Virginia prisoners request independent monitor as COVID-19 cases and deaths mount

Lawyers representing Virginia prisoners are asking the state to install an independent expert to evaluate the Department of Corrections’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The request comes as COVID-19 cases surge and the death toll rises amid an ongoing outbreak at Deerfield Correctional Center, which houses elderly and medically vulnerable inmates. As of Wednesday, the department reported 462 active infection among prisoners at the facility and 10 deaths — more than any other prison in the state.

“The numbers themselves demonstrate one of two things: Either the measures they’re instituting aren’t appropriate or that they aren’t actually following through on what they’re saying they’re doing,” said Eden Heilman, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which is representing inmates who filed a lawsuit against the department shortly after the pandemic began. “We wouldn’t have outbreaks like what we have in Deerfield if one of those two things weren’t happening.”

Prison officials counter that they’re following all available safety guidance and reviewed their approach with the Centers for Disease Control. “As we’ve witnessed in nursing homes everywhere, the offender population at Deerfield is unfortunately more vulnerable to the coronavirus,” DOC Director Harold Clarke said in a news release Wednesday.

The ACLU made the request for an independent monitor this week when it delivered a notice to the state alleging corrections officials aren’t living up to the terms of a settlement agreement signed in May aimed at resolving inmate complaints about inadequate care.

The civil rights group told the department that prisoners in Deerfield continue to report delays in receiving medical treatment, relaying an account from inmate James Dillingham, who has a history of heart and respiratory problems but says he was prescribed allergy medications — Benadryl and Sudafed — when he complained about COVID-19 symptoms. The symptoms persisted and two weeks later he collapsed, waking up in a hospital bed where he was informed he had in fact tested positive for the virus, according to a sworn affidavit.

Inmates also reported that staff aren’t always following guidelines requiring them wear masks, pull face coverings down to speak to inmates, are not limiting movement between facilities and buildings and failing to follow through on promises to increase cleaning efforts.

Collapsing inmates, cold hot dogs and one nurse: quarantine in a Virginia prison

The allegations match accounts three inmates who tested positive at Deerfield shared with the Virginia Mercury last week when the outbreak at the facility was beginning, describing crowded dormitories and limited medical care, with one nurse providing care for a building of nearly 200 infected inmates.

The Department of Corrections has consistently defended its approach, saying Wednesday it “has taken major steps” to manage the outbreak and reduce its spread, citing mass testing and increased medical staffing, including the hiring of 14 new critical care nurses, 14 correctional nurses and seven nursing assistants.

The department said it’s also sent additional security staff to the facility, has an ambulance ready on site seven days a week, disturbed 25,000 bars of soap and deployed a mobile kitchen and additional food service staff. (Infected inmates said last week that many meals had consisted of cold hotdogs or bologna.)

“The department’s pandemic response plan consists of more than 900 pages of documents addressing every situation we have faced during this pandemic,” Clarke said. “We responded to the outbreak at Deerfield with months of knowledge and best practices that we’ve developed since the beginning of the pandemic.”

He said the department also consulted the Centers for Disease Control about the Deerfield outbreak and was told “they could offer no additional advice above our current practice.”

The DOC has until Monday to respond to the ACLU’s claims and requests. If the two can’t reach an agreement, the dispute will go back before a federal judge.