A look back at how Shenandoah Valley correctional centers handled COVID-19 outbreaks

A look back at how Shenandoah Valley correctional centers handled COVID-19 outbreaks
(Source: Raycom images)

AUGUSTA COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) — “This virus is killing people and it’s scary. I have a brother in there who can’t do anything. He can’t do anything. He’s helpless and it’s scary. I’m his sister and I fear for him.”

Liz Wells was just one of the many family members to reach out to WHSV with concerns for a family member incarcerated in a correctional facility in the Shenandoah Valley.

The COVID-19 outbreaks to hit Middle River Regional Jail and Augusta Correctional Center left hundreds of staff and those incarcerated infected with the virus.

Many of those who reached out to WHSV wished to remain anonymous.

“When your loved one is in there and they can’t get the help that they need — medical help — or be taken away from the people that are sick. That’s a fear,” said one family member.

In mid-November, Middle River Regional Jail announced that a number of officers had tested positive, or were waiting on test results.

“As a result of the incidents from the positive test results for staff, we decided the prudent thing to do would be a little more aggressive on how we are managing operations of the facility. We announced the changes in our facility and operational procedures,” Middle River Regional Jail Superintendent Jeff Newton said.

Despite efforts from jail officials and the guidance of the local health department, family members repeatedly told WHSV the way the facility handled the outbreak put people in danger.

“It’s not special treatment that they want, it’s human rights,” Nora Ramos-Martinez, another concerned family member, said.

Officials say that medical staff were on-site 24/7, but multiple family members, even inmates, said this was not the case.

Heather Witt wrote to WHSV during her time at Middle River Regional Jail. When she was released, she sat down for an interview via Zoom about her experience.

“Once the fear kicked in it was hysteria. Now you not only have one person or two people exposed, but because we weren’t separated, and positive COVID inmates were not separated from non-positive, so it spread so quickly,” Witt explained.

Witt says the issues at Middle River are not exclusive to the pandemic.

“It could have been avoided if we didn’t have such an overpopulated jail,” Witt said. “Two phones per 35 inmates — it is easy to understand how things spread so quickly. When you got three inmates per cell, there is no social distancing.”

Jail officials said during the pandemic, the facility housed hundreds of inmates that belonged in the custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections.

“Unfortunately, with the amount of inmates that we have in custody, it’s hard for us to manage 850 inmates and not be able to move them freely about... because we just don’t have the space,” Major Eric Young said.

Around the same time as Middle River’s outbreak, Augusta Correctional Center (ACC) experienced an outbreak of their own.

A Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) spokesperson said via email:

“Offenders testing positive are placed in medical isolation so they don’t infect others. Treatment follows the department’s COVID medical guidelines. We treat symptoms as they arise, just as you would in any primary care setting. We can provide many things, including oxygen, on-site. If they require an inpatient level of care, they go to a hospital.

Our facilities are divided into green, yellow, and red zones. PPE in each zone is based on CDC guidelines. Red zones are for known COVID-19 areas, yellow zones are quarantined areas or busy areas with undifferentiated patients, and green zones are low traffic areas and places with no known COVID-19 cases and no symptomatic offenders.

In March, we established an Emergency Operation Center (EOC) to manage the COVID-19 pandemic response for correctional facilities and probation offices across the state. The department also developed a satellite EOC tasked with monitoring PPE supplies, planning for inventory needs, and providing logistical support to more than 80 locations across Virginia. PPE is ordered by a team of buyers and moved to these stockpiles for further distribution to various locations across the state.

We have N95 Masks, KN95 masks, surgical masks, nitrile and latex gloves, disposable gowns, cloth gowns, and face shields. Inmates and staff are required to wear appropriate PPE at all times. Virginia Correctional Enterprises manufactures utility (cloth) masks as well as cleaning supplies approved by the EPA for use in combating the coronavirus, so there is no shortage of either in the facilities.”

According to data obtained by WHSV, ACC was able to keep the virus out of the facility for a majority of the outbreak,

“When they did a lockdown shakedown and brought outside [correction officers] in to do this, that brought in the COVID. They were perfectly fine from March until November 12,” said one concerned family member who wished to remain anonymous.

VADOC officials confirmed via email that an inspection occurred on November 12, but did not confirm the cause of the outbreak.

There were no reported cases at ACC until November 25, when one test from an inmate came back positive. By December 4, there were 40 positive inmates.

The VADOC said via email that when a facility has outbreaks, the department deploys a pandemic response plan.

“COVID-19 positive offenders are placed in medical isolation where they are monitored by our medical staff. Groups of COVID-19 positive offenders can be cohort together in a housing unit separate from COVID-19 negative offenders,” a statement from the agency read.

Yet, various family members contacted WHSV, contradicting the said protocol.

“Why would you put someone who has been subjected to be positive or around someone that was positive into a cell to quarantine with a person who is negative?” said one family member who wished to remain anonymous.

Eventually, both Middle River Regional Jail and Augusta Correctional Center were able to bring their number of COVID-19 cases down.

But where do we go from here?

“Certainly, we would like to have less offenders in our custody. Clearly, space is the challenge. To really manage a health crisis like this you need to be able to quickly identify and quickly isolate offenders. And you need space to do that, and we just don’t have the space to do that,” Superintendent Newton said in a phone interview.

Dr. Nancy Insco is the founder of The Institute for Reform and Solutions. Her work focuses on criminal justice reform and finding ways to help those incarcerated.

“You can never plan enough. You got to have your resources lined up. This is a pandemic, it is not like anything we have experienced in our lifetimes. Dr. Insco explained. “It is not as if we are pulling tools out of a toolbox that we know well. We have to listen to the experts, the scientists, to adopt a direction in which to plan and manage the medical crisis that has befallen on these facilities.”

The Virginia Department of Corrections has begun its vaccine campaign and has since vaccinated more than 15,000 people incarcerated at their facilities. To track their progress, click here.

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