Concern rises about COVID-19 cases among Va. inmates

George Copeland Jr. | 10/15/2020, 6 p.m.
Lawmakers, advocates and inmates are demand- ing answers and new solutions to the rising cases of COVID-19 among inmates and …

Lawmakers, advocates and inmates are demand- ing answers and new solutions to the rising cases of COVID-19 among inmates and staff in Virginia’s prisons and jails.

The calls for solutions have increased in volume and urgency recently with U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner and Congressman A. Donald McEachin of Richmond getting into the fray.

Rep. McEachin and Sens. Warner and Kaine, along with Rep. Morgan Griffith of Southwest Virginia, sent a letter last week to Michael Carvajal, director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, looking for clarity on his plans to improve conditions at the Federal Correctional Complex in Petersburg and the federal penitentiary in Lee County in light of the pandemic.

According to the letter, conditions at the facilities have deteriorated in the four months since they initially expressed their concerns to Mr. Carvajal.

“One area of particular concern is the continued lack of adequate personal protective equipment,” the letter stated. “According to employees at FCI Petersburg, both staff and inmates are forced to re-use supplies and masks, which presents serious health and safety risks.

“Given the close quarters and frequent person-to-person interaction, correctional staff and incarcerated individuals are especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. This also creates additional risk of community spread outside the facilities.”

Petersburg staff said that showers are being restricted for inmates,“a policy which further exacerbates sanitation and hygiene issues during a global pandemic,” according to the letter, along with reduced access to outdoor recreation, exercise facilities and phones.

“We recognize the importance of limiting large group gatherings,andthatcoordinatingtheseactivitiescanpres- ent logistical, health, and safety challenges. However, it is imperative that correctional facilities find new ways to maintain and support a healthy quality of life for inmates during this crisis,” the letter continued.

The lawmakers noted that such a “lapse in judgment” could result in an outbreak inside the prison, endangering staff, inmates and local communities.

The two facilities house about 4,144 inmates.

Federal Bureau of Prisons data reports 68 positive cases of COVID-19 among inmates in Petersburg, with one death, and four positive cases among staff. The Lee County prison reports five positive cases among staff, according to the prison bureau website.

Relatives of prisoners at the Petersburg complex held a horn-honking demonstration on Sept. 5, to let inmates know they weren’t forgotten during the pandemic.

Family advocates said at the time that prison officials had barred visits and shut down an email communica- tion system for relatives and inmates. It is unclear if communications have been reopened.

Separately, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has called for independent experts, separate from the Virginia Department of Corrections, to evaluate the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in state prisons.

ACLU-VA also claimed that the state corrections department has twice violated terms of a settlement agree- ment over prison conditions during the pandemic.

State corrections authorities on Monday reported a total of 3,719 positive cases at state facilities, with 143 active cases among inmates and 50 among staff members. According to the state data, 33 inmates and one staff member have died from COVID-19.

A large share of those cases and deaths — 733 cases and 19 inmate deaths — have occurred at the Deerfield Correctional Center in Southampton County, which houses elderly inmates and those with serious health conditions. The ACLU-VA referred to the Deerfield facility as a telling sign of state officials’ failures to address the pandemic in prisons.

In response, prison officials have pointed to their use at Deerfield of guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Health Department as evidence of their hard work to stop COVID-19’s spread.

“As we’ve witnessed in nursing homes everywhere, the offender population at Deerfield is unfortunately more vulnerable to the coronavirus,” Harold Clarke, director of the state Department of Corrections, stated in a news release late last month.

“Our people are suffering inside these jails and prisons,” said Christopher Rashad Green of New Virginia Majority during a recent rally in Nina F. Abady Festival Park urging state officials to accelerate the early release of qualified inmates. “It’s not right.”

The Virginia General Assembly approved a proposal by Gov. Ralph S. Northam for the early release of around 2,000 inmates with less than a year on their sentences. However, while the Virginia Department of Correc- tions identified around 1,800 individuals that qualified for early release, advocates and inmates have said the department is moving too slow in their release. As of Monday, 905 inmates have been released from state and local facilities and institutional hospitals under the early release program, according to the department.

“I sent emails and phone calls starting in March all the way up to July and my son was only released on his day to be released on July 13,” said LeTeisha Gordon, founder of the A Better Day than Yesterday Initiative, during the rally. Ms. Gordon’s son tested positive for COVID-19 in May while incarcerated in Riverside Regional Jail in Prince George County.

She said her son has since tested negative for the virus since his release.

She and other advocates said their efforts to have qualifying inmates released face a lack of coordination by local and state institutions, making advocacy for inmates much harder as case numbers and outbreaks continue statewide.

Locally, a spike in cases was reported at the Rich- mond Justice Center in late August, leading to another round of mass testing in the facility. Officials confirmed that 91 inmates were infected and nine active cases of COVID-19.

The Pamunkey Regional Jail in Hanover County has remained in lockdown after officials announced an outbreak at the facility in early September, with around 70 percent of inmates and 15 percent of staff testing positive.