© 2024
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Groups Demand More Protection for Prisoners

Nearly 7,800 inmates in state prisons have come down with COVID-19. Fifty of them and two staff members have died, and advocates are demanding the governor release more people who are at high risk of death from the virus.

When COVID-19 was first reported at the Buckingham Correctional Center, 52-year-old Charles Zellers knew he was in trouble.  He had high blood pressure and was overweight – two big risk factors for a deadly case of the disease.  On March 26 he was exposed to an infected prison guard.  On June 4th he was taken by ambulance to VCU’s Medical Center.  “I couldn’t breathe.  I needed somebody to come and get me with a wheelchair,"  he recalls. "The medical report says that I was admitted for respiratory failure and septic shock secondary to COVID-19.”

Zellers would spend the next three months in the hospital with many weeks of intensive care and time on a respirator.  The tests and procedures seemed endless.

“I was given many chest x-rays, several CT scans, two injections in my stomach per day, and they had stuck me so many times to draw blood that my veins were hiding from them.”

And that was followed by weeks of physical therapy.

“At the time when I came out of the ICU I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t stand, didn’t have any strength.”

He then spent two more months at Southahmpton Memorial Hospital, and while Medicaid covered a fair amount of prisoner care, the last six months of the year cost the Department of Corrections more than $7 million in hospital bills alone. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia says some of the pain and expense could have been avoided if the state had followed through on promises to release people who pose no threat to public safety and were supposed to get out within a year.  Jenny Glass speaks for the ACLU.

“People who are incarcerated in Virginia at 7.6 times more likely to get infected with COVID-19 and 3.1 times more likely to die from the virus," she explains.

When her group sued the Department of Corrections, officials promised to speed up review of inmates eligible for early release and those who had requested pardons.

“VADOC has been incredibly slow in reviewing and granting early release to people.  On a good week about 40 people may get approved, on a bad one that number is as low as six people," Glass says. "Governor Northam also had the power to grant clemency to people through a conditional pardon, but he has not released any data about his progress, because his administration has claimed executive privilege.”

Richard Walker with Bridging the Gap in Virginia -- a coalition that advocates for prisoners – says the state has promised to vaccinate inmates soon, but so far only sick and elderly residents of the Deerfield Correctional Center have been inoculated.

“People who are incarcerated were not sentenced to die in custody because of COVID-19, and the lack of actions from Virginia leaders.  They are rightly scared and deserve to be protected from this pandemic just like everyone else.”

The group plans a caravan protest Saturday at noon in Richmond.  They’ll leave from the Supreme Flea Market’s parking lot, drive past the city jail and the Capitol to show support for release of more prisoners and prompt inoculation of those left behind.  Among them Charles Zellers now suffers scarring of the lungs and painful nerve damage.

“You know they had four men die here from the COVID. Who’s being held accountable?" he asks. "If it hadn’t come into the institution we wouldn’t have caught it.  Those four men wouldn’t be dead right now, and I wouldn’t be disabled for the rest of my life.”

For the last 20 years, Zellers has had a perfect prison record, learned two trades, earned his GED and took self-improvement courses.  He’s also taken responsibility for the death of a child in his custody, but the state has refused him parole, and the governor has not responded to his request for a conditional pardon. 

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief