Cops, Courts & Prisons

VIRGINIA’S PRISONS: HAZARDOUS TO WOMEN’S HEALTH?

Originally published in the Autumn 2018 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 58, printed November 8. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2018 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post (pending). For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Ashley Collier

The fastest growing demographic of incarcerated people in the United States is women. Between 1980 and 2014 the number of women in prison increased more than 700 percent, according to data compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy center The Sentencing Project. 

The ACLU of Virginia states that the quickly increasing incarceration of women is a symptom of systemic inequity – more specifically, the intersection of gender and numerous social barriers, including economic inequality, educational inequity, reproductive injustice and racial and sexual discrimination. 

As these inequities are sown into the fabric of society, they are also risk factors for substance use disorders and mental health challenges. According to the organization Mental Health America, there is a direct correlation between mental illness and the likelihood that one will engage in crime and become incarcerated. 

Virginia has two women’s prisons: Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, a Level 3 security facility with a capacity of 1,200 located in Troy, and the Virginia Correctional Center for Women, a Level 2 security facility with 609 beds located in Goochland County. 

Fluvanna has come under fire in recent years for allegedly neglecting to provide adequate health care to prisoners. 

“Offenders,” as prison staff refer to prisoners, are supposed to be protected by the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In 2012, outraged over prisoner deaths due to what they charged was a lack of proper medical care, five Fluvanna women initiated a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia that charged cruel and unusual punishment by prison officials and Armor Correctional Health Services Inc., the Florida-based, for-profit company contracted to provide medical care at the prison. 

Among the officials targeted by the lawsuit were Harold W. Clarke, director of the state Department of Corrections; A. David Robinson, DOC chief of corrections operations; Frederick Schilling, DOC director of health services; and Phyllis A. Baskerville, Fluvanna’s warden. 

The lawsuit, filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, alleged a “systemic, pervasive and ongoing” failure to meet the minimum standards for medical care for prisoners. According to the Daily Progress, the women detailed “… being regularly given the wrong doses of medication; having to stand in a ‘pill line’ for more than an hour in rain, snow and excessive heat and cold at 3 to 4 a.m. to get medication; and not having requests for medical attention taken seriously, among other complaints.” 

In 2014 the Justice Center announced it had reached a settlement, with the court ruling that the Virginia DOC may not defer to a subcontractor its constitutional obligation to provide adequate health care. 

In 2017, following the deaths of three women who died from what they argued were preventable medical conditions, the five FCCW plaintiffs filed a motion for contempt. The motion asked the court to enforce the class action settlement due to FCCW continuing to fail to provide constitutionally adequate medical care, a violation of the court agreement. 

The case was heard this past June. In an opening statement, LAJC attorney Angela Ciolfi said the prison had made no changes to its staffing plan, had kept the same private contractor for health care and had made no changes to the way the system is funded. 

The defense disputed this claim by stating that FCCW has undergone “constant change and improvement.”

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