This story was published between issues of the newspaper. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes.
Originally published April 10, 2020 to the Virginia Defender Facebook page.
By Phil Wilayto
RICHMOND, VA, April 10 — In an impressive display of solidarity during the coronavirus pandemic, protesters in more than 50 cars circled in front of the Richmond city jail this afternoon, honking horns and displaying signs demanding that inmates be released to protect them from the COVID 19 virus that has already shown up in prisons across Virginia.
After gathering at a downtown parking lot – wearing face masks and practicing social distancing – the protesters formed a car caravan and headed for the city jail, which officially, if incorrectly, is known as the Richmond Justice Center. They drove north on 18th Street to just past the jail, made a U-turn and continued south on Oliver Hill Way to Coalter Street and then back north on 18th. After numerous loops, the cars converged in the jail’s parking lot for a mass honking of horns.
The protest, one of the first local public demonstrations to take place since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, was sponsored by the Legal Aid Justice Center, Richmond Community Bail Fund, Richmond Public Defender’s Office, the LGBTQ organization Southerners on New Ground and the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality.
A media release stated that the purpose of the protest was “… to demonstrate our grave concern with our government officials’ failure to reduce the number of individuals housed in detention facilities in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.
“Prisons, jails, detention centers, and juvenile correctional facilities are dangerous settings that increase the spread of infectious diseases. Social distancing and other preventative measures are nearly impossible in densely populated carceral settings and pose a risk to all Virginians. Mass release must be a strategy to reduce the spread and harm of coronavirus.”
Of the approximately 750 inmates held in the Richmond jail, about 32 have reportedly been released in response to the virus threat. That’s barely 4 percent. The Norfolk jail has reportedly released 28 percent (250 out of 900), as has the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail (122 out of 430).
The Richmond protest was held the day after another coalition, led by the ACLU of Virginia, held a well-covered press conference to demand the Virginia Department of Corrections release as many prisoners as possible in order to avoid what the coalition fears could be an impending disaster in the state system. With many prisons already overcrowded, there may not be enough space to isolate people who come down with the virus.
As of Friday, there were no reported cases of COVID 19 in the Richmond jail. The DOC today is reporting that 26 prisoners – 16 of them women – and 25 staff members have been infected in eight of the system’s 40 facilities.
How you can help: Demand that Gov. Ralph Northam, Richmond Sheriff Antionette Irving and Richmond Commonwealth Attorney Collette McEachin release more prisoners and inmates before we have a health disaster in Virginia’s prisons and jails. To send a message, click here: https://www.justice4all.org/free-our-people/
UPDATE – APRIL 11
“After being blocked from entering the jail parking lot, organizers made demands to Richmond Commonwealth Attorney Colette McEachin and Richmond City Sheriff Antionette Irving to further examine and exercise all release mechanisms for people incarcerated at the jail immediately.
“The current release agenda is not sufficient, is too slow, and lives are on the line. As of 6:00PM on 4/10/20, the Commonwealth Attorney McEachin got in touch with Rebecca Keel, organizer with SONG. McEachin has yet to take further action with her authority to accelerate the release of people in Richmond Cty Jail.
“Keel will keep following up with McEachin and organizations will continue to call for the release of as many as possible from Richmond City Jail and all facilities that house people incarcerated.” — Rebecca Keel MSW | They/Them/Theirs Pronouns – Statewide and Campaign Organizer for VA