Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Coronavirus Cases Surging in Virginia Prisons, Jails

Man speaking
Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran in 2019. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

Coronavirus cases are surging in Virginia prisons and jails. VPM's Whittney Evans spoke to Ned Oliver, who reported on the deaths of 21 incarcerated people and one staff member for the Virginia Mercury, about the situation.

Whittney Evans  
From VPM in Richmond I'm Whitney Evans. The impact COVID-19 has had on people who are in Virginia prisons and jails has been a big concern for community members and activists since the start of the pandemic. Prisons and jails are confined spaces where communicable diseases are easily spread. Now, months after corrections officials said they had the virus under control the cases have made a comeback. Ned Oliver with the Virginia Mercury has taken a look at what's going on right now inside Virginia prisons, where about 3000 inmates are battling COVID-19 Hi, Ned. Thank you for joining us today.

Ned Oliver  
Thanks for having me. I appreciate your interest.

Whittney Evans  
So can you give us a sense of the scope of the virus right now inside prisons and how that's changed over the past six or so months. 

Ned Oliver  
The number of cases has doubled in the past two months or so to 3000. And now a total of 21 prisoners and one staff member have died. It's also spread to prisons that hold some of the department's most medically vulnerable inmates. Those are Deerfield and Fluvanna. These are facilities that have medical wings and a lot of geriatric prisoners who need more care than just the standard population.

Whittney Evans  
So how has the state said it's been handling positive cases and inmates who are sick?

Ned Oliver  
The department has conducted at last count, I believe, 36,000 tests. That's more than one test for everyone in the prison system right now. So some inmates have been tested twice. They really point to that as sort of the basis of their response and say that they've done a lot more than than you would have seen and other sort of congregate settings where the virus poses a particular risk. When inmates test positive, they have a protocol for quarantining and isolating positive cases in two different housing areas in an effort to contain the spread. But, what we've seen really is that in the six months since the pandemic began, the numbers have really stayed the same. There was a moment in July where it really sounded like prison officials thought they had the virus under control. They stressed that they were down to 16 cases and the numbers have just bounced back.

Whittney Evans  
As you reported in your piece today, one of the biggest concerns is that the state promised early on to release some of the prison population so that it would be easier to manage an outbreak. But those efforts have been slow. What can you tell us about the pace of releases and what that's meant for inmates?

Ned Oliver  
Yes, since the pandemic began, its effects on the correctional system has been a big point of concern for advocates. Inmates, their family members, they were pushing early on for Governor Ralph Northam to use his pardon power to get people out who were close to the end of their sentence and have especially medical vulnerabilities. Northam resisted that but he did propose an early release program. When he announced that he said it would apply to about 2000 people. The General Assembly signed off, and the program that they approved basically allows the Department of Corrections to release anyone with 12 months or less left to serve and who doesn't have a history of violence, sexual offenses or a class one felony charge which would be capital murder. But the pace has been very slow. In June and July, we saw as few as 30 inmates a week reviewed for release. In total, a little over 500 inmates have at this point been released from DOC facilities. And advocates have just said that's way too slow. And in fact, a federal judge who has overseen the settlement of a lawsuit that inmates brought against the department also raised concerns, calling the pace alarming. The response the Department of Corrections gave to that was, A. that they were going as fast as they could and B. they were describing how, at that point, they felt like they had the pandemic well under control. They were down to 16 cases.

Whittney Evans  
Now you had the opportunity to speak to some people who are incarcerated right now, some of whom are sick with COVID. Tell us about some of the people you spoke to and what they say they're experiencing right now.

Ned Oliver  
The conditions they described were just unbelievably bleak. I spoke to three men in Deerfield Correctional Center who are in a dorm that houses about 100 inmates, all of whom are infected with COVID-19. It's in a building that has another dorm with another hundred inmates who are also infected with COVID-19. And they say that there's one guard and one nurse caring for all of them. They say that means that it's up to inmates with milder or no symptoms to care for the sickest. They describe picking up prisoners who collapse on their way to the bathroom or into the bathroom. They say they have to help some of the men shower and clean up. They say some just can't get out of bed. They're just really depressed. One man told me he cried because he got what he considered a good meal for the first time in weeks, you know. He described cold hot dogs and maybe a boiled potato. And this is a diabetic, so he said that was really problematic. He said he cried when he got some some turkey deli meat and and a hot dog that had actually been warmed up.

Whittney Evans  
So those are some serious allegations. How's the Department of Corrections or other state officials responded to what some of these folks are saying. 

Ned Oliver  
They really didn't respond. They offered a general statement outlining their testing protocols. They did lend credence to the staffing issues that the inmates described. They said that they are looking for more nurses. They're offering nurses who are working in other DOC facilities, what they described as financial incentives to come help with the outbreak in Deerfield where these men are being housed. And they say that the contractor that handles healthcare is also actively recruiting temporary nurses to help with the pandemic. But otherwise, they say they're doing the best they can and controlling it as well as could be expected.

Whittney Evans  
So not much response to these allegations. Does that mean we're we can expect to see any changes made?

Ned Oliver  
That was really my big question. And I spoke to Governor Northam's Secretary of Public Safety, Brian Moran about this. He said that beyond sort of keeping up the high rate of testing and continuing to follow the procedures that involve, you know, trying to quarantine inmates, as soon as they test positive, they weren't really planning any major changes.

Whittney Evans  
Well, what do advocates say should be done?

Ned Oliver  
Advocates continue to say that the state really needs to speed up its review of inmates who are eligible for this early release program. One of the inmates that I interviewed, and the state did actually after my story published confirmed this, qualify for the early release program. His release date is four months away. So he qualified back in April when this was launched, and he just never heard anything back. And now he's in these conditions that they described, and he's contracted COVID. So they really want to see that speed up, but the Department of Corrections response is that they're really just already moving as fast as they can.

Whittney Evans  
That's Ned Oliver. He's a reporter for the Virginia mercury and he published a story today about conditions inside Virginia prisons. Right now thousands of inmates and staff have contracted COVID-19 Thank you so much, Ned for speaking with me today.

Ned Oliver  
Oh, thank you.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
Related Stories