The Virginia prison system and operators of several jails in the Richmond area are intensifying cleaning of their facilities, increasing the screening of inmates and staff, and taking other precautions given the threat of the new coronavirus.
Beginning Tuesday, inmates booked into the Chesterfield County Jail are being asked four questions related to their health and prior travel. The questions include the following: Have you traveled internationally in the past 14 days, do you currently have signs or symptoms of respiratory infection, have you had a fever within the past five days for any reason, and have you had contact with someone with or under investigation for the coronavirus?
“Years ago with the Ebola [epidemic] we had a similar set of questions, so when [the coronavirus] popped up we just kind of adopted similar-type questions,” said Dr. G. Mantovani Gay, the medical director for the Chesterfield jail.
To help safeguard the jail, Gay said he’s generally following guidelines recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities “because I consider us a long-term facility like a nursing home.”
Gay said he conducted an inventory last week of all the jail’s personal protective equipment — such as masks, gowns and body suits — to ensure there is enough in supply.
The jail also has enhanced cleaning within the jail and has placed sanitizer in different parts of the facility to be used frequently.
Inmates who get sick with specific symptoms are entered into a database and their conditions are tracked, Gay said.
Aside from what could occur inside the jail, Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard said there’s an exposure concern for the department’s transportation deputies who are “all over the state almost daily picking up inmates for court in Northern Virginia, Tidewater and everywhere else.”
At Riverside Regional Jail, inmates are being extensively screened during their initial intake process in response to the coronavirus threat.
“New intakes are being probed for not only signs and symptoms of the flu but any recent travel and/or contact with others who may have recent travels,” said Riverside Sgt. Viola Spratley.
If an inmate exhibits signs or symptoms, he or she will be placed in a negative pressure room in the jail’s medical unit and monitored, Spratley said.
“Inmate cleaning teams have been created and are actively spraying and wiping down the facility with disinfectant,” she said.
The jail in Prince George County holds inmates for the cities of Petersburg, Hopewell and Colonial Heights and the counties of Chesterfield, Prince George, Charles City and Surry.
For the most part, inmates at Chesterfield and Riverside can have only non-contact visits from family and friends, reducing the chance for outside exposure.
Henrico County sheriff’s Maj. Richard Garrison said staff at the two Henrico-run jails already take extra precautions during flu season, including giving more soap to inmates and encouraging employees to stay home if they are sick. He also pointed out that the facility provides medical services all hours of the day.
“These are the steps we take every flu season,” he said.
Richmond Sheriff Antionette Irving, who is in charge of the City Justice Center, said the jail is preparing for the virus by intensifying its regular cleanings and screening visitors.
The screenings are minor and include asking how people are feeling, Irving said, but medical staff are available to screen others further, if necessary.
There has been no restriction of visitors or movement yet, she said. The jail gets very few visitors, Irving said, given that most inmates can connect with loved ones via video chatting from within their pod or the housing sections of the jail. That technology has been in place since the new facility opened in 2014.
Attorneys who make in-person visits still remain separated by glass from an inmate, but can request face-to-face interviews. Irving said they haven’t received any requests lately.
Sara Gaborik, a defense attorney, said she is not taking any additional precautions when visiting clients at jails in the Richmond area. Before concerns about the coronavirus surfaced, Gaborik already avoided using the phones inside jails when meeting with her clients, choosing instead to raise her voice to be heard through the glass partition.
“I don’t know how often they are being cleaned,” she said of the phones.
Gaborik said talking to her clients by video would be OK for some meetings, but nothing replaces an in-person meeting when she is preparing for trial and needs to review evidence and discuss other issues critical to a case.
“I would want my client to have a real in-person contact,” she said. “It’s their life.”
In her 17 years as a defense attorney in the Richmond area, Gaborik has seen outbreaks of influenza and MRSA in jails, and she said a lot of the area’s facilities are cleaner and nicer these days.
She noted that conditions at the Richmond City Justice Center are far better than they were at the old Richmond jail, which was chronically overcrowded and did not have air conditioning in the men’s tiers. Gaborik said there’s a meme going around Richmond’s legal circles showing a picture of the old city jail with these words: “If you worked here, you’re immune to the coronavirus and anything else.”
“When you break it down, this is just the flu,” she said of the coronavirus.
Sheriff Irving said her department has been prepping for weeks.
“There is hand sanitizer all over the building,” she said. “Inmates can wash their hands all day long.”
The Virginia Department of Corrections is in contact with state and federal health officials, including at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, developing guidelines based on the ones drafted earlier for a possible Ebola outbreak, according to department spokeswoman Lisa Kinney.
As of Tuesday, Kinney said the DOC has had no cause to seek coronavirus testing for any of the roughly 30,000 inmates housed at dozens of facilities across the state.
“If we had a positive test at a facility, just like with the flu, we would report it to the [Virginia] Health Department and follow their guidance,” Kinney said in an email. “And we would lock that facility down and stop visitation.”
In 2018, 54,409 people made a total of 225,141 visits to offenders in Virginia prisons, the DOC said. The department suspends weekend family visitation when inmates at facilities come down with influenza.
Since February, weekend visitation has been canceled at the Augusta, Buckingham, River North and Greensville correctional centers because of the flu.
In response to the coronavirus, protective equipment such as masks, face shields and gowns are being moved to central locations in the eastern, central and western regions of the state.
“We’re looking at our pharmaceutical supply chain and taking inventory of supplies,” Kinney said.
A screening protocol also is in place for offenders coming into prisons from the jails. If a prisoner is coming from an affected site or shows symptoms, he or she would be isolated for observation, Kinney said.
Starting this weekend, there will be questionnaire-based screening for visitors to prisons, Kinney said.
On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and other senators wrote a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons asking about the policies and procedures in place at federal facilities to manage a potential spread of the coronavirus.
There are more than 4,000 federal inmates in three federal correctional facilities in Virginia — the U.S. Penitentiary in Lee County and the low- and medium-security prisons at the Petersburg Federal Correctional Complex.
In the letter, according to Warner’s staff, the senators underscored that correctional staff and the prison population are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus threat.
Many people move in and out of the facilities every day, and as a result, the potential uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus endangers the staff, their families, inmates and the general public, according to Warner’s office.