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Reporting on COVID-19 in Virginia's Correctional System

VPM reporter Whittney Evans talking with Speaker of the House of Delegates, Eileen Filler-Corn
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, VPM reporter Whittney Evans was at the Capitol nearly every day in person. Her work day has changed dramatically since then, but she's still chasing the hard stories. (File Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

To follow up on her recent report on COVID-19 in correctional facilities, VPM legal reporter Whittney Evans sat down - virtually - to discuss the issue with our senior editor, Catherine Komp. A transcript of that conversation follows.

You’re listening to VPM News, I’m Catherine Komp - joined virtually by our legal reporter Whittney Evans. 

Whittney you’ve been digging into how COVID-19 is affecting prisons and jails. Advocates in Virginia and across the country warned early on these would be hotspots for the coronavirus. Now, the number of people who are sick inside Virginia correctional facilities is on the rise. What have you found out about the numbers.

Evans: As of Wednesday, two offenders have died. About 450 offenders in state-run facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections. And it’s important to remember that staff have been impacted as well. 64 employees and contractors have tested positive for the virus. More than half of them work at Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland. 

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

Komp: Whittney you spoke to an employee at Virginia Correctional Center for Women who spoke about some of the conditions there.  And they said they were one of the employees who actually contracted coronavirus? 

Evans: Yes, that’s right. And VPM did grant this employee anonymity because they said they feared retaliation for speaking to the media, but they had a lot to say. When they fell ill they were very nervous about the outcome because of their underlying health conditions. They said when he first got it he really though it could be a death sentence for him. 

They told me that initially, their superiors told them during pre-shift briefings that they wear forbidden from wearing masks or gloves, that that might upset the offenders. 

He pointed out that the only way the virus could come into these facilities is through employees who leave for the day, come back and expose themselves to inmates.

The Department of Corrections says all offenders and staff are required to wear masks that are issued to them and have for some time now.  

The employee was also worried that alcohol based cleaning supplies and sanitizers were still being banned inside the facility

A spokesperson for the Department told me it’s since modified that policy and they are using alcohol-based sanitizers in some instances.

Komp: What did this employee say about the the ability to keep a safe distance in a prison facility?

Evans: With the exception of solitary confinement, the employee told me, the cells in the rest of the facility don’t have toilets or sinks inside them. So it’s like a dorm setting, where everyone shares the facilities. He said “there really is no way, outside of just locking them down in their rooms to practice any type of social distancing,”

Komp: So Whittney - where is your reporting going next? What data hasn’t been released yet that would give us a better understanding of what’s happening in prisons and jails? 

Evans: There’s a lot to find out about jails. 

While the health department does report hospitalizations by health district. And the DOC updates the number of people within the state-run system that have tested positive, as well as the facility. The state so far isn’t publishing any data on local jails. I’ve asked the department of health for a breakdown of how many cases there are at local jails and which jails they’re in. 

Komp: Thanks Whittney.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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