Virginia prison officials struck confident tone as COVID-19 spread. Now cases are soaring.

By: - April 21, 2020 12:06 am

Central Virginia Correctional Unit 13, a women’s prison in Chesterfield, had numerous reported COVID-19 cases among inmates and staff members. (Julia Rendleman/ For the Virginia Mercury)

As COVID-19 began to spread in Virginia, the state Department of Corrections said it was “doing everything it can” to keep the virus out of state prisons.

“As a large public safety agency, the VADOC is accustomed to managing communicable diseases,” the department said in a March 16 news release.

Over the span of about 30 days, they announced visitors had been banned, facilities had been placed on lockdown, prisoners had been put to work manufacturing thousands of cloth masks, employees were being screened and a special “pandemic sanitation plan” had been put into place.

Those efforts not only failed to keep the virus out of Virginia prisons, but have been unsuccessful in preventing its rapid spread.

In the 21 days since the first three inmates at a women’s prison in Goochland tested positive, 170 people in the state’s care have tested positive in six prisons. One has died — a 49-year-old woman being held on charges of drug manufacturing and larceny who the department otherwise would not identify.

And Virginia’s juvenile prison system, which is managed by a different state agency, is now the site of the country’s worst outbreak in a youth detention facility.

‘I was not sentenced to death’

The explosion of cases comes amid persistent calls by advocates and family members to release nonviolent offenders nearing the end of their sentences. Dr. Scott Heysell, an infectious disease specialist at UVA Health who has likened prisons to landlocked cruise ships with worse health care, said he’s not surprised officials haven’t been successful in their efforts to prevent the virus’ spread.

“The only solution they haven’t put in place yet is what we’ve argued for, and that is a more rapid reduction in the total number of people, focusing on those that have the highest risk of severe disease if they acquire a COVID infection,” he said.

The daughter of one wheelchair-bound inmate cried earlier this month as she read a statement from her mom, Cynthia Scott, a 50-year-old woman who has served 17 years at Fluvanna Correctional Center on charges that include robbery and malicious wounding. She is scheduled to be released on in 2040, according to DOC records.

“I was not sentenced to death, and I don’t want to die here,” Scott wrote. “But I am afraid I will when the coronavirus comes.”

The Department of Corrections said Monday that it continues to follow CDC guidelines and is working with the Virginia Department of Health.

Officials announced they’re in the process of ramping up testing, including a surveillance program that will test inmates without symptoms at some prisons. As part of that effort, they said they began testing inmates Monday at Deerfield Correctional Center, which houses assisted living units for elderly and infirm prisoners for whom COVID-19 poses the greatest risk.

“This increase in testing will give the VADOC a better picture of what is happening at each of Virginia’s correctional facilities and will allow us to reduce the spread of the virus,” the department said in its release.

Northam resists calls to use pardon power

Gov. Ralph Northam has so far resisted calls to use his pardon power to address the issue, which advocates argue is the quickest way the state could lower the prison population.

Instead he asked the state parole board to accelerate its reviews of pending cases. The board said it heeded the request, granting parole to 95 people last month, up from 36 the month prior.

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a media briefing on the coronavirus outbreak earlier this month. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

And this month, he announced he would ask the legislature to approve a proposal he attached to the state budget to allow the DOC to release inmates who have one year or less left to serve, exhibited good behavior and are deemed not to pose a threat to public safety. The administration said about 2,000 of the just under 30,000 inmates meet that criteria, but it was unlikely all would be granted release.

The General Assembly is scheduled to vote on the amendment Wednesday, but advocates and some lawmakers have characterized Northam’s approach on the issue as a case of too little too late.

“There is only one solution — releasing more people — and we implore you to pursue it with all your authority,” wrote 17 Democratic state lawmakers in an April 10 letter to Northam. “No other effort to relocate or quarantine infected inmates will slow the outbreak faster or save more lives.”

On the other end of the spectrum, GOP lawmakers oppose the early release program altogether. “Correctional facilities do face challenges with this outbreak, but throwing open the jailhouse doors for inmates still serving their punishments for criminal conduct is not the best or safest solution for the rest of Virginia,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, in a statement.

‘This is causing disruption, but not to the degree that DOC can’t handle it’

Northam’s Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said he doesn’t think a broad order granting pardons or clemency to inmates would withstand legal challenges. He noted former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s initial order restoring voting rights to convicted felons was overturned by the Supreme Court of Virginia after it was challenged by Republican lawmakers. The court ruled it did not meet requirements that McAuliffe undertake an individualized review of each case.

Advocates have responded by noting that McAuliffe overcame that court ruling by simply using an autopen to sign individual orders.

“If Gov. McAuliffe could make 176,000 individualized restoration decisions in a six month period, it seems to us that with 30,000 people in the correctional system right now the governor is well within his authority,” said ACLU of Virginia Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.

But Moran said there’s another reason Northam isn’t rushing to release inmates: state prison officials have told him they don’t believe it’s necessary.

Moran said the release program Northam has proposed already goes beyond what DOC director Herald Clarke has requested. “He tells me that they’re able to achieve quarantine and they’re abiding by the CDC guidelines,” Moran said. “This is causing disruption, but not to the degree that DOC can’t handle it.”

‘We don’t even use the bathroom six feet from each other’

Inmates in the system, nervously watching the number of confirmed cases rise, are less certain everything is under control.

“You can’t social distance in here,” said Shebri Dillon, an inmate at Fluvanna Correctional Center, which has for years been under scrutiny for sub-standard medical care. “We don’t even use the bathroom six feet from each other. I hate to be crude about it, but that’s the reality.”

So far, no prisoners at Fluvanna have tested positive, but one staff member has. Rumors are flying and Dillon said she heard it was an officer who was in frequent contact with inmates. “It’s definitely coming,” Dillon said. “There’s a wave of something very nasty on the horizon.”

At the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland, inmates have reported unsanitary conditions. So far 13 inmates there tested positive, five are hospitalized and one died. ”We haven’t even been allowed to actually clean our rooms for the most part since we’ve been locked down,” Jacqueline Mills told WRIC, adding that soap is still scarce and showers are limited to once every three days.

Earlier this month, 27 inmates sued Northam in federal court, arguing the conditions of their confinement violate their constitutional rights and asking a judge to force the state to take steps to reduce the prison population to a degree that would allow social distancing and relieve crowding in dormitories.

“Many of my clients fear they’re going to die and their doctors told them they very well might if they get infected,” their attorney, Elliott Harding, said in a statement to The Daily Progress. “Not only is one already infected, two clients only have one lung, many have asthma, others have MS, diabetes and COPD. They weren’t sentenced to death or torture. In fact, many are just a few months from getting out for nonviolent crimes.”

‘Lock them down’

On Monday, advocates threatened a second lawsuit against the state over conditions at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Chesterfield, the state’s largest, where officials acknowledged in a Friday evening news dump that 25 kids tested positive, which amounts to one-eighth of the total population.

The Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center said they’ve heard from their clients imprisoned in the facility that officials are using solitary confinement as a form of quarantine, allowing the children out of their cells for one hour a day, including shower, recreation and phone calls to loved ones.

Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center is Virginia’s largest. (NBC12)

Brad Brewer, who spent four years confined at the facility, said that likely means the kids have access only to five books and possibly a handheld radio.

“In my experience there, that’s the first response to issues. Lock them down,” he said. “You just sit there and think and think and ponder. It drives you insane.”

In a letter to the Department of Juvenile Justice, which manages the facility, lawyers with the Legal Aid Justice Center said they would sue if the department didn’t end what they called excessive room confinement, among other demands.

“It’s a virus. There’s potential for exponential growth,” said Rachel Deane, who directs the justice center’s JustChildren Program. “We have strong concerns that both the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Corrections have consistently failed throughout the crisis to keep the public updated and informed about what’s really going on in our jails and prisons.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.