Concerns, tension mount as COVID-19 cases found inside Va. prisons
Officials are following the CDC's guidance and the warden said he regularly checks on inmates and staff
By Gary A. Harki
CHESAPEAKE, Va. — The coronavirus is infiltrating state prisons, and inmates, lawyers and families fear the worst.
Three inmates at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland, a contractor and three staff members — including a correctional officer at Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake — have tested positive.
There is more at risk here than the lives of inmates and prison staff, said Deborah Golden, an attorney representing inmates at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in a long-running lawsuit. Prisons could become petri dishes for the virus, places where it can grow and spread then be carried back into the community.
“We are just trying to make sure that our clients have the best shot of getting out of this alive," she said. “That we all do.”
Inmates and their loved ones worry that it is just the beginning.
“This whole nightmare has been stressful,” said Angie Holsinger, whose fiance, Kenneth Ware, is incarcerated at Indian Creek. “The corrections officer (who tested positive for the virus) was mainly in one pod but has been in other locations within the prison. They don’t know how many have been exposed.”
The inmates have had face masks to wear. It became mandatory to wear them on Wednesday, she said.
In the days leading up to the announcement of the positive test on March 31, Ware and other Indian Creek inmates described the situation inside the prison as getting progressively more worrisome and dangerous.
“The situation in here is very tense, enough to (where) it is almost out of control,” Ware said in an email to The Virginian-Pilot on March 23.
Department of Corrections officials said officers are following the Center for Disease Control’s guidance for corrections officers and that the warden regularly checks on inmates and staff. A DOC spokeswoman confirmed to the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the department is considering using the former Culpeper Juvenile Correctional Center at Coffeewood to house sick prisoners and possibly even local jail inmates with COVID-19.
Holsinger said Ware, who works as a barber in Indian Creek, refused to cut hair on Monday because of fears of contracting the virus. At first he was charged with refusing to work and told he’d lost his job. Later, a regional DOC official forced the prison to stop cutting hair and Ware was told the charge was dropped and he’d get his job back.
The prison has attempted to isolate all the inmates in their housing units. Though kitchen workers are scattered throughout the Indian Creek prison, they come together and work “elbow to elbow,” spreading any germs, said Michael Treadway, an inmate there. They then return to their units, posing a threat to other prisoners, he said.
“The kitchen is so dirty,” he wrote in a March 25 email. “I’m a line server and I see trays go by all the time that have not been properly cleaned, leaving food particles on them which make us get sick. They stopped the population from going to the chow hall and instead we are sending the trays to the housing units inside food carts that are really nasty. Nothing gets cleaned right.”
Food service workers follow safety guidelines and don’t go in housing units for everyone’s safety, said Gregory Carter, the deputy director of communications for the department.
The DOC has repeatedly updated its guidance for staff on how to prepare for the virus and when to come to work. A previous guidance, dated March 26, told staff to practice self observation if they have been “in the same indoor environment as a person with symptomatic laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 for a prolonged period.”
That falls far short of protecting staff and the community, said Claire Gasta\u00f1aga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.
“It is increasingly clear that asymptomatic individuals can be a source of infection for others,” she said in an email. “Moreover, it is not clear from the policy whether there is any effort or intent to maintain the six-foot social distancing recommended by CDC or how staff and residents are being encouraged and allowed to engage in routine handwashing and other best practices related to social distancing.”
The DOC is following CDC guidelines and providing plenty of soap and water for offenders, Carter said.
“Each offender is being given two bars of soap per week for their own personal use. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer has been ordered for use in the infirmaries and assisted living facilities,” he said in an email. “The department is working closely with the Virginia Department of Health and we continue to plan around the clock for every possible contingency.”
The latest guidance, issued on Monday, tells staff, “Do not enter the workplace!” if they’ve had a fever, cough, shortness of breath, or within the last 14 days traveled to an area with sustained spread of the virus or come into close contact with someone who has it. DOC staff are also now having their temperatures taken before being allowed inside prisons.
Carter also noted the department has not had any coronavirus-related staff shortages.
But social distancing is nearly impossible. There’s simply not enough room in prisons to maintain a distance of six feet between all staff and inmates.
The coronavirus is going to make it into most, if not all, DOC facilities, said Shannon Ellis, an attorney with the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center. She also works on the Fluvanna lawsuit.
That prison houses the sickest female prisoners from across the state. It’s a particularly vulnerable population. Ellis said her clients are worried about getting their medications, going to doctor appointments and getting the care they need in addition to protecting themselves from the virus.
“Our office spoke with a woman earlier this week who said, you know, given her risk factors and the living conditions that she feels that she’s a sitting duck.” Ellis said. “And it’s hard for me to know how to reassure her just given given the realities.”
Golden said she’s seen all sorts of disaster planning for prisons, from what to do during a major influenza outbreak to how to manage things during an earthquake or hurricane.
“But nothing for something like this. This is unimaginable,” she said.
©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)