The Virginia Department of Corrections said Monday that it will dramatically increase testing of inmates as the state struggles to control the spread of the coronavirus in prisons across the state.
As of Sunday, 139 inmates and 50 Department of Corrections staffers had tested positive for COVID-19. One inmate has died.
Separately, a legal aid group is demanding that the state take steps to protect youths at a juvenile detention center where 25 kids have tested positive.
The DOC has been criticized by inmates’ families and advocates who say prison officials have not acted quickly enough to stop the spread of the virus inside the close quarters of correctional facilities, where social distancing is often difficult or impossible.
The DOC said the Virginia Department of Health will send staff Monday to prisons to help with increased testing. The DOC has ordered hundreds of additional tests, while Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia and the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services are also sending hundreds of additional tests to prisons.
The DOC said it is testing all inmates who have symptoms of the virus. Last week, the department also began testing inmates without symptoms at two prisons. This week, it plans to test asymptomatic inmates and staff at the Deerfield Correctional Center, which has a large population of elderly and other at-risk inmates with underlying medical issues.
Prison officials said testing asymptomatic inmates will allow them to monitor and treat positive cases sooner rather than after symptoms develop.
“This increase in testing will give the VADOC a better picture of what is happening at each of Virginia’s correctional facilities and will allow us to reduce the spread of the virus,” DOC Director Harold Clarke said in a statement.
Kim Rolla, the interim director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s civil rights and racial justice program, said the increased testing is a positive step, but state officials need to do much more to stop the spread of the virus inside prisons. Advocates have asked Gov. Ralph Northam to use his clemency powers to release older inmates who are at a higher risk for acquiring the virus, inmates who have underlying medical conditions and those who are within a year of completing their sentences.
“These are human beings who are in these settings and are facing a dire situation,” Rolla said.
Northam has proposed a budget amendment that would give the DOC authority to release inmates with one year or less remaining on their sentences. Under his proposal, nearly 2,000 inmates could be eligible for early release. The proposal would not go into effect unless the General Assembly approves the amendment at a session scheduled for Wednesday.
The Legal Aid Justice Center is also calling on state officials to release youths held at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center. Officials reported Friday that 25 youths at the center have tested positive for the coronavirus, accounting for a quarter of all cases reported at youth facilities nationwide.
The center sent a letter Monday to Valerie Boykin, director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, saying it will consider legal action if the department does not take a series of steps to protect incarcerated youths from the virus and ensure that they are not excessively confined to their rooms as a means of quarantine.
In a statement released Monday, the department said it has been communicating with the legal aid center about its concerns and is working closely with the Virginia Department of Health.
“As always, DJJ’s top priority is protecting the health and safety of our residents and staff,” the statement said.
Chris Moon, chief physician at the department, said 21 of the 25 infected kids exhibited no outward symptoms and only four showed signs that were more severe than a cold or a flu.
The facility currently houses 191 youths, ages 14 to 20.
“Any resident who tested positive was immediately placed in medical isolation,” Moon said. He said 13 residents have already been released from isolation.