RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Anxiety among family members of inmates in Virginia prisons skyrocketed this week, after the state Department of Corrections announced that four inmates, four staff members and a nurse tested positive for the coronavirus.

Families and inmate advocates fear this could be just the beginning of a massive outbreak in prisons across the state. They're particularly worried about women's prisons, including two that already have confirmed cases and another that houses inmates with serious health issues but has a history of providing inadequate medical care.

“My anxiety level, if I had to put it on a scale from 1 to 10, it’s a 15,” said Someko Brown, whose mother, a 59-year-old diabetic with high blood pressure, is serving an 11-year sentence for embezzlement at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland, which has three inmate cases.

“None of those ladies signed up for a death penalty,” she said.

Virginia's top public safety official has said law enforcement across the state is doing all it can to respond to the pandemic. But inmate advocates are calling on Gov. Ralph Northam to step up efforts to reduce the inmate population at Virginia's 41 state prisons, 72 local and regional jails, and nine juvenile facilities. Combined, the facilities house more than 60,000 people.

“When you look at the conditions people are being housed in — literally on top of each other in bunk beds, multiple people in a room, sometimes dozens sharing a single toilet and shower — to think that you will be able to prevent the spread through that population, that's just not going to happen,” said Shannon Ellis, an attorney in the Legal Aid Justice Center's Civil Rights and Racial Justice program.

The center has asked Northam to use his executive clemency powers to grant pardons to high-risk inmates and those who are close to their release dates. Advocates are also asking the Parole Board to expedite the early release of certain inmates.

Fears of an outbreak are heightened at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, where some of the state's most seriously ill female inmates are housed. A federal judge last year issued an injunction against DOC officials, saying the department didn't live up to eight of 22 standards established under a 2016 settlement in a lawsuit that alleged pervasive deficiencies in medical care.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with health problems, it can cause pneumonia or death.

Brian Moran, the state's Secretary for Public Safety and Homeland Security, said the Parole Board approved the early release of 96 inmates in March. Because parole was abolished in Virginia in 1995, only geriatric inmates and those convicted before 1995 qualify, Moran said. He said the governor's use of his clemency power is “very extraordinary relief,” but said all options are being considered.

Inmates' families say the Department of Corrections has not responded quickly enough to the emerging threat. Although the department halted inmate visitation quickly, other preventative steps took weeks to put in place.

DOC spokeswoman Lisa Kinney said corrections officers have been going through a written and verbal virus screening for several weeks, but acknowledged that doing daily temperature checks and wearing face masks did not become mandatory for DOC employees until this week.

Kinney said the DOC is giving each inmate two bars of soap per week so they can wash their hands frequently.

DOC also said inmates who live in dormitory-style housing have been instructed to sleep head-to-toe to increase breathable space between them. To promote social distancing, the department is also working on a plan to allow inmates to temporarily keep their medications instead of waiting in the usual pill line.

Jeremy Wiley, whose mother is incarcerated the Virginia Correctional Center for Women, said he is worried because his mother has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“It's almost her time to get out — she has about another six months — so we're hoping it doesn't spread through the prison," he said.


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