Lawyers group urges speedy vaccination of Virginia prisoners, staff

A picture of the assisted living ward at Deerfield Correctional Center that the Virginia Department of Corrections shared with lawmakers in 2019. The prison, which houses some of the state's most medically fragile inmates, has seen a major COVID-19 outbreak. (Virginia Department of Corrections)

The National Lawyers Guild is urging Virginia officials to prioritize vaccination efforts in Virginia prisons, where COVID-19 cases are at their highest numbers since the pandemic began.

“The detained population, whether in our jails, prisons, ICE detention centers or those held in the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation, have no control over their own health care or safety,” wrote Alan Graf, president of the organization’s Southwest Virginia Chapter in a letter to Northam’s administration Tuesday.

“They live in close quarters in indoor environments where social distancing is non-existent. Sanitation is often lacking, communication with those on the outside is limited, and health care, even in the best of times, is challenging. Inmates simply cannot control their exposure to this serious illness.”

The state’s vaccination plan doesn’t mention prison staff or inmates and Northam’s administration told VPM News earlier this month that the state will rely on federal guidance that has not yet arrived to determine how the 25,000 prisoners in state custody should be prioritized.

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As of Tuesday, the Department of Corrections was reporting 1,444 active cases, the highest levels the department has seen since March, the department told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

According to the Prison Policy Institute, seven states include incarcerated people in the first phase of their vaccination delivery plans and 13 states include corrections staff.

Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran responded to Graf’s letter Tuesday morning.

“Despite DOC’s Herculean efforts this highly contagious virus is affecting our prisons and jail,” he wrote. “I can assure you this is known at all levels of this administration as we determine how limited supplies of the vaccine are prioritized.”

The Legal Aid Justice Center, a Virginia nonprofit, also urged the governor to come up with a plan for vaccinating prisoners.

“Incarcerated and detained people in Virginia must have meaningful access to vaccines and COVID-19 healthcare—in addition to planning logistics of dose acquisition and administration, it is essential that distribution plans include meaningful patient education and the opportunity for patients to consult with a doctor prior to vaccine administration,” Amy Woolard, the group’s policy director, wrote.