Virginia prisoners request independent monitor as COVID-19 cases and deaths mount

Virginia prisoners request independent monitor as COVID-19 cases and deaths mount
The request comes as COVID-19 cases surge and the death toll rises amid an ongoing outbreak at Deerfield Correctional Center, which houses elderly and medically vulnerable inmates. (Source: Virginia Department of Corrections)

Lawyers representing Virginia prisoners are asking the state to install an independent expert to evaluate the Department of Corrections' response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The request comes as COVID-19 cases surge and the death toll rises amid an ongoing outbreak at Deerfield Correctional Center, which houses elderly and medically vulnerable inmates. As of Wednesday, the department reported 462 active infections among prisoners at the facility and 10 deaths — more than any other prison in the state.

“The numbers themselves demonstrate one of two things: Either the measures they’re instituting aren’t appropriate or that they aren’t actually following through on what they’re saying they’re doing,” said Eden Heilman, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which is representing inmates who filed a lawsuit against the department shortly after the pandemic began. “We wouldn’t have outbreaks like what we have in Deerfield if one of those two things weren’t happening.”

Prison officials counter that they’re following all available safety guidance and reviewed their approach with the Centers for Disease Control. “As we’ve witnessed in nursing homes everywhere, the offender population at Deerfield is, unfortunately, more vulnerable to the coronavirus,” DOC Director Harold Clarke said in a news release Wednesday.

The ACLU made the request for an independent monitor this week when it delivered a notice to the state alleging corrections officials aren’t living up to the terms of a settlement agreement signed in May aimed at resolving inmate complaints about inadequate care.

The civil rights group told the department that prisoners in Deerfield continue to report delays in receiving medical treatment, relaying an account from inmate James Dillingham, who has a history of heart and respiratory problems but says he has prescribed allergy medications — Benadryl and Sudafed — when he complained about COVID-19 symptoms. The symptoms persisted and two weeks later he collapsed, waking up in a hospital bed where he was informed he had in fact tested positive for the virus, according to a sworn affidavit.

Inmates also reported that staff isn’t always following guidelines requiring them to wear masks, pull face coverings down to speak to inmates, are not limiting movement between facilities and buildings and failing to follow through on promises to increase cleaning efforts.

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