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Inmates Worry as Prisons See First COVID-19 Cases

Three inmates at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women have tested positive for the novel coronavirus along with a contractor at the prison in Goochland.

A guard at the Indian Creek Correctional Center also has the disease and prisoners around the state are worried.

Wallens Ridge is a supermax prison in Big Stone Gap where 1,200 men are locked up.  Among them is 51-year-old Kenneth Newkirk who says he and other inmates are alarmed.

“Yeah, we’re nervous.  We’re scared!" he says in a phone call. "If the coronavirus comes in here, there’s nothing that we can do, nowhere we can go.  We’re forced to stay in a cell with someone else. If someone next door gets the coronavirus we’re going to get it. We’re going to be left to die in here.”

The number one risk he and others see is staff bringing coronavirus in, even before they know they’re sick. At Buckingham inmate Tim Wright thinks prison guards – like inmates – should be locked down.

“They’re still going home to their families, so if their families go shopping, if they live in communities that have this, they could easily contract this and then they’d bring it in here,” he explains.

Wright notes that some prisons have barracks where guards could stay during natural disasters or emergencies. 

The state says it’s screening staff for COVID-19 symptoms, but it’s not clear how well that’s working. At one prison in Goochland, a nurse became the first prison employee diagnosed with COVID-19, and Shannon Ellis, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, says she’s especially worried about the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.

“We’re hearing reports that last week there was a guard with a fever who was allowed to remain in the prison, working near prisoners, some of whom are high risk for at least several hours, and also that there have been prisoners who have returned from outside appointments and developed fevers but not been isolated or quarantined.”

And because it’s designated as the prison where incarcerated women with medical problems are sent, Fluvanna is especially vulnerable.

The situation has prompted calls for early release of inmates who pose no risk to the public, and many jails are doing just that.  At the Middle River Regional Jail in Augusta County, Superintendent Jeff Newton says he’s sent about a hundred people home.

“Some folks have been placed on house arrest.  Some folks have had their bond adjusted so that they could make the bond," he says. " Probably a smaller percentage of folks have had their sentence suspended for a period of time or modified so that they could get out.”

That’s freed up space to isolate anyone diagnosed with or suspected of having COVID-19, but Newton says the jail can’t possibly assure social distancing for everyone.

“It’s next to impossible in housing offenders, especially in a facility that’s designed for 396, and today I’ve got 800," Newton says.

The man who oversees state prisons, Brian Moran, says the parole board is working around the clock – reviewing cases of those who could be released.

“By the code we have no parole in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  It is limited to geriatric release and limited to those who were sentenced before 1996.  Additionally by constitution the victims need to be notified.”

And he explains there’s another impediment.

“We’re not going to release somebody unless they have a home health plan.  It would be inhumane for them, and frankly they are getting a lot of healthcare in these facilities.”

Critics scoff at that claim.

“I wouldn’t have a lot of faith or hope in the lifesaving capabilities of this institution,” says inmate Tim Wright.

“The medical here is sorry.  It’s bad,” prisoner Newkirk complains.

And attorney Ellis says Fluvanna has been under federal court order for the last four years to improve the quality of medical care at that prison.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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