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Prison Food and Medical Care Suffer During COVID-19 Pandemic

The Marshall Project

The coronavirus pandemic has shone new light on social problems in this country – income inequality, racism, homelessness and poor access to medical care.  It’s also underscored problems with Virginia’s criminal justice system.

Virginia spends less than two dollars a day to feed each of about 30,000 prisoners, and officials say they’re having no problems providing meals during the COVID pandemic, but at least six prisons are now relying on what the state calls emergency menus.  Kay, who asked that we not use her full name, says her husband gets potato chips, moon pies and gummy candies, but apples are often rotten, a fresh vegetable usually means a couple of carrot or celery sticks, and main dishes are marginal. 

“Lunch or dinner they get a fried chicken patty or two boiled eggs, or they’ll serve peanut butter and jelly or a bologna sandwich,” she says. 

That chicken, by the way, is what inmates like Rojai Fentress call meat rock.

“They’ve got bulk chicken – like the chicken parts at the factory that no one else eats," he explains. "It looks like a paste, and they mix it with milk and bread and make a patty out of it."

The only other entrees are hot dogs or three ounces of cheese.  At the Legal Aid Justice Center, attorney Shannon Ellis says emergency menus are offered when there aren’t enough people to cook meals.

“What normally happens is the prisoners themselves prepare and serve the food, and right now with the prisons on lockdown the staff is greatly reduced.”

DeShay Akers’ husband is in Greensville prison on a drug charge.  He told her pscyhologists and social workers were now on kitchen duty.

“Counselors are cooking the food, but he said it’s nothing but stuff from the vending machines.”

The state says meals still meet American Correctional Association guidelines, but it’s no longer honoring dietary restrictions for religious reasons.  Prisoners complain that portions have been cut, and Legal Aid lawyer Ellis says people with medical problems are suffering.

“For example, a person with diabetes who is being served pancakes already covered with syrup,” she says.

Kay says her husband was healthy when he arrived at prison for a non-violent offense.  Now, she says, he has dangerously high blood pressure and cholesterol – conditions that could lead to a heart attack or stroke.

“They’re killing my husband!" she exclaims. "That’s the way I feel.”

Other inmates report that medical care is worse than ever.  Fentress, for example, caught chicken pox when his cellmate returned from the infirmary.

“He was like, ‘Look man, I had the chicken pox.  I don’t have it anymore,' so I went to the medical staff.  I said, ‘Look, he had chicken pox.  I’ve never had it.  Can I contract it?’

They told him he was safe, but on a Sunday morning the telltale blisters appeared.  There was no doctor on duty, so Fentress saw a nurse, was given Tylenol, a bottle of calamine lotion and placed in solitary confinement.

“I’m having fever.  I’m having night sweats," he recalls. "It felt like maggots were crawling under my skin.  I was supposed to get medication three times a day.  I only got medication twice. The blisters burst, causing me to itch  more, but I could only have a shower every 72 hours.”

The ACLU of Virginia is now keeping score, with more than 200 prisoners calling into a hotline – many to say they can’t get medical care and have no way to complain when they don’t.  Eden Heilman is the group’s Legal Director.

“We have heard about delays in getting prescription medication refilled and being told there is no grievance system in place right now, or that the grievance system has been suspended."   

The Department of Corrections says its grievance procedure has not been suspended, and it’s trying to hire more healthcare professionals, but during the pandemic, prison infirmaries are so short on medical staff that dentists and hygienists have been asked to help doctors and nurses.  That’s more bad news for inmates who wait years for dental care. 

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief