The Nightmare Inside Virginia’s Prisons

COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on incarcerated people

Most of us are taking the precautions necessary to protect ourselves and those around us from the coronavirus pandemic. We’re wearing masks, washing our hands regularly, wiping down surfaces, and practicing social distancing as part of the minimal effort to keep from getting sick. But imagine if you couldn’t do any of that and were powerless to stop the virus from infecting you and the people around you.  

That’s the horrible reality for tens of thousands of incarcerated people in Virginia’s jails and prisons. They are often living in crowded conditions where social distancing is impossible. Prison staff often work at multiple facilities, increasing their exposure to different people and the risk of spreading the virus. The problem is compounded by the chronic illnesses that people are more likely to have because of their incarceration

Preventable Deaths At Virginia’s Prisons

Askia Asmar died September 27th at the Deerfield Correctional Facility in Southampton County. He was 67 years old and had less than a year to serve for a non-violent crime–certainly not a punishment that should have been a death sentence. But Asmar was housed in a unit with a coronavirus outbreak. He petitioned for early release but was denied, even though he had a litany of health conditions that significantly increased his risk from COVID-19. 

In the time of  COVID, incarcerating people in close quarters isn’t just risky, it can be a death sentence. In April, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia sued Governor Ralph Northam and other state officials on behalf of 27 incarcerated people for early release. In the settlement, the state agreed to consider release for individuals with less than a year to serve and who haven’t been convicted of a Class One felony or violent sex offense.

But the Commonwealth isn’t living up to this commitment.  Since the May settlement, the ACLU has sent two notices of non-compliance to Virginia’s Attorney General’s office. The state has released only 2% of its incarcerated population. People are still dying. 

Prisons Are Virginia’s Hotspots For Coronavirus Outbreaks

It seems like every week, a state prison or jail is reporting a coronavirus outbreak. The week of Nov. 13, 120 inmates at Western Virginia Regional Jail tested positive for COVID. A state correctional facility in Culpeper reported 234 inmates and 13 staff members had contracted COVID-19 as of Nov. 10. Then there’s the tragic case of Deerfield Correctional Facility, which houses the elderly and vulnerable, where 19 inmates had died as of late October amid 835 cases of COVID19.

People who are incarcerated are human beings, and they deserve to be treated with dignity. Most incarcerated people have loved ones on the outside who care about them. This is a tragedy that the Governor and the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) could help prevent.

Release Them Now! 

The state has identified nearly 1,800 incarcerated people eligible for early release, yet it has only let go 697 people. How many more people have to die before the state does something about it? You can do your part now by urging Governor Northam now to use his power to release people from Virginia’s jails and prisons who don’t pose a threat to others, so they don’t get sick from the coronavirus pandemic.

Check out our other stellar blog posts:

Coronavirus Double Whammy: Death and Economic Inequality for Virginia’s Communities of Color

Our Legislators Need to Stop Hiding Behind Masks of Denial

Not All Superheros Wear Capes, But All Voters are Superheroes