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. However, 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.
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.," Wright says. "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," Blake explains. "At one point they had to confiscate 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,” he says.
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 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," she says. "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," explains Blake. "Our unit manager told us that the disposable cleaning cloths are supposed to actually be washed out and used again.”
It’s frustrating, she says, because no one is keeping watch over prison guards and administrators.
“They do what they want. If they agree with it, they do it," she adds. "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," says Rose. "Out of nowhere he picked up a 55-gallon trash can and threw it at me.”
Rose recalls ducking, then tackling 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 in the tray," he says. "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.