Virginia Jails and Prisons Brace for Pandemic

Richmond city jail inmates

by a contributing writer

Fears of COVID-19 outbreaks among prisoners and correctional employees have begun to be realized. Department of Corrections efforts to mitigate infections have been notably effective, yet confirmed cases now include 13 inmates and five staff, as well as one inmate in the Fairfax County jail. Dozens more are being monitored. Given limited testing and asymptomatic carriers, it’s reasonable to assume the problem is larger than the test numbers convey. Inmates, staff, and family members are on edge and share a common fear of what might come next. Prisoner rights’ groups locally, nationally, and around the world are petitioning for conditional releases and alternative forms of supervision to limit the casualties.

It might just be time for Governor Ralph Northam to employ his emergency powers and resources to ensure that, should there be a major outbreak within a Virginia prison or jail, inmates and staff can be assured of a safe environment, even if requires shifting some to alternative or temporary facilities.

The Virginia Department of Corrections and the Virginia court system have already taken a wide array of actions in response to the pandemic and are working through a task force. There are comprehensive pandemic sanitation plans, modified lockdowns, cancelled live visitations, daily monitoring for symptoms, and suspension of court/trial activities. Some prisoners (offenders) in the Virginia Correctional Enterprises are even manufacturing simple face masks for use by guards and prisoners.

The Virginia Beach Sheriff’s office moved quickly to identify 60 prisoners who were eligible for GPS-monitored home incarceration – other jails need to follow that lead. These are important steps. But even with the possibility of extensive monitored releases or furloughs, ­it’s likely not going to be enough: With so many state and local facilities, it seems inevitable that some will become serious hotspots.

The state’s 37,000+ inmates (60,000 including local jails) and the thousands of corrections officers are facing risks similar to those found in nursing homes. Consider that on Friday Northam noted Central Virginia’s most intense hotspot was a care/rehabilitation center: Westminster Canterbury in western Henrico with 16 deaths, 92 testing positive (53 of them without symptoms, which increases the risk of others interacting with them). Sixty nursing homes in Maryland have COVID-19 cases, one with 99 confirmed cases. Imagine the same scenario in a prison, where even under normal conditions it’s challenging to oversee inmates’ health, many of whom are older with chronic conditions.

On Friday Northam described how the state was undertaking construction of three temporary field hospitals in anticipation of hospitals being overwhelmed: in the Dulles Expo Center, and in the Hampton Roads and the Richmond Convention Centers. But there was no mention of further contingencies plans for prisons.

The Department of Corrections’ task force is working to ensure adequate sanitation, correctional and medical staffing, as well as food service. But the department also needs to develop the capacity to rapidly “de-densify” and humanely quarantine prisoner populations where hotspots emerge, as well as mitigate the psychological and physical impact of what could be months of modified lockdowns. Such goals would not be easy to achieve, even with months of preparation and deep resources. But we don’t have that much time nor the resources for conforming to every conventional guideline.

Options to “de-densify” a correctional facility might include quickly deploying prefabricated or modular units. Such structures are already commercially produced specifically for Corrections. Ideally, if these facilities were located off-site, potentially infected inmates wouldn’t be shuttled in crowded buses without adequate personal protection.

The physical security, housing, and management of prisoners is something best left up to experts. But to put in place workable contingencies within weeks, those experts will need creative logistical support, emergency resource commitments, and the administrative flexibility to act very quickly – things that can only happen with the support of Governor Northam’s emergency powers.

The extensive emergency management efforts by the Virginia Department of Corrections to prevent or limit outbreaks deserves great credit for holding the line as long as it has. But if the nursing home hotspots are any model, there needs to be a clear backup plan, perhaps equal in clarity and scope to the field hospitals the State is building. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us fair warning to take action. Correctional staff and inmates – and families of both – deserve assurances that the state understands and is fully prepared for what could happen next.

After every crisis, we can count on a commission investigating what we knew and didn’t know – or might have done, if we only had had better insights or different priorities. Since we already have the insights, perhaps we can set the priorities and get done what we know could save lives.

The author is a researcher who lives in the Richmond area. He has asked to remain anonymous but is known to the publisher. — JAB

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


19 responses to “Virginia Jails and Prisons Brace for Pandemic”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think unless we know more about the credentials and experience of the anonymous, we’d have to treat his/her post as not with any specific insight and just a comment like others.

    Dick, on the other hand does have credentials and experience and so I do give his words due attention.

    And the prisons, just like the rest of government and for that matter much of the private sector grossly underestimated and did not adequately plan for something of this magnitude. Plenty of time later for lessons-learned all around especially if the frequency of these type pandemics would increase.

    I don’t know the logistics but it would seem not horribly difficult to set up a dedicated prison for those who are infected.

    I don’t think putting up pre-fab structures in a prison setting is a good idea.

    The big problem, pointed out by Dick previously is staffing and medical facilities.

    But I’d still favor this rather than releasing prisoners to be honest.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      A useful report, apparently from the front line, on a topic not in the MSM, and I’m curious why the reporter is so shy. Is communicating with JAB or some of the rest of us a hanging offense with the state leaders now?

  2. Nancy_Naive Avatar

    Ironic though, that the safest people on the planet are the most dangerous — those in 23-hour solitary with the mandatory 1 hour alone in the “yard”.

  3. I have only one problem with this post: the last sentence. It concludes with the speculation that a Commission is needed because, “Since we already have the insights, perhaps we can set the priorities and get done what we know could save lives.”

    My problem is, we already know what would save lives, and those things were NOT done in Virginia starting in January, when this pandemic became obvious, and over the next month we are going to see many, many more lives lost because those things were not done.

    If Virginians are not angry now, they should be, and indeed they probably will be. We also need such a Commission because we will need someone to articulate that anger for us, identify the incompetence and mendacity, and ensure the ends of those political careers.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Those things were not done in MOST states. Across the country, the prison situation is similar… Virginia is not the outlier – it’s pretty much the same as most other states.

      When we set up an environment that we are going to go after officials for the failures – in a pandemic where the same problem is happening virtually everywhere, we are not doing anything rational. We’re only going to further
      demoralize and harm the existing staff who have no motivation to keep doing everything they can because afterwards, they’re going to be hauled up on charges.

      That makes no sense.

      1. Read the last paragraph again. The anger will need to be defused and turned toward constructive measures going forward — that’s the challenge. If careers end, so be it. If charges are brought, so be it. This is not about retribution, but about fixing a demonstrably broken administration that will have caused many Virginians to die unnecessarily.

        If the threat of accountability will “further demoralize and harm the existing staff who have no motivation to keep doing everything they can” in the current circumstances, then I call upon them to quit now, for shame!

      2. Perhaps also we are talking past one another: I am talking about the Northam administration and its performance generally, not about prisons. The prisoner release issue is just one subset of that. But it perfectly illustrates the inability of the Northam administration to make decisions: this is not a failing of the prison system itself — of course, what could prison officials do without the Governor’s or even the GA’s permission? — but about the politicians at the top who must decide what will save lives. There is no leadership, there. I even wonder, is it paralysis or is it, worse, indifference? If there is going to be accountability mixed with anger someday — and I believe there will be enormous anger — it will be aimed at those at the top, and a Commission to turn that anger to constructive ends will be absolutely necessary.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Letl me list the things that Northam is also NOT doing:

          1. – getting up in front of the press and spouting idiotic statements
          2. – telling everyone it’s not his fault
          3. – telling everyone it’s someone elses fault
          4. – saying one thing one day then turning around and saying the opposite the next.

          there are more…that he is NOT doing.

          It’s crystal clear that he is no Cuomo nor Hogan but is he that different than many other states govt? Are we talking about real malfeasance or a failure for the state to adequately deal with a pandemic the likes of which we have never seen and the country full of other failures across other states?

          We got things to fix – no question – but this thing about going after people is wrongheaded and mean-spirited.

          1. djrippert Avatar

            As usual you are wrong. Northam is failing and failing badly by being unable to get Virginia’s COVID-19 testing efforts into second gear. From South Korea to Germany to New York State the idea that aggressive testing flattens the curve and reduces the death rate is well established. Many other US states are testing at a much higher per capita rate than Virginia. This is a matter of fact. When asked about Virginia’s incompetent testing levels Northam blames everybody except himself. He can’t get supplies. The federal government can’t send him test kits. Etc. Unfortunately for Northam the record is clear. Other governors are working through these obstacles to provide far more testing per capita than Virginia. Those governors also have to contend with supply chain issues. Those other governors also have to deal with whatever hand they are dealt by the federal government.

            It’s time to hold Virginia’s Democrats to account for their failure to get the state testing at an acceptable per capita level.

  4. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    The comment is a good summary of the issues facing DOC, obviously from someone with knowledge of the system.

    Over the years that I have observed and interacted with DOC management and staff, one of the things that has impressed me is the agency’s ability to be creative in the face of problems and challenges. Being a centralized, quasi-military system, it is relatively agile and can move quickly to meet those challenges. Furthermore, the current administration has not been afraid to take the initiative when needed.

    DOC has a protocol for locking down prisons in the case of infectious outbreaks and has had to use that protocol on numerous occasions in the past. Of course, those infectious incidents were confined to individual prisons, rather than in the community at large as is the case now. Regardless, the system has had experience with such emergencies.

    DOC moved quickly to stop visitation and impose a limited lockdown for offenders. In a limited lockdown, offenders are confined to their housing units or pods, but can leave their cells. They are fed in their cells or pods, rather than going to the dining hall. Access to the recreation yards is allowed by pod, to prevent offenders from different pods from coming into contact. Programming, such as education and treatment programs are suspended. Those offenders employed in enterprise programs, at least some of them, are allowed to continue those activities.

    In addition, transfers of state-responsible offenders from jails has been suspended, as well as transfers of offenders between correctional facilities.

    The community spread of the virus poses the biggest challenge to DOC. Correctional officers and staff come and go. All staff, as well as offenders, are now required to wear the sneeze/cough masks being manufactured by Correctional Enterprises. All persons now entering DOC facilities are being screened with infrared/temporal artery thermometers (forehead thermometers).

    As of yesterday, 13 offenders have been tested positive for covid-19. Six of those were at Virginia Correctional Center for Women (Goochland). That is an increase of 2 from the prior report. A new development is six offenders testing positive at the Central Virginia Correctional Unit. This is a minimum-security unit for women in Chesterfield County. (it is interesting that all the positive cases have been female offenders.) One inmate with a positive diagnosis is in a hospital that is not identified (I would guess MCV, UVa, or Southampton Memorial).

    The Central Virginia outbreak is worrisome. That is a small facility and it will be harder to isolate those offenders. I would not be surprised if the number testing positive there grows quickly.

    Five staff members have tested positive. Two of those testing positive are associated with institutions in which no offenders have yet tested positive–Indian Creek in Chesapeake and the State Farm Complex, which straddles Goochland and Powhatan Counties. I am sure that DOC officials are anxiously monitoring the offender populations in those facilities

    I am not optimistic about Anonymous’ suggestion about “de-densifying” DOC facilities. Bringing in modular or prefabricated units will not do much to decrease the density. Those types of units might be useful for isolating inmates who have tested positive.

    DOC has some options, but they are limited. Most would involve transferring offenders who have tested positive, which would risk spreading the virus more. Also, those offenders at facilities in which the positive offenders were housed, such as Central Community, likely were exposed to the infected offenders and, therefore, it would be hazardous to move them to another facility.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Dick’s summary of issue is excellent.

    2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Thanks for the detailed information, Dick.

      Sometimes, there are no good choices; one has only the best of the bad.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Exactly right. We all wish we had done better – really all of us. We should have had more backup on the TP. I wish Northam was a Cuomo or Hogan or Newsome but he’s not – that’s NOT “malfeasance” by any stretch of the imagination. I wish DOC had a better plan for how to deal with COV19 in the prisons – they didn’t, they’re doing the best they can. We’re not going to trying all the leaders of DOC for “malfeasance”. Geeze.

        1. djrippert Avatar

          Hard to understand claims of malfeasance unless our leaders are somehow directly profiting from their poor decisions and inept handling of the situation. No, this is typical party machine incompetence. Once3 upon a time Northam considered switching parties. That could have represented a major setback for the Democrats. So they promised Northam that they would take care of him. Push him upward and forward. First as Lieutenant Governor then as Governor …. as long as he was a good boy and stayed a Democrat. Ralphie toed the line and we got an inept governor at a time when we need competence.

          That’s the problem with unlimited campaign contributions, virtually no visibility to campaign contribution spending, being the worst state for partisan gerrymandering and holding off year elections – the political machine in power picks the governor far more that the voters do. The political party in power right now is the Democratic Party and they picked the wrong guy to make governor as a reward for loyal behavior.

          Cap the campaign contributions, demand transparency for campaign spending, stop the partisan gerrymandering and move the elections to even years and we’ll have much more competitive elections and much more competent governors.

  5. djrippert Avatar

    My question is what released prisoners do in this economic environment. AS the unemployment claims pile up it’s hard to imagine that prisoners will find work. I’m sure some have family and friends who will take them in but certainly not all are in that position. Giving a choice of starving or stealing won’t most steal?

    I understand the issues around prisons and jails vs Coronavirus. Nobody was ever sentenced to suffering through COVID-19 or perhaps dying from that disease. But doesn’t the state have to provide some way for released prisoners to survive in an economic environment where there are no jobs? Should the state loan the released prisoners cash against their $1,200 federal checks (I assume they get these but don’t really know)? Should the state make sure that they are signed up for some benefit programs before being released?

    1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

      The idea of release is the “freedom to distance socially”. Where they do that isn’t the issue. The idea is to keep having an ounce of pot from being the death sentence that stealing a candy bar was (ref: Tidewater Regional Jail).

      1. djrippert Avatar

        Nobody is a bigger proponent of decriminalization / legalization of adult use marijuana that I am. At least nobody who regularly writes or comments on this blog. It is absurd to put a person in prison for possessing a plant. However, once incarcerated, the prisoner no longer has an outside job and depends on the state for food, shelter, medicine, etc. Simply releasing those people with no thought as to how they will survive in a negative employment world seems risky to say the least. Risky for society and risky for the person being released. What a shame it would be if a person incarcerated for simple marijuana possession found themselves returned to prison because they were forced to burglarize in order to survive. It is in the state’s and society’s interest to help ensure that those prisoners being released early due to COVID-19 concerns have some kind of safety net once they are back in society.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          I actually agree with DJ on this. Releasing these folks makes no sense what-so-ever. Many have no income, no home to go to, no health care, and probably are not getting the stimulus check.

          This is not just a “Virginia” thing… Many other states, including the Justice Dept are advocating this.

          We can call this a “fail” like a lot of other things we are also calling a “fail” but we’re not going to haul all the heads of the prison system up on charges of “malfeasance”. It an arguable judgement – a lose-lose situation and we’ve got a few more like than in other areas of the pandemic.

        2. Nancy_Naive Avatar

          I would suspect that SOMEBODY in DoC has the good sense to assure sustenance and shelter first…. Uh, wait…

Leave a Reply