It’s been more than a year since Virginia prisons locked down to try and stop the spread of COVID-19. The state has offered vaccine to every inmate, but restrictions are still in place and are unlikely to be lifted any time soon.
The state of Virginia won praise when it made vaccinating prisoners a priority – something it did on the advice of public health experts like Dr. Bill Petri, a professor of medicine at UVA.
“Prisons are a breeding ground for the virus with the opportunity for new variants to emerge as well as to leave the prisons through a correctional officer going home to his or her family,” explains Petri.
But this bold strategic decision has not delivered on a promise to end the threat of COVID behind bars. That’s because more than 30% of inmates have refused to be vaccinated. Tim Wright at the Green Rock Correctional Center and Tom Rose at River North say distrust is widespread.
“Because the vaccines were approved on emergency authorization, and they have not gone through full clinical trials, and they have side effects, particularly the younger guys didn’t see a reason to take a chance of injecting themselves with something unnecessary,” Wright says.
“A lot of people think we’re being guinea pigs,” explains Rose.
And Wright says inmates aren’t the only ones refusing vaccine.
“You had a large portion of the medical staff and a large portion of the officers that didn’t take any vaccines either,” he says.
Despite the fact that five staffers have died from COVID, more than 40% of people working in state prisons refused vaccine. The Department of Corrections declined our request for an interview on this subject, but it’s clearly concerned. It’s got a six-person team at the international consulting firm Deloitte working on ways to promote vaccination, and created a Wellness Channel on closed-circuit TV featuring medical experts and administrators like Director Harold Clark and his deputy David Robinson.
“While nationally coronavirus cases continue to rise, the number of active cases in the Virginia Department of Corrections has fallen. The role you play is vital in this fight, and I want to encourage you to keep your foot on the gas," Robinson says in a video.
"We’re all in this together,” Clark adds.
The state doesn’t actually know how great the risk of future outbreaks is. 56 prisoners have died from the virus, but about 9,000 got it and recovered. The CDC says they should still be vaccinated, but officials don’t know how many of those who refused vaccine might have natural immunity.
Under these circumstances, restrictions remain in place. Inmates have, for example, had no visits from their families for more than a year. At the Fluvanna Correctional Center, prisoner Jennifer Blake says that’s especially hard on parents.
“That isolation is definitely taking a toll, especially between the mothers and their children," Blake says. "The majority of women in here are mothers.”
At Green Rock, Tim Wright says the lack of outside contact is fueling frustration and anger.
“Everybody becomes a little bit more edgy and they have fights over the microwave and fights over phones," he explains. "And it’s these things bubbling over because they’ve been penned up and have nothing to do.”
Video visits are possible in some prisons for a price -- $8 for 20 minutes, but inmates say the quality is poor, and there are not enough set-ups to accommodate demand. It can also be tough to use the phones or kiosks to send e-mail. At River North, Tom Rose says gang members determine who can make a call.
“Because you have 96 people in this pod, and you know there’s just a lot of chaos and a lot of gang members in here," says Rose. "And, out of six phones, they may have four phones, so the weak do not get on the phone.”
In our next report inmates share more details of life in prison during a pandemic, with few programs, poor medical care, cold food and dangerous discipline.
Because the risk of a deadly COVID outbreak was especially high in state prisons, and because the disease could easily spread to surrounding communities through staff, inmates and employees were among the first Virginians to get vaccine, but nearly a third of prisoners and more than 40% of staff have refused it. That means significant restrictions remain in place, and frustration behind bars is building as Sandy Hausman reports.
Some prisoners fear complaining to reporters will get them in trouble with the Department of Corrections. At a medium security prison in Chatham, Tim Wright says he’s seen inmates transferred to maximum security centers in Southside Virginia for speaking out.
“When guys stood up about COVID issues here several months ago, they transferred them instantly – straight to the mountains. They do not stand for that at all.”
Still he and others were concerned enough to talk with us and to protest. At the Fluvanna Correctional Center Jennifer Blake joined many other women who refused to return to their cells one night when administrators withheld information, feeding inmates’ anxiety about COVID.
“They came and took two of the ladies out of here. They didn’t tell us why. They didn’t tell them where they were going. They just came and got them," she recalls. "At one point they confiscated our personal property, because they said it could possibly be contaminated, so we were without our clothing and various items. They wouldn’t tell us when we were going to get it back.”
And Wright says there’s little to distract prisoners from their worries.
“Vocational programs, GED programs -– none of that is happening. It’s all on hold.”
Visits from the outside are canceled. So are church services, and libraries are closed.
“Inmates can no longer access the law library in person.," Wright says. "They had to submit their requests to the law library for any legal material that they needed, but you don’t know what case you need, what rules you’re trying to look up until you have access to the research mechanism of Lexis-Nexis.”
The medical staff has been stretched to care for COVID patients, and Blake says inmates can’t eat in the cafeteria.
“We haven’t had a hot meal since this started. The kitchen has to send all the meals to the buildings, so by the time they make it to us they’re never hot.”
She claims prisoners who want to help prevent the spread of COVID get no cooperation from management.
“We have a court order in place that says that we are supposed to disinfect our areas every two hours, and they will not give us the supplies to do that. Our unit manager told us that the disposable cleaning cloths are supposed to actually be washed out and used again.”
It’s frustrating, she adds, because no one is keeping watch over prison guards and administrators.
“They do what they want. If they agree with it, they do it. If it’s a hassle they don’t, and no one enforces it.”
Tom Rose echoes that complaint from the River North Correctional Center where he reports being attacked by a white supremacist.
“He was mentally disturbed to be honest with you and talking out of his mind. He said he was hearing voices. Out of nowhere he picked up a 55-gallon trash can and threw it at me.”
Rose says he ducked, then tackled the man, at which point he claims three white officers used mace, rubber bullets, handcuffs and a guard dog to subdue Rose.
“I have 40 lacerations on my leg. You know you get a dog thrown on you, or you get your behind whipped, or if you go to special housing unit they’ll come by there and give you a tray with nothing on the tray. These are the things that one encounters while they’re in here.”
When staff reviewed a security video, Rose says they realized he was not the aggressor and apologized, but he’s now suing them and the state in federal district court. The pandemic, he says, has made the problems of racism and poor oversight in Virginia prisons even worse.
We offered the Department of Corrections a chance to talk about these concerns but officials did not respond.