'It's definitely nerve-racking': Va. COs speak out about COVID-19 behind bars
"There's a lot of questions, and not a lot of answers," one correctional officer said
By Marie Albiges, Gary A. Harki, Margaret Matray and Katherine Hafner
NORFOLK, Va. — While much of Virginia tries to reopen following the coronavirus shutdown, some people are slowly emerging from their homes after months of isolation. To curb the virus’ spread, they’re being encouraged to keep their distance from others.
Inside jails and prisons, there’s no phased reopening. Social distancing is impossible.
The virus is easily transmissible in close quarters, and its threat remains very real. There’s no telling when precautions will be lifted, when visitors will be allowed again.
Inmates try to keep clean, but staying six feet from others in an 80-man pod with two people — or more — to a cell is impossible.
The Virginia Department of Corrections said nearly 1,500 of its more than 27,500 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus. So far 10 have died.
The Virginian-Pilot interviewed more than 25 jail and prison inmates, family members and deputies about their experiences during the coronavirus pandemic.
For them and thousands of others, it’s been a time of fear and isolation. From the start of their day to the moment they go to bed at night, they worry about their loved ones at home and fear getting sick behind bars.
Wake and clean
Marcus Sykes and his cellmates scramble to be first to get to the mop, bucket, broom, dustpan and spray bottle of cleaning solution. It’s 7 a.m. and cleaning supplies have just arrived in their pod at the Chesapeake City Jail.
With about eight men to a cell — 80 in a pod — if they don’t hurry, the cleaning solution might be gone by the time it gets to them.
And bleach? That might come around once a month, he said.
“You can ask for it,” said Sykes, “but good luck.”
Sykes has been at the city jail for nearly a year — long before the pandemic began. But cleaning and keeping cells and clothing sanitized has taken on a new level of importance now, the 50-year-old said.
Inmates there get one bar of soap and a roll of toilet paper each week. They can buy more soap from the commissary, he said, but not everyone has the funds for that.
Sykes tries to stretch his bar of soap to last the whole week, but it’s tough since he also uses it to wash his undergarments.
He gets a box of laundry detergent about once a month, but the box says it’s enough for only one load, Sykes said. He tries to wash his mask and his clothes twice a week, but that often means asking someone else if he can add his garments to their laundry load.
During the pandemic, Sykes said, there’s a line four to five people deep waiting for the washer.
“If we don’t rely on each other right now, it would be a total disaster.”
Sykes hasn’t seen his family for four months. He worries about his aging parents, his fiancée and the kids. He had a daughter born in February.
If only he could get home, Sykes said, he could mow the grass for his father, grocery shop for the family: “… I can’t tell you how much guilt I feel.”
The wife outside
Dashelle Bennett, 41, is awake and getting ready for her day when her husband Luther Bennett calls from St. Brides Correctional Center in Chesapeake, where they’ve just turned the phones on.
In three 20-minute conversations, she tells Luther, 44, how things are going, about the kids and what she’ll cook for dinner that night. They talk about what they would be doing if he was home.
Back when in-person visits were allowed, Dashelle would bring Luther orange juice, to give his immune system a boost. Orange juice, and orange slices, weren’t available in the state prison, she said, and he needed his Vitamin C.
Inmates in his 98-man pod now sleep head to foot, rather than all facing the same way, to prevent the spread of the illness. Given Luther’s 6-foot-2-inch frame, that means his head tucks under a tray attached to the end of his bed.
The packaged disinfectant that comes into the prison is a bright fuschia color, but by the time Luther and the other inmates get some to clean their personal areas, it’s a light, watered-down pink, he said.
DOC spokeswoman Lisa Kinney said the department makes its own cleaning supplies and doesn’t water anything down unless it’s a product meant to be diluted.
Dashelle doesn’t know when Luther’s supposed to get out— just that it’s within a year of the April 22 order letting eligible inmates be released early. The Department of Corrections says it is short staffed and can’t determine his release date right now.
Release dates are calculated as quickly as possible, with priority given to those whose dates are closer at hand, Kinney said. The calculations, which take into account many factors that can stretch back decades, are complicated. There was already a large volume, and Kinney said the number has been increased both by state lawmakers allowing early release and by judges who’ve suspended the rest of some inmates’ terms during the pandemic.
In the meantime, Luther wonders whether they’ll ever allow in-person visits again at the prison, at least until a vaccine is approved.
“The country is reopening, but we’ll never reopen,” he said. “Is there a plan for us to ever get back to some sense of normalcy? That’s the biggest question mark that hangs over my head.”
Kinney said there’s no timeline for when visitors will be allowed back. A task force is looking into the logistics and will eventually make recommendations.
Watching and waiting
Over at Keen Mountain Correctional Center in western Virginia, Michael Turner watches the news every day, hoping to learn more about a way out of the prison.
With less than a year left on his sentence, the 36-year-old thought he qualified for the governor’s early release plan in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. He has a home plan, a wife and daughter. But he said his application was rejected due to a high recidivism risk calculation that was based in part on a questionnaire he found to be arbitrary — asking questions such as what he’d do if he spotted a $20 bill on the street.
“A computer determined whether I was high risk,” he said.
He’s given up hope on getting out before his scheduled release. He’s just trying to stay alive until then.
As of June 23, 286 people have been released early from DOC facilities and another 141 that the DOC is responsible for but were housed in jails, Kinney said.
Turner said his preteen daughter, who was an infant when he entered prison, hadn’t talked to him for weeks after the rejection. She was mad he’d gotten her hopes up.
Prison officials handed out masks and are strict about inmates keeping them on, Turner said, “but you can’t breathe in them.”
“It’s like a string wrapped in a piece of leather,” he said.
He’s already been disciplined once for being caught momentarily without the face covering on, and won’t know until later this year whether that pushes back his release.
Life at Keen Mountain was already difficult, but compounded with the COVID-19 crisis it’s taking a toll on everyone, Turner said.
“I know I’m going to need some real serious therapy when I get out of here.”
Inside with COVID
Chad O’Handley survived COVID-19 inside Buckingham Correctional Center west of Richmond and is happy he can leave his cell again.
“The experience was more psychologically trying than anything else,” he said in an email. “Physically, this was not even as bad as a cold. I had the loss of smell, and my urge to eat was just nonexistent.”
Staff checked temperatures twice daily. O’Handley said everyone came to dread it because if you had a high temperature, you might be moved out of your cell.
O’Handley’s roommate, who tested negative, was moved to another pod. He believes moving inmates that were exposed but tested negative helped spread the virus to other parts of the prison.
“No surprise, those pods then became hot spots quickly,” O’Handley said. “We had guys telling staff, despite that test coming back negative, ‘I feel sick. I can’t smell anything, I’m sick.’ And the response was, ‘Well the test came back negative.’”
After the moves, people would start testing positive in those supposedly COVID-free pods, he said.
“There is wholesale moving of exposed inmates, causing further exposure,” he said.
Kinney said O’Handley may have mistaken why his roommate was moved. Buckingham has multiple pods for offenders who’ve been exposed, she said, and O’Handley might not have realized his cellmate had been taken to one.
O’Handley is one of more than 100 inmates at Buckingham to recover from the virus, according to the most recent data provided by the Department of Corrections. More than 50 people in the prison currently have the virus, along with two other Buckingham inmates who are in the hospital.
Now most people can leave their cells again, though they still eat meals in them and are mostly confined to their pod. O’Handley and other inmates have to wear masks constantly. He says his new cellmate works in the kitchen. He’s worried that the kitchen workers, which come from pods all over the prison, are spreading the virus amongst each other and into new areas.
Staff mask wearing has been lax, he said.
“Staff tend to lower or take theirs off when they go into the control booth. As if they are somehow not the ones carrying this into the prisons. As if we are the danger,” he said. “But it’s them who are a danger to us in this way. We started out quarantined.”
Kinney said staff are required to wear masks and if they do not they’re subjected to standard employee discipline procedures.
O’Handley said the worst part of the last few months has been the stress.
“I’ve done a lot of time now and I’m kind of used to being locked up, not to say I don’t ever want to be free .. but I’ve come to accept where I’m at,” he said. “But it was a new thing when you weren’t sure what was going to happen and you’re seeing on TV that there’s bodybags in some places. … You feel like that dog at the SPCA, just pacing back and forth.”
At the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland, 37-year-old Takia Nelson has recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and now works in the kitchen preparing meals — both for people who’ve tested positive and those who haven’t.
Everyone she knows at the prison either had or assumes they’ve had COVID-19 sometime in the last few months. The Goochland prison was the site of the DOC’s first outbreak of the disease, and first inmate death from it — both stemming from Nelson’s hall.
“If they’re in a red jumpsuit you know they have an active case,” she said. “It lets the officers know they’re actively sick.”
Nelson said officials put the inmates in her section in a basement while decontaminating the building.
“After we sat in that basement all together, that’s when we all got sick,” she said. “It was like a chain reaction.”
Nelson said at various points she had a fever, chills, diarrhea, fatigue, shortness of breath and loss of appetite and taste. It took her weeks to get a test result — and only after she filed a grievance — but it was eventually confirmed positive.
Kinney said the DOC has been able to test on a wider scale than most “congregate” settings, such as nursing homes or other prison systems. The department has done more than 22,220 tests on inmates, she said, a number that includes some tested more than once. And it has aimed to catch cases sooner and lessen spread by testing staff and inmates who haven’t shown any symptoms.
Even when one woman recovers, Nelson said, they often go back to the same spaces while still potentially transmissible. So the cycle continues.
“Women are literally sleeping on top of each other,” she said.
Her room faces a main road in the central Virginia prison, she added, and back in April she was seeing at least one ambulance come through every day. “They’re not going to do that unless it’s very serious.”
For the past two months she’d been using the same surgical mask.
Kinney said the department has made hundreds of thousands of masks and even sells them to other state and local agencies, so any inmate who needs one can get it.
Nelson said her mask became covered in fuzzy grime, though she’d been washing it out with Dove hand soap.
“They’re coming apart, they’re tearing. They’re so dirty God knows what’s on there.”
Dreaming of a friend
Amanda Turner, who lives in the same section of Goochland as Nelson, still dreams about her friend who died of COVID-19.
Melissa “Missy” Horn was the first prisoner in the state to die of the illness on April 14.
Turner recalled Horn going up to guards “sick as a dog” when the women were living in the basement while the building was cleaned.
“Missy just wanted to go home and she didn’t get that opportunity,” said Turner, 39. “I don’t want to be Missy Horn.”
In June, she was happy to at least be able to shower daily again — for several months during the pandemic, inmates were only allowed to take one every three days, which many thought ran counter to the constant urging to stay clean. During that time, Turner said, cleaning the toilets was like winning the lottery, because it came with a guaranteed shower.
Turner said she’s experienced anxiety since Horn’s death and would like to see a psychiatrist, but with pandemic restrictions she hadn’t yet been able.
One night she dreamt Horn was alive and that it was “like old times.” Horn wanted her to do her eyebrows, and Turner teased her that she had none.
Guarding the sickest
At VCU Medical Center in Richmond a correctional officer who guards COVID-19 patients sent there from state prisons and jails wonders if or when he will get the virus.
“It’s definitely nerve-racking, sitting right there,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by the DOC. He and his colleagues also guard inmates who’ve been hospitalized for other conditions.
A few weeks ago, one inmate who’d tested positive had stabilized in the ICU. It seemed he was actually getting better.
But the next day, he died, the officer said.
“He went from being stable to just gone.”
The correctional officers stand guard inside the inmates’ secure unit as well as outside the pressurized ICU units, where many COVID-19 positive inmates are moved if their symptoms worsen. Every day, the officer watches doctors and nurses go from one coronavirus patient to the next.
All around them, medical staff wear surgical masks. But the officer and their coworkers had to wear prisoner-made cloth masks until a few weeks ago, when the hospital issued them identification cards with a scannable barcode that allowed them to get a new surgical mask from a kiosk every day.
The hospital is considered a satellite facility of nearby State Farm Correctional Center, where inmates and officers were tested the week of May 27. All four shifts of officers working at the hospital were tested in early June, and the DOC said the test results were negative, but this officer is still skeptical.
“There’s a lot of questions, and not a lot of answers,” the officer said.
Keeping the virus out
It’s the job of Lt. Robin Archer and his colleagues to make sure the coronavirus doesn’t get inside the Portsmouth City Jail.
With the sheriff’s office for 20 years, he now runs maintenance at the jail and likens the constant regime of cleaning to fighting an “invisible war.”
“Everybody’s taking it very serious. This is nothing to joke about. This stuff will take you away from here.”
So far, no inmates there have tested positive.
The Western Tidewater Regional Jail and the city jails in Chesapeake, Hampton and Newport News also have not had any COVID-19 cases among their inmate populations, according to the facilities.
One inmate tested positive at the Virginia Beach jail, and 45 inmates have recovered from the illness at the Norfolk jail. Currently, one inmate at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail is positive for the coronavirus.
In Portsmouth, jail staff makes sure inmates get cleaning supplies three times a day to clean cells and dayroom areas. And three times a week, Archer and another deputy use a spray pump to wash ceilings, walls, floors and benches with a bleach solution.
Archer has seen how quickly illness can spread. In the early 2000s, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria MRSA got into the Portsmouth jail, he said, and inmates and some deputies got sick.
Archer said they learned then what cleaning supplies worked and which ones didn’t. Ever since, they’ve used disinfectant soap and bleach at the jail.
His biggest concern during the pandemic: bringing the coronavirus home. So he takes precautions. When he gets home, he takes his clothes off in the garage, tosses them in the washer and showers before he sees his family, before he kisses his wife.
Said Archer: “I have an awesome wife, and I have an awesome family. … I don’t want nothing to happen to none of them.”
The waiting family
Debbie and Donald Sykes are working hard to get their son Josh’s room ready for when he comes home from Indian Creek Correctional Center and is back at their home in Chesapeake.
That’s supposed to be on Sept. 21, but they’re hoping that with the governor saying certain inmates with less than a year to serve can come home early, it’s sooner than that. The 28-year-old is serving four years for a probation violation.
“I prepare every day for that phone call, ‘Come get me,‘’ said Debbie Sykes, 62, whose family is not related to Marcus Sykes.
Whenever he comes home, he’ll get the apartment above the garage at the Sykes’ Chesapeake home and quarantine for 14 days. Debbie has been disinfecting and painting, polishing the furniture, and stocking the fridge with his favorite foods. She’s added a television and a gaming system, puzzles and a sketch pad for Josh, an avid drawer.
If she builds it, he will come, Debbie thinks.
“We keep on telling him, ‘Son, we got things ready for you,” Donald said.
Wondering at night
At night, many inmates’ thoughts turn to the uncertainty that lies ahead.
One recent night, an old man cried on Daniel Creekmore’s shoulder, his emotions spilling out as he talked of his fear about the coronavirus getting into Lawrenceville Correctional Center.
“If that corona stuff comes in here, man, I’m gonna die,” Creekmore recalls the man, who’s in his 70s, saying. (As of Thursday, 41 inmates and one staff member have tested positive at Lawrenceville.)
“We’ve done 95% of our sentence and are just waiting to go home,” 46-year-old Creekmore said, “and there’s a possibility that this stuff can get here and really kill us before we get a chance to live the rest of our lives after we’ve paid our debt to society.”
A hundred miles away on a different night, Marlon BaCote watched other inmates at Indian Creek pray in a circle and find hope.
The General Assembly was about to vote on the governor’s proposal allowing qualifying inmates with less than a year left of their sentence to be released.
The group of praying men the evening of April 22 was the largest BaCote had seen since he’d first come to the prison, located in Chesapeake, a year and a half ago.
“I know that day and I know that time, because the whole mood of the day changed,” said BaCote, 48. “People were having a sense of hope.”
But that hope dwindled for several inmates after they found out they were considered too great a risk for release by the department.
BaCote was one of the lucky ones. He was released on June 4 — 16 months early thanks to the completion of a peer recovery program.
It was the same day the National Guard tested everyone at Indian Creek for the coronavirus.
BaCote learned earlier this month that an asymptomatic inmate tested positive, and his former pod was put in quarantine — unable to leave the dorm even to step outside.
BaCote was tested on June 17 and received his results on Monday — negative.
As soon as he was released he went to see his mother, the former state delegate Mamye BaCote, who lives in a nursing home where there haven’t been any reported coronavirus cases.
He saw her through the window, pressing his face up to the glass.
“She smiled; I saw her put her head down,” he said. “I know my mom — I know she wanted to hold me.”
©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)