Prisoners Protest as More Than 700 Contract COVID-19

May 12, 2020

More than 700 inmates in state prisons have now tested positive for COVID-19, and five have died. Meanwhile, the ACLU of Virginia is investigating the mysterious transfer of at least half a dozen men from the Dillwyn Correctional Center after protests erupted there.  The low security prison reports more than 200 cases of COVID-19 in staff and inmates.

Virginia's Secretary of Public Safety, Brian Moran, says the transfer of prisoners from Dillwyn Correctional Center to Sussex II was necessary because of a threat to safety.
Credit RadioIQ/File Photo

The Department of Corrections won’t talk about what happened at Dillwyn, but the family members of inmates said the trouble began when a guard refused to wear a protective mask.

“She made the comment to them that she hoped that everyone in thqt building came down with COVID-19," says  Debra Turner, a woman who set-up a Facebook page for families with someone locked up at Dillwyn. On that site, Turner met Angela Adinolfi, whose husband was also at Dillwyn. She was worried that the prison did not comply with CDC guidelines to keep inmates safe from COVID-19. 

“They weren’t using disposable products," she explains. "They weren’t doing daily temperature checks of people who hadn’t tested positive for COVID or people who weren’t kitchen workers. There were memos up about social distancing in a pod where the bunks were two and a half feet away from each other.”

She heard there was no hand sanitizer, no tissues, some units were running out of soap, and common areas weren’t being cleaned, so she drafted a three-page letter to the Department of Corrections, outlining her concerns.  Meanwhile, prisoners who were diagnosed with COVID-19 were being segregated from those who were not infected, and Debra Turner heard their quarters were getting crowded.

“There were already 67 or so men in there, and they wanted to put in  bunks for another 30 people.”

They reportedly barricaded the doors, and correctional officers or C-Os threatened to use tear gas. Then, the assistant warden stepped in according to the Facebook page, and agreed not to house anymore infected inmates in that building.  Meanwhile, prisoners in another part of the compound started a hunger strike, and on Tuesday Turner heard that a large number of correctional officers arrived.

“About 20 COs from Nottoway, from State Farm – they brought them in from all around, plus dogs – went into those buildings, and seven came out in shackles.”

It’s not clear where those men ended up, but the state confirmed some inmates were transferred to a prison in Sussex County reserved for criminals the state considers very dangerous. Turner says her son, who was convicted of a non-violent offense, was one of them.

“He was terrified.  He called me in a panic,” she recalls.

He told his mother he had nothing to do with either protest.  In fact, he was in quarantine, recovering from COVID-19.

The Department of Corrections did not respond to our e-mails requesting an explanation, but during the governor’s May 6th news conference, the state’s public safety secretary, Brian Moran, was asked for answers.

“That was necessary for safety and security purposes,” Moran said.

Debra Turner doesn’t blame the warden for what happened at Dillwyn.  She figures the prison was just overwhelmed. More than 200 people were diagnosed with COVID, and her Facebook page prisoners’ families reported a shortage of guards.

“The COs were getting sick, so she was short-handed that weekend, and the numbers were going sky high,” Turner says. 

The head of the Department of Corrections told her he’d look into it. As for Angela Adinolfi, the state has not responded to her letter, but her husband was also sent to Sussex without explanation.

The ACLU has gotten wind of what happened and is doing its own investigation – pointing out that a hunger strike is a form of free speech, protected under the constitution.  Lawyers also wonder if the transfer of two prisoners who say they had nothing to do with protests may have been in retribution for the actions of their outspoken relatives.