It was early July and Virginia prison officials thought they had the coronavirus pandemic pretty well under control.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, told lawmakers that they were down to 16 active cases among 28,000 inmates — a result, he said, of extensive prevention measures undertaken by the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Lawyers for the department delivered a similar message to a federal judge who expressed alarm that the state’s review of inmates for an emergency early release program approved by the General Assembly was slowing to a crawl. Virginia had reduced its prison population by just 2 percent since the pandemic began — the smallest drop of any state in the union, according to a nationwide analysis by The Marshall Project and the Associated Press.
“VDOC’s aggressive testing measures and other precautions appear to have greatly limited potential transmission of the virus,” wrote Attorney General Mark Herring’s office, which is representing the department.
But if the state was declaring victory over COVID-19 behind bars, it would soon prove fleeting.
In the two and a half months since, the department’s case count among inmates has doubled to more than 3,000. A total of 21 prisoners and one staff member have now died. The virus has spread to prisons that hold some of the department’s most medically vulnerable inmates. And men with less than a year left to serve say that despite qualifying for the early release program, they continued to be held in crowded dormitories where they’ve since contracted the virus.
“It’s a horrible sight in here,” said Isaiah Johnson, a 39-year-old from Newport News who is scheduled to be released in January, making him eligible for the program. In a telephone call from a building at Deerfield Correctional Center housing nearly 200 infected inmates, he said he and the other inmates learned they tested positive last week. He said there’s just one nurse attending to the men and it’s fallen on inmates with mild symptoms to care for the sickest, some of whom struggle to breathe and are unable to move or use the bathroom without help.
“We’re left to fend for ourselves. We stand over them when they’re quivering and shaking. We pick them up when they fall.”
‘The foot dragging doesn’t make sense’
Throughout the pandemic, the Virginia Department of Corrections has faced persistent criticism from advocates, inmates and their family members for not doing enough to control the spread of the virus and the slow implementation of an early release program lawmakers approved in April.
Northam’s administration initially estimated 2,000 inmates with a record of good behavior and a year or less to serve on their sentence would qualify for the program as long as they weren’t convicted of capital murder or a violent sexual offense, but as of this week, just 529 inmates have been released from state facilities and one inmate has been released from an institutional hospital.
In June, as few as 30 inmates a week were being reviewed for release. The low number caught the attention of U.S. District Judge David Novak, who is overseeing a settlement agreement in a case brought by inmates against the department early in the pandemic.
In a July 1 email, Novak’s clerk wrote that the judge “has been following the status reports filed by the state and is alarmed at how slow the review process has been going for inmate releases.” Without “significant improvement,” he wrote, Novak was prepared to intervene: “He asked me to stress that the numbers he’s been seeing are not satisfactory, especially considering the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases across the country.”
The department responded by first outlining their success containing the virus and then by offering a detailed account of the three layers of bureaucratic review they had established to vet inmates’ early release requests and the limited number of employees with the training and qualifications to assist with the process. “Agency employees have been working overtime in an attempt to facilitate this process,” they wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which is representing the inmates in court, responded that if the department created an overly cumbersome review program, it should change it, noting few of the steps the department outlined are required by the legislation approved by the General Assembly.
The ACLU also argued the response doesn’t explain why several of its clients reported being told that the department had ceased accepting applications — an allegation the department has said is “in error.”
“The foot dragging doesn’t make sense when they could potentially be infected and die,” said Eden Heilman, the organization’s legal director. “Again, these are people who are going to be released in a year anyway.”
Since then, the department has begun reviewing closer to 60 inmates for release a week, but several inmates who are now infected with the virus say they qualify and have received no updates on the status of their application.
“Here I am with four months and two weeks left and I’m stuck here and I caught COVID-19,” said Johnson, who was found guilty of first degree murder when he was 17 and is nearing the end of a 22-year sentence.
‘I just hope I make it out of here’
Other men in Johnson’s housing unit at Deerfield said the same thing in interviews. Before the pandemic began, their 100-person dorm was mostly filled with people nearing their release dates, they say, and so far no one they know has qualified.
“They misled us, they misinformed us and they’re not giving us any information,” said Keith Peeples, a 52-year-old from Norfolk who is serving a two-year sentence for drug and assault charges and is also scheduled to be released in January. “I just hope I make it out of here in 100 days. I just hope I make it out.”
Of men in the dorm, all but about 12 tested positive, they said — part of an outbreak the department announced over the weekend had infected 407 people at the prison, which houses many of the state’s sickest and most vulnerable inmates. Four of the infected inmates died, the department said, bringing the death toll at the facility to eight — the highest of any prison in the state.
Inmates say the conditions in their dormitory — rooms filled with bunks spaced three feet apart — were bad before they were designated as a COVID-19 ward. But they described the department’s response to nearly everyone testing positive as shocking, with a single nurse and single guard tasked with overseeing a building housing between 175 and 200 infected men across two rooms. About a dozen are on oxygen or IV lines, they say.
“Everyone is laying around, coughing really bad, trembling really bad — the COVID-19 virus, I’d seen it on TV, but living inside an environment that’s horrible like this — you’d have to see it to believe it,” said Peeples, whose own symptoms have so far consisted of aches, fatigue, chills and night sweats.
They say a half dozen of the men in their dorm appear to have severe cases and are struggling to breathe but have not been hospitalized. They say it’s common for inmates to pass out in their bed or while attempting to get to the bathroom. And they say delivery of medication and food is inconsistent. What meals do arrive are often inedible or inappropriate for a ward of sick prisoners, such as uncooked hot dogs, boiled potatoes and bologna, the inmates say.
“Boiled potato and boiled egg — that’s on the dinner menu,” said Lawrence Church, a diabetic with myriad other health issues who doesn’t qualify for early release because of a disciplinary infraction but has applied for a conditional pardon from Northam in light of his medical condition. He says he has not received a response. “We finally got some turkey and cooked hot dogs. … It still makes me want to cry thinking about it because it was the best food we’d had in months. And we’re talking about turkey lunch meat.”
‘It’s been a concern from day one’
The Virginia Mercury provided the Department of Corrections with a detailed account of the conditions and concerns described by inmates. The department’s spokeswoman, Lisa Kinney, did not address them directly, writing in a statement that the department continues to follow CDC and internal guidelines.
She also did not address a request to interview someone from the department familiar with operations in Deerfield or Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, which also houses medically vulnerable inmates and is the site of an ongoing outbreak of 50 cases.
“We treat symptoms as they arise, just as you would in any primary care setting,” she said. “We can provide many things, including oxygen, on-site. If offenders require an inpatient level of care, they go to a hospital.”
Her response did suggest the department agrees that it needs more medical staff to respond to the outbreak at Deerfield, writing that the company the department contracts to provide health care in the facility is “actively recruiting additional temp nurses” and that the department is “offering incentives for medical staff from other facilities to come to Deerfield to help with the outbreak.”
Moran, Northam’s secretary of public safety, called the ongoing spread troubling. But asked whether the prison system was reevaluating its protocols or planning to reconsider its approach to the early release program, he suggested no major changes are forthcoming and believes prison administrators are handling the pandemic as well as possible.
“At the very beginning we were aware this was a highly contagious disease and that any congregate housing setting would be susceptible,” he said. “It’s been a concern from day one and it will continue to be a concern until we have an appropriate, effective vaccine.”
Advocates say that with no end to the pandemic in sight and the DOC no better able to contain its spread than when it began, there’s a clear and urgent need to release more inmates faster. They renewed calls for Northam to use his pardon power — a step he has resisted — and for the department to drop internal eligibility rules that go beyond those set by the General Assembly.
“Reducing the population at these facilities is one of the most efficient ways to reduce the risk to specific individuals released, the population who remain incarcerated, and the staff who work at these facilities,” said Heilman, the ACLU’s litigation director. “Reduced populations facilitate social distancing and demands on the prisons’ over-stretched medical resources.”
Inmates call for social distancing
Inmates, meanwhile, say that at the very least they want the DOC to follow its own guidelines and keep inmates, guards and staff members as separate as possible.
In Fluvanna, after an outbreak of 50 cases meant most kitchen workers were placed into quarantine, three prisoners say they were ordered by guards to pick up the shifts. When they said they didn’t want to go because they were afraid of contracting the virus themselves, they said they were threatened with an institutional charge that would delay their eventual release.
Their fears were validated after their first shift on Thursday, when they say they weren’t allowed to return to their wing and were instead also put into quarantine because staff believed they had in fact come in contact with the virus while working.
“They should be limiting our movement, shutting down the day rooms and having separate outside staff doing all the food service and not mixing and mingling people from all different buildings,” said Minnie Pierce, a 35-year-old from Page County who has been held at Fluvanna for five years. “And at the very least not having inmates from all over the building prepare food.”
Inmates in Deerfield also complained prison administrators haven’t been doing enough to avoid unnecessary contact among inmates, staff and others. They say the outbreak in their dormitory was preceded by a search of their dorm that brought officers from several facilities into close contact with them. They also complained that administrators had allowed a tour group of about 20 — they believe it was trainees or prospective hires — to walk through the unit.
“This is a time when they are constantly telling us to social distance, yet you’re always bringing people in here who can bring us the virus,” Johnson said.