy of banning cleaning supplies that contain alcohol remained in place, even though alcohol is known to kill the virus.

Lisa Kinney, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said the department has modified its policy. She said normally, an offenders' hand sanitizer doesn't have alcohol in it.

“However, during the coronavirus pandemic, they are using alcohol-based hand sanitizers in the infirmaries and assisted living areas, which is a CDC recommendation,” Kinney said in an email. Kinney did not speak to cleaning supplies other than hand sanitizer. 

With the exception of solitary confinement, the employee told VPM, the cells in the rest of the facility don’t have toilets or sinks inside them. It’s like a dorm setting, where bathroom facilities are shared.

“There really is no way, outside of just locking them down in their rooms to practice any type of social distancing,” they said.

Exposure is inevitable

Keeping a safe distance is a challenge, said Dr. Trey Fuller, assistant director of Health Services for the Virginia Department of Corrections.

“And once it's in a facility, you basically can assume that everyone is going to be exposed to it, unfortunately,” Fuller said in an interview with VPM earlier this month. “The virus is staying on surfaces longer than we thought that it may."

The Department previously had a policy of only testing inmates who have symptoms. But the Department issued a press release last week, saying it had begun widespread testing of asymptomatic offenders and staff at Deerfield Correctional Center last week. This followed widespread testing of all inmates at facilities in Harrisonburg and Haynesville the week before.

What they’ve found, Fuller said, is high rates of asymptomatic positive cases; somewhere between 40%-80% of people tested positive. He said that shows the infection rate is likely much higher than originally thought, highlighting the fact that people who have COVID-19 can carry the disease without exhibiting any outward symptoms.

Advocates for both offenders and corrections officers are asking why the department isn’t doing blanket testing at all state-run facilities.

On Tuesday, the union representing corrections officers across the country sent a letter to Governor Northam asking for COVID-19 testing for all officers, staff, offenders and residents at the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice.

“These cases continue to rise and we must start with the facilities that have been most affected. Test everyone just like Deerfield, and then move to every other location in order for us to have the data to know what must be done,” said Don Baylor, an organizer with the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers. “I get calls every day from officers who are scared, afraid to speak out but still want to stand their post. They just want to do it knowing everything has been done to protect them and everyone else in these facilities.”

Dr. Fuller said widespread testing at every facility isn’t practical, because the test results are a snapshot in time. Someone could test negative and then contract the virus within days or even hours. He says the labs just don’t have the capacity to test 30,000 inmates and 12,000 staff members on an ongoing basis.

Set them all free

Inmate advocates want to see more done to protect people inside correctional facilities. But their focus is releasing as many offenders as possible. For several weeks, protesters have gathered outside the Richmond City Jail, circling the building in cars that display messages like “Set them all free” and “Prison should not be a death sentence”.

“Make sure that there’s a re-entry system in place and do what’s right,” said Michael Kohler, one of the protesters speaking from the window of his car. “I know from being in there, when someone gets a cold it spreads rapidly. Everyone just gets it overnight. They’re being put in these at-risk situations that aren’t fair.”

The picture of what is happening in local and regional jails is less clear than facilities operated by the Department of Corrections, because they are overseen by local sheriffs and county governments, not the state. Even though those facilities account for 23,288 of the state’s incarcerated population, many of whom haven’t been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.

Jails across the state released about 5100 inmates. The Richmond City Jail has released 113 inmates.

“We’ve made every effort we could within the parameters of the law to reduce the jail population and limit intake,” said Virginia Sheriff’s Association Executive Director John Jones.

He said larger jails have a better chance at successfully isolating infected inmates, but smaller facilities are finding it more difficult.

Advocates have looked to jurisdictions like Charlottesville for getting ahead of the pandemic. Local officials there moved to release medically vulnerable inmates and those with less than six months left on their term as early as mid-March.

But Clair Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said not every jail or jurisdiction is as focused on releases. She says the Commonwealth needs a single, uniform, statewide response.

“No one should be experiencing the criminal justice system differently based on which side of a jurisdictional line they live on,” she said.

The ACLU of Virginia announced last week that it’s taking legal action to force the state to release as many prisoners as possible and provide more access to sanitation products and healthcare.

While the Department of Corrections updates the number of COVID-19 cases at state facilities, there is not a centralized database for the public to see how many people are affected at nearly 70 local jails across the Commonwealth.

VPM has filed an open records request for that data with the Virginia Department of Health and is awaiting a response.

Who qualifies for release?

Governor Northam has previously said he has no plans to issue blanket pardons, which is something advocates have asked for. 

Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said earlier this month that only about 2,300 adult inmates are eligible for parole in Virginia and the vast majority of those individuals have been convicted of violent crimes.

During a special session of the General Assembly earlier this month, lawmakers approved the governor’s proposal to allow limited inmate releases. It gives the Department of Corrections the authority to release nonviolent inmates who have one year or less remaining in their sentences. 

This means Casandra Mcneil’s husband likely will not qualify for early release. He has five years left in his 15-year sentence on a conviction for non-violent charges. Mcneil said her husband, who is housed at Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville, has serious underlying health conditions. She said her husband has complained of unsanitary conditions and forced interactions with officers who do not wear protective masks. 

“ I just feel like because of his health risks and stuff, that they at least take into consideration, if nothing else, him coming home on home monitoring or something.”

Mcneil has asked the governor to pardon her husband, sending letters to his office and other state officials. In the letter, she maintains that he has completed almost all of the re-entry programs offered by the Department of Corrections. 

“I just feel like he’s done enough time for a drug charge," Mcneil said.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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