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Amid massive covid-19 outbreak, Virginia prisons accused of failing inmates again

Asmar soon tested positive for the novel coronavirus, adding another life-threatening condition to a laundry list of issues. He’s been suffering from sweats, diarrhea and body aches.

“I can only pray,” Asmar said. “That is all I have.”

Asmar is part of a massive coronavirus outbreak at the southeastern Virginia facility that houses many of the state’s geriatric prisoners. The Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) reports that 723 have contracted covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and that 12 have died — a staggering toll that is higher than the count of cases in a number of states’ prison systems.

The ACLU of Virginia highlighted the plight of Deerfield in a notice to the state this week, claiming the VADOC has violated for a second time a May settlement of a lawsuit by inmates over conditions related to the coronavirus in prisons.

They claim the corrections department has failed to provide basic safeguards against the virus, such as water to wash hands and social distancing at a number of facilities, and is continuing to move too slowly to release inmates to stem the spread of covid-19.

The ACLU is calling for an independent expert to oversee the prison system’s response to the coronavirus because of what it sees as repeated failings. The number of active coronavirus cases in Virginia’s prison system has doubled since June. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 3,600 cases. A total of 26 prisoners have died.

“The numbers themselves show Virginia’s ability to manage the infection’s spread right now is pretty dismal,” said Eden Heilman, the legal director of the ACLU of Virginia.

Virginia corrections officials declined to discuss Asmar’s case but wrote in a news release this week that they were moving aggressively to combat the virus at Deerfield, which houses 925 inmates. Officials said they performed mass testing on inmates and staff and distributed thousands of bars of soap and masks since mid-March, among other measures.

“The department’s pandemic response plan consists of more than 900 pages of documents addressing every situation we have faced during this pandemic,” said VADOC Director Harold Clarke. “We responded to the outbreak at Deerfield with months of knowledge and best practices that we’ve developed since the beginning of the pandemic.”

VADOC spokeswoman Lisa Kinney wrote in an email that the department had “worked overtime” to try to release inmates eligible for early release, but the cases are complicated since officials have to weigh public safety concerns, investigate a prisoner’s record and ensure inmates have an after-release plan. The VADOC has approved 1,094 prisoners for early release, and 816 have been released.

But the ACLU says the corrections department should do much more.

The group points to a Marshall Project analysis from July that found that, at the time, Virginia had released 2 percent of its nearly 28,600 prisoners, a lower percentage than any other state in the country.

The ACLU’s first notice of noncompliance with the settlement in June also accused the VADOC of reviewing cases for early release too slowly and failing to accurately inform prisoners of their eligibility for early release. VADOC disputed those claims but agreed to begin reviewing at least 60 petitions for early release each week.

The ACLU says approval is still too slow, leaving medically vulnerable people who are eligible for early release lingering behind bars during a deadly pandemic.

Asmar wrote in his filing that he submitted a request for information about early release in June, but the Deerfield warden replied by telling him he had already been given the information in April. The ACLU says Asmar has not been given the information since his request.

The ACLU has also been critical of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), saying he should be aggressively using conditional pardons to release inmates during the health crisis. Heilman said Northam has declined to release information about whether his office has approved conditional pardons related to the coronavirus, citing executive privilege.

Northam’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but in an April radio interview, Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran was cool to the idea of conditional pardons.

“They don’t have any place to go,” Moran said of inmates after a conditional pardon. “So what are you going to do about that? That really kind of reinforces the position we have taken that we’re not going to irresponsibly release people without a successful home plan, someplace to go.”

Meanwhile, the ACLU says inmates like Asmar are being forced to contend with life-threatening conditions. Asmar said in his sworn statement that it is difficult to remain socially distant in the dormitory-style geriatric unit.

“I do my best to stay away from people,” Asmar said.

Asmar said that prison officials have failed to inform him about medical appointments at a local hospital and that he was not given care despite complaining of severe pain in an area where he had surgery for his liver cancer, according to his statement.

Asmar, who said in his statement that he is serving a six-year sentence for a nonviolent offense, is eligible to be released in December. Court records could not be located listing his specific crime or crimes.

In sworn statements, other inmates at Deerfield have complained that their covid-19-like symptoms have been dismissed as allergies and that inmates have to beg for hand sanitizer to be replaced.

A private attorney filed the lawsuit against the VADOC in April on behalf of 27 inmates, and the ACLU later joined the suit. The suit accused the VADOC of violating the Constitution by failing to protect inmates from the coronavirus and freeing the medically vulnerable.

Heilman said the VADOC is expected to respond to the notice of noncompliance with the settlement on Monday.

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