‘People are dying’: Concern over COVID-19 sparks push for early prison release

Updated: Jun. 19, 2020 at 9:05 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - For months, 12 On Your Side has fielded many calls and emails from family members worried about loved ones in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, one worried wife of a Greensville inmate is wondering why he has not been released.

The way Latasha Bufkin sees it - the time is of the essence. Her husband, Jimmy Lee Bufkin, Jr., will have served his time up to Feb. 12, 2021.

She says the less time he is in close quarters, the greater chance her family has to avoid a possible medical crisis when he’s released.

“I don’t want him to come in contact with that and he’s bringing it home because of course, we have children here. A few that’s asthmatic,” Latasha Bufkin said.

She believes he meets the criteria for early release due to COVID-19 and says she has reached out to Governor Ralph Northam and the Virginia Department of Corrections leadership but says she can’t get a straight answer.

“Tell me something. Let me know what’s going on. Is he even on the list? Are y’all working to get him out or anybody else? What are y’all doing to move this process forward?” Latasha Bufkin said.

Last month, VADOC cleared 230 prisoners for early release after an emergency proposal by the governor to stop the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons. As of June 19, more than 1,000 inmates have been infected and 10 have died of COVID-19 across the state.

“I’m here trying to fend for my life. People are dying behind coronavirus,” Jimmy Bufkin said.

At Greensville, where Bufkin is incarcerated, VADOC’s website showed two inmates hospitalized with coronavirus, zero deaths, and 240 inmates and 34 staff who have tested positive as of June 19.

“The fact that it is something that’s invisible and deadly, like, it makes it more challenging to not get it. I mean, I want something done,” Latasha Byfkin said.

Jimmy Bufkin has eight months left on a 9-year sentence for assault and battery of a family member, malicious wounding, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, abduction, assault by an inmate on an employee, assault and battery of a family member (2015) and malicious wounding (2017) says VADOC.

“All those charges sound really bad, you know. I was with a person. I didn’t know the person was going to do what he did. They charged me right along with him because he tried to put it on me,” Jimmy Bufkin said.

On Your Side Investigator, Diane Walker requested an interview with Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran about Bufkin’s concerns and is awaiting his reply.

In the meantime, a VADOC email from Thursday says in part, “offenders reviewed for early release will be notified. If not selected, the offender will be notified as to why and it’s their prerogative to share the information.

Right now, Greensville is on lockdown. There’s no way to practice social distancing. Bufkin says they are allowed 90 minutes out of their cells a day and kid-sized meals are brought to them.

“My 8 year old can eat it and still be hungry...Everybody is bumping heads...People are going crazy, like real crazy because they can’t stay behind that door but so long,” Jimmy Bufkin said.

VADOC also responded to questions NBC12 received from other families about Greensville, who claim inmates who test positive are in pods with everyone else and phones are intermittingly shut off.

VADOC’s written response in part says, “phones were off while the facility moved to lockdown status due to positive COVID cases.” It goes on to say, “COVID positive offenders are not housed with COVID negative offenders” and they are working around the clock to test and provide care to offenders during this pandemic.

The Bufkins say there are so many things that can go wrong if he gets sick with coronavirus so close to coming home.

“I’m not trying to contract or deal with this. I have a better chance...on the street than in here. So, I’m trying to get out of here and nobody is telling me nothing,” Jimmy Bufkin said.

The state previously said early release excludes anyone convicted of a Class 1 felony or a violent sex offense.

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