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ACLU asks Virginia Supreme Court to order protection of inmates from COVID-19 as cases climb in state prisons

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Matthew Elliott, an inmate at the Chesterfield County Jail, disinfected areas inside the jail as a precaution against the coronavirus as Sgt. Ted Knight watched on March 10.

Northam on prisoner releases: "Need to keep society safe as well"

The ACLU of Virginia wants the Virginia Supreme Court to order state and local officials to provide adequate care for people in custody in prisons, jails, juvenile facilities and elsewhere.

“This petition seeks extraordinary relief to mitigate the extraordinary risks imposed by the novel coronavirus ... upon incarcerated people, corrections and health staff, and all of our communities. Only one body — the Supreme Court of Virginia — has the authority to effectively and systematically address this crisis,” the petition filed Wednesday says in its opening.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s petition contends that overcrowded facilities and other factors make social distancing impossible and requests that officials release as many people as is safely possible to adhere to guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health.

Facilities must also provide proper access to sanitation products and health care, the ACLU says.

The 45-page request argues that “leading public health officials have warned that unless courts act now, the ‘epicenter of the pandemic will be jails and prisons.’”

COVID-19 poses an immediate and potentially deadly threat to thousands of men, women and children held in Virginia’s correctional facilities, many of whom have not been convicted of a crime, the ACLU argues.

Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam, said in an email that the governor “is committed to the health and safety of all Virginians, including those who are incarcerated in our state prisons and local jails.”

Among other things, she said he has directed the Virginia State Parole Board to expedite the review of eligible individuals, proposed budget language authorizing the Department of Corrections to release prisoners with less than one year left to serve, and directed local jails to safely reduce their inmate populations, which has resulted in a 67% decline in the number of new misdemeanor commitments.

He has also ordered the Department of Juvenile Justice to review cases and release any juveniles who are not a threat to public safety and have safe home plans. One-eighth, or 25 of the 200 residents, at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Chesterfield County have tested positive for the virus, the Department of Juvenile Justice said last week.

Officials have said they hope to get as many elderly and other at-risk inmates as possible out of the nearly 30,000-inmate prison system without risking public safety.

As of Wednesday evening, the Department of Corrections said one inmate has died, eight are hospitalized and a total of 174 have tested positive for COVID-19. Some 57 staff members and contractors have also tested positive, the department said. Some have recovered or been released; 149 inmates remain in facilities or hospitals.

Those figures are expected to grow, as last week the department began testing inmates who do not show any COVID-19 symptoms. The governor’s office said Wednesday that the department has already tested 1,031 inmates and 447 staff members at Deerfield Correctional Center, where many elderly inmates are held.

The Department of Corrections said it is operating under procedures that follow the guidelines of the American Correctional Association and that it is planning for contingencies under guidelines from the CDC. It is also working with the Virginia Department of Health, prison officials said.

In correspondence with the media and advocates, some inmates claim otherwise, complaining at times of a shortage of soap, cleaning supplies, careless staff members and no room for social distancing.

Last week, the ACLU joined a federal suit filed April 8 by Charlottesville lawyer Elliott M. Harding on behalf of 27 inmates in several Virginia prisons. It alleges that Virginia is violating the prisoners’ constitutional rights by failing to thin out facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson ordered that case sent to U.S. District Judge David J. Novak for mediation.


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