Prison Postcard: Life in the Time of COVID, Correctional Center, Virginia
The first round of testing was done in late May, with the National Guard’s help, inmates and staff alike. Everyone was locked down for a week while we awaited results. Around 250 inmates and 60 staff tested positive, roughly 8 to 10 percent of both populations. For a couple of months after that, when prisoners developed symptoms, they were removed from the cellblocks, quarantined, and monitored.
There was an entire building of sick and quarantined inmates on another part of the compound, though the official numbers didn’t appear to reflect that. Officially, one person has died from the virus here, according to DOC website — but two other recent deaths may have been virus-related. One of them was wheeled down the walk with CPR being performed on him as many of us watched from the rec yard. He didn’t make it, we found out.
Between May and August rounds of testing, in my ‘cluster’ of buildings, most cellblocks have bounced back and forth between “code green” (clear) and “code yellow” (suspected exposure) status. Three have been on code red (total lockdown) at some point because of numerous confirmed cases.
My block was green almost this whole time — officially, no cases at all. We were manning the kitchen for a few weeks, because all the regular workers couldn’t leave their building. We know we were lucky — and we also know there were some people positive in here. They had obvious but mild symptoms, and they just laid low and toughed it out. Those feeling sick don’t want to report it and end up quarantined.
In late July and early August, some prisoners in code yellow housing units were tested, and scores of new cases were found. In one cellblock alone, 60 inmates — three-fourths of the pod — were infected. They went code red, and the 19 who came up negative were moved to the visitation room. A couple of other blocks soon went the same way, and the gym was used for makeshift housing for negatives, too.
Between the severe staff shortages and the rising positive cases, the August 9 lockdown was probably inevitable. Over 200 new cases were identified among just a few housing units. We went on code yellow ourselves on August 12 because of just one symptomatic inmate. The testing that followed on August 22 revealed three more positive cases on our block, and those people were moved out to quarantine in the segregation building. Many of the others in here who’d shown symptoms over the prior weeks had recovered enough to test negative by then, apparently.
Things have been going downhill since March, when virtually all classes, treatment programs, religious services, library, and non-essential work were shut down. Strangely though, the Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE) furniture shop has been kept open this whole time. I guess DOC considers VCE profits to be essential.
Visitation was canceled, of course, and outside volunteers no longer allowed. The chow hall was closed and meals served in cells. Outdoor recreation was curtailed to just a few hours a week, then canceled outright, and only recently reinstated. We’ve been restricted to cells for all but an hour or two a day. Short-staffing has often meant that even limited rec time was canceled, in practice.
Workers in the housing units are cleaning constantly, and they give us soap and disinfectant for our cells.
Masks were handed out pretty early on, though replacements are hard to get. Movement of inmates between pods was basically eliminated from the beginning. These changes have been unwelcome, and people grumble about them, but for the most part, we understand they’re necessary to protect everyone.
What hasn’t happened to any serious degree is an early release of inmates. Besides the steps described above, thinning our ranks is the most effective thing VADOC could have done to reduce the spread of the virus. To that end, the State Assembly gave DOC authority to release 2,000 inmates who were deemed no threat to the community and going home within 12 months anyway.
About 575 inmates (or 1.5% of VA’s inmate population) have been released early so far, and many of those were DOC inmates held in local jails. Given the high number here of probation violators, the very elderly, those with underlying medical conditions — it’s hard to fathom why more haven’t left. Virginia must have thousands of inmates with less than a year left on their sentence.
This place is dysfunctional even on the best days. With the added chaos of the virus, everyone — staff and inmates alike — is now just trying to get through each day intact.
It seems like we are going to be on these restrictions for the long haul, until next year is the consensus. Meanwhile, no one can see their family or go to work or school, there’s little to do, and more fights are breaking out as frustrations mount. Many of us know that it could be worse though, and understand that things could still go downhill further. We try to stay flexible and roll with the punches. And we wake up every day hoping our color code has gone back to green.