The Virginia Department of Corrections says it’s down to 22 active cases of COVID-19 among inmates in the 40 prisons it operates around the state.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, touted the figures Friday, which include six hospitalized prisoners and 16 still being held at various correctional facilities. He emphasized the latter number in a presentation to lawmakers.
“We have 16, let me repeat, 16 active cases in all of our correctional facilities,” he said during a joint meeting of the Senate’s judiciary and social services committees. “That’s out of 28,000 inmates, 40 correctional facilities. Sixteen — one six — active cases.”
Over the course of the pandemic, more than 1,500 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 in Virginia and 11 have died. Cases peaked in April and May, according to The Marshall Project, which has been tracking the virus’ spread in prisons around the country. The news outlet calculated that infection rates behind bars in Virginia are 579 percent higher than in Virginia overall and the death rate is 75 percent higher.
Moran credited mitigation efforts and an aggressive testing regimen for lowering the numbers. The department tested about 22,000 inmates, or a little over a three quarters of the state’s prison population as of Friday, he said.
Northam and the Department of Corrections have faced criticism for not doing more to address crowded conditions that make mitigation efforts like social distancing impossible. And advocates and at least one lawmaker made clear they remain frustrated by the department’s implementation of an early release program approved by the General Assembly in April, for which 2,000 inmates were expected to qualify but has led to the release of just 517.
“What’s the problem if somebody’s got 12 months left to serve, they’ve been there for 22 years, they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and they’ve got a home plan that’s in place?” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond. “Why can’t they get out? What is the problem?”
Moran responded that administering the release program has been a complex endeavor and some inmates who might otherwise qualify don’t have access to appropriate accommodations or support were they to be released. “In the age of COVID, to release individuals straight to the street would be a recipe for failure,” he said.
Inmates who sued the department over the conditions of their confinement during the pandemic are accusing the state of failing to live up to a settlement agreement approved by a federal judge in early May. Among other things, they say the department has breached a commitment to “make all reasonable efforts to review eligible individuals prior to the expiration of the declaration of emergency.”
The inmates are represented by the ACLU of Virginia and Charlottesville-based attorney Elliott Harding, who noted in a court filing that during settlement negotiations the department had said it had the capacity to review between 100 and 150 inmates for the program but in recent weeks the number has hovered around 30 reviews a week.
“Our attempts to get confirmation that they’re living up to our agreement have been met with no sense of urgency,” Harding said in a statement. “People who could have been released weeks ago are still sitting in their cell waiting for help as COVID-19 continues to spread.”
Shannon Ellis, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Justice Center who represents inmates at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, said a reduction in active cases doesn’t mean inmates aren’t still in danger. She urged the department to continue evaluating prisoners for early release and to begin prioritizing people for whom the virus poses the greatest health risks rather than emphasizing other factors like the crimes for which they were imprisoned.
“COVID-19 hasn’t gone away,” she said. “Prisons create an ideal condition for spread and one of the things we could be doing right now is alleviating overcrowding by both getting vulnerable people out and, in general, decreasing the population to stem the spread when inevitably there are further outbreaks.”