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Virginia prisoners settle lawsuit challenging confinement during pandemic

Barbed wire sits atop a fence as a North Carolina prison.
Barbed wire sits atop a fence as a North Carolina prison.(Corey Schmidt)
Published: May. 12, 2020 at 7:23 PM EDT
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A group of 27 inmates and the Virginia Department of Corrections agreed to settle a lawsuit accusing the state of cruel and unusual punishment for keeping medically vulnerable inmates in crowded facilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Announced Tuesday, the agreement falls far short of the lawsuit’s initial demands, which called for immediate steps to relieve crowding, including the release of some inmates to house arrest.

But the lawyers who negotiated it said it gives them the authority to make sure prison officials uphold policies they’ve put in place to protect inmates and staff — a point of concern for many prisoners, who have said policies promising steps such as increased sanitation haven’t been enforced or implemented.

“The DOC has a lot of policies in place that aren’t being executed on the ground,” said Elliott Harding, a Charlottesville attorney who filed the lawsuit, which was later joined by the ACLU of Virginia. “We now have the ability to reach in and get transparency and see what’s happening behind a wall that’s typically very, very obfuscated.”

The Department of Corrections also lauded the agreement, but for different reasons. “We are pleased to see that after reviewing all that the DOC is doing regarding this pandemic, plaintiffs could find very little to ask for and the case will be dismissed,” said spokeswoman Lisa Kinney.

The settlement was approved and will be enforced by Magistrate Judge David Novak in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

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