Virus testing expands in state prisons with push from advocates

George Copeland Jr. | 4/23/2020, 6 p.m.
The Virginia Department of Corrections has ramped up testing of inmates and prison staff and stepped up parole consideration as …
Gov. Northam

The Virginia Department of Corrections has ramped up testing of inmates and prison staff and stepped up parole consideration as state legislators and advocacy groups pressure authorities to stop the spread of COVID-19 inside state prisons.

State officials reported the death last week of the first incarcerated person from the virus, a 49-year-old woman charged with drug manufacturing and larceny. She was one of three infected prisoners at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland being cared for in hospitals outside the facility.

As of Wednesday, 201 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, the DOC confirmed, including 25 young people held at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center, 49 inmates and two staff members in Central Virginia Correctional Unit 13 in Chesterfield County, and 13 inmates and 35 staff members at the women’s prison in Goochland.

This infection’s spread inside the close quarters of state corrections facilities, where social distancing is often difficult or impossible, has continued despite preventive measures enacted by the DOC throughout March and April, including placing facilities on lockdown, banning visitors and screening employees.

“We certainly hoped for the best but prepared for the worst,” Brian J. Moran, state secretary of public safety and homeland security, said during a news conference in late March when he confirmed the first positive cases. “DOC has plans in place, and they’re implementing those plans and doing everything they can to prevent further spread.”

Criminal justice advocates aren’t convinced. The COVID- 19 Justice Coalition made up of more than 40 organizations has demanded a more proactive response from state and local officials.

“We urgently need state-wide action now,” said Ashna Khanna, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, during a video news conference where she was joined by coalition representatives and several Virginia commonwealth’s attorneys. “The actions so far from the governor and his administration do not go nearly far enough in addressing this pandemic within Virginia prisons, jails and custodial facilities.”

In a letter to Gov. Ralph S. Northam, the coalition has called for the immediate release of inmates who don’t pose an “imminent threat of bodily harm to others,” daily public reports on testing, confirmed cases, releases and measures to keep inmates and staff safe, among other recommendations.

Groups that are part of the coalition also have taken to the streets outside the Richmond City Justice Center for in-car protests for the last two Fridays.

The DOC said the Virginia Department of Health will send staff to prisons to help with increased testing, with Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia and the state Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services also are providing hundreds of additional test kits to state prisons. The DOC said it is testing all inmates who have symptoms of the virus, with asymptomatic inmates and staff being tested at Deerfield Correctional Center in Southampton County. That facility has a large population of elderly and other at-risk inmates with underlying medical conditions.

Gov. Northam noted last week that Virginia has reduced its jail population by 17 percent in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The state also has seen a 67 percent decline across the state in the number of new commitments to jails for mis- demeanors.

Even with the stepped up testing and other measures in place, Gov. Northam and Mr. Moran stressed the state’s legal limits prevent them from taking swifter action, something advocates have disputed.

“The governor has complete discretion to exercise his clemency authority as he chooses to,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, director of the ACLU of Virginia.

This sentiment has been echoed by members of the General Assembly, with 17 legislators sending a letter to Gov. Northam calling on him to use his executive authority to speed up the release process.

Legislators were scheduled to vote Wednesday on a proposal from Gov. Northam that would give the DOC authority to release people with one year or less left on their sentences for the duration of the state of state of emergency. Officials said that would impact about 2,000 people now incarcerated in the state system.