In a Sunday briefing, state officials said that there have been no cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus, among inmates at Virginia’s 40 state-run incarceration facilities.
But Brian Moran, the commonwealth’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, also said that no inmates have been tested for the virus, throwing the state’s official count into doubt.
“I’m not aware of any who have been tested for COVID,” he said. “Some have presented for testing and, frankly, have not met the guidelines instituted and followed by the Department of Health.
“That’s a piece of information we plan on being very transparent about,” Moran added.
Inmate health and safety has become a point of concern across the country amid a growing pandemic of coronavirus. Prison facilities, where inmates are usually densely housed, are particularly susceptible to outbreaks of the easily transmissible disease.
Thirty-eight inmates have already tested positive in New York City jails. Officials there are in the process of identifying “vulnerable” residents and other inmates — such as those incarcerated for minor crimes — who could be eligible for release.
Other cities have already freed hundreds of inmates in an effort to create quarantined areas in often overcrowded prisons. In Virginia, Moran and Gov. Ralph Northam have canceled visitation at state-run facilities and implemented new screening protocols for offenders coming into state prisons from public jails. Local jails here are also releasing inmates to reduce overcrowding.
Northam has also issued guidelines aimed at reducing the flow of new offenders into state-run facilities. They include sentence modifications to reduce prison populations, considering ways to reduce low-risk offenders that are being held without bail, and using alternative observation methods, such as home electronic monitoring instead of incarceration.
The Department of Corrections has also put a 30-day freeze on offender intake from local jails and indefinitely suspended all transfers between state run facilities. The governor’s guidelines call for offenders to be diverted from state prison before trial whenever possible, including the suggestion that law enforcement use summonses instead of arrests.
But so far, the governor has stopped short at ordering the release of certain offenders. The ACLU of Virginia has called on the Department of Corrections and private jails to educate inmates about the virus and ways they can reduce the risk of spread.
“They must be educated on the importance of proper handwashing, coughing into their elbows and social distancing to the extent they can,” the letter reads.
Moran said that sheriffs across Virginia have expressed interest in reducing their offender populations to create quarantine areas in local jails. He didn’t know if there have been any positive cases or testing for COVID-19 at the more than 60 local jails across the commonwealth, which are operated independently from state-run Department of Corrections facilities.
“Our sheriff community has asked guidance from the governor,” Moran said, “so that all players in the criminal justice system would hear that message loud and clear that some extraordinary efforts should be made for those low-level offenders who do not present a danger to the community to be considered for release or alternatives to incarceration.”
Moran said one employee with the Department of Juvenile Justice recently tested negative for coronavirus. Across the commonwealth, there are now 219 confirmed cases, 32 hospitalizations, and three deaths — the most recent a Fairfax County man in his 60s.