Virginia prisoners sue, claiming state isn’t doing enough to protect them against coronavirus

Prisoners file lawsuit over COVID-19 concerns

RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - A Virginia attorney is seeking to get non-violent offenders out of prison during the coronavirus pandemic.

Twenty-seven defendants filed a lawsuit Wednesday suing Governor Ralph Northam and wardens at 12 Virginia prisons, claiming the state isn’t doing enough to keep inmates safe. One of whom has already tested positive for coronavirus. The nearly 50-page lawsuit lists a dozen plaintiffs.

"I’ve got some clients that already were suffering from pneumonia because they only have one lung and now COVID is in their prison,” Attorney Elliott Harding said. He’s leading the movement. "Moms are worried. Wives, children, a lot of folks throughout the Commonwealth are very concerned right now for good reason."

Because inmates are living in close quarters, Harding says inmates are susceptible to COVID-19. The lawsuit claims when inmates at the Dillwyn prison asked an officer to wear her mask, she got angry and said she hoped the inmates got infected.

"At the end of the day, they’re wards of the state and the state has the responsibility and the constitution gives a guarantee that they can be taken care of at the basic level and right now they’re the most at risk,” Harding added.

He says an inmate at the Goochland Correctional Facility for women tested positive for coronavirus and they say the state needs to do much more to prevent the spread among a population that’s at risk of catching the disease.

The attorney wants non-violent offenders, especially those who have served most of their sentences, released early with GPS or ankle monitoring.

“They’re genuinely afraid that they’re never going to see their families again…It’s a matter of life and death.”

The Virginia ACLU is also weighing in.

“It is past time for “business as usual” when it comes to Virginia’s correctional institutions and COVID-19. The experience of the unchecked spread of this virus at a rehabilitation facility in Henrico is all the evidence anyone should need of the urgency of the situation presented by the close quarters of our jails, prisons and juvenile facilities. The governor must lead a uniform statewide response that ensures that anyone in custody is released who is not a danger to commit bodily harm to another, that not one more person is taken into custody and admitted to jail who is not an imminent threat to do bodily injury to another, and that all public officials responsible for managing custodial institutions report daily to the public regarding people tested for COVID-19, people tested positive, and in custody and staff deaths. It will be too late to act when this virus spreads to more institutions risking the lives of everyone living and working there and anyone called into the facility to render emergency aid or health care. The governor must use every tool at his disposal, including his clemency power and his oversight and control of the budgets of the Parole Board, the Departments of Juvenile Justice, Corrections and Behavioral Health, and the Department of Health to reduce the populations of Virginia’s facilities. Nothing else will allow any social distancing or other mitigation practices to work. Localities like Charlottesville and Virginia Beach have shown what can be done to release people at rates much higher than the governor’s public safety administration has done statewide without adverse consequences for public safety. The need for the governor to act is a moral imperative. The urgency is clear. The fact that a disproportionate number of the people being held in these facilities are black makes this a racial justice issue of grave significance. It is often said that where there is a will there’s a way. In this case, the way is clear, all that is needed is the political will,” Executive Director Claire Gastañaga said in a statement.

The governor said he can’t comment on pending litigation. The ACLU plans to hold a news conference Thursday morning with several other community groups joining in their cause.

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