Prison Lockdowns During a Pandemic

Jul 10, 2020

For the last three months, inmates in Virginia prisons have had no visitors and spend most of their time in cells or pods.  Educational programs and group therapy are canceled, and sources tell RadioIQ that fights and protests have broken out.  Now, some prisoners are taking their situation to court.

Inmate Tim Wright told his wife that fights were breaking out at Buckingham Correctional Center as a modified lockdown fueled tensions behind bars.
Credit Danielle Wright

To prevent an epidemic of COVID-19, the Department of Corrections says most inmates are on modified lockdown –confined to pods of up to 85 people. Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety, Brian Moran, explains:

“The lockdown means you keep units separated and diminish the opportunity to spread the virus.”

He did not mention the suffering that caused.  At the Buckingham Correctional Center, where Tim Wright was confined, some inmates no longer went to work. Educational programs, library visits, group therapy and religious services were canceled.  Wright told his wife, Danielle, that fights were common, recreation and communication limited.

“They were getting on each other’s nerves," she recalls. "There were a number of fights that did break out.  They were lucky to average going outside perhaps once every three days for one hour. Also, people were getting drunk.”

And even with men confined to their pods for most of the day, COVID spread through the prison, so administrators locked inmates in their cells for two weeks.

“Roughly 100 inmates tested positive, and it was then that they locked the whole compound down," says Danielle Wright. "There was no communication with the administration. For several days the inmates didn’t get access to the phones or showers.”

We had hoped to talk with her husband, but he complained publicly about medical care at Buckingham, and – despite a pledge not to move people around during a pandemic, the state transferred Wright to another prison and placed him in quarantine for two weeks.

At the Greensville Correctional Center other inmates are in solitary awaiting transfers delayed by the virus. This woman told us her relative leaves his cell for just one hour a day to shower and exercise, has few privileges and lives in filthy conditions.

“The phone calls are minimal to none," she claims. "The bathrooms are disgusting. They don’t clean them.” 

Late last month, she says, two men at Greensville broke out of their cells and staged a protest.

“They proceeded to cover the cameras with toothpaste so the guards couldn’t see what was going on in the unit, and they used jumpers and Styrofoam trays to start several fires.”

As smoke spread through the facility, she was told the prisoners held correctional officers at bay and demanded a transfer.

“They’d been in that unit for months waiting for a transfer because of the restricted movement due to COVID.”

The assistant warden reportedly agreed.

“He told them if they complied that they could go.  We have two vans waiting for you.”

The Department of Corrections would not confirm that account or say whether inmates were, in fact, transferred from Greensville.

Inmate Sidney Martin and 23 others are asking a federal court to review treatment of prisoners during the pandemic.
Credit Angie Juneau

Inmates were moved from Dillwyn and River North after planning hunger strikes over lockdowns, and at Sussex I inmate Sidney Martin says some men have been setting fires in protest – a frightening prospect since cell doors don’t work properly, prompting the prison to close them with padlocks.  Other prisoners allegedly choose to flood the place.

“A lot of inmates upstairs pop sprinklers," Martin explains.  "The water drips down into our pod and leaks into the electrical panels and it’s gotten so crazy that you can’t turn the lights on and off, because I guess the water has damaged stuff.”

He claims to spend 23 hours a day in his cell and says that takes a toll on mental health.

“Being in a cell all day, that’s like caging an animal. You lose that sense of reality.”

So Martin and 23 other inmates have filed a petition with the U.S. District Court in Norfolk asking for help, and a federal judge is currently reviewing that request.   

Meanwhile, the state concludes its modified lockdown has “drastically reduced the spread of the novel coronavirus.”  The Department of Corrections says there are only 17 active cases today, but nearly 16-hundred prisoners and guards tested positive for COVID over the past three months and 11 inmates have died.