Cops, Courts & Prisons

SHERIFF SAYS SHE WILL FINALLY CONDUCT COVID-19 TESTS IN RICHMOND CITY JAIL

By Phil Wilayto for The Virginia Defender

Originally posted June 23 and 25 to the Virginia Defender Facebook page.

RICHMOND, VA, June 23 – Updated June 25 — More than three months after COVID-19 cases first began emerging in Virginia, Sheriff Antionette Irving says she’s finally moving to test inmates and staff at the Richmond city jail.

As of late last week, it was unclear whether any of the approximately 650 inmates, or staff members, had been tested for the disease, including inmates being released back into the community.

On April 27, during a conference call with prison justice advocates, the sheriff had said she would like to test inmates and staff, but did not have any testing kits.

On May 11, the advocates contacted Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico County Health Departments, asking if he could arrange for test kits to be supplied to the jail.

He responded May 15, stating, “The Richmond City Health District has provided test kits to RCJC medical staff so that testing can be conducted on any inmates or staff who exhibit symptoms, and a PPS would be considered and likely recommended if COVID-19 was identified.”

PPS testing involves testing a representative sampling of a population.

On June 18, Dr. Avula wrote, “We continue to partner with Sheriff Irving and RCJC on their COVID-19 response, ensuring the ongoing availability for testing of suspected infections, and encouraging random sample testing of asymptomatic inmates and staff. RCJC has elected to move forward with this approach and is currently scheduling testing.”

Sheriff Irving also confirmed that testing was being planned, writing on June 17, “We have requested a date for testing at RCJC.”

The sheriff did not respond to a request for a follow-up interview to answer the question of how many, if any, tests had already been performed at the jail. According to Dr. Avula, only the sheriff has the authority to give out such information.

BACKGROUND TO THE ISSUE

Earlier this year, the jail, officially known as the Richmond City Justice Center, was the target of four weekly car caravan protests demanding the early release of inmates because of the dangers the novel coronavirus poses to confined populations, such as those in correctional facilities and nursing homes.

The protests were sponsored by the Richmond #FreeOurPeople coalition, which includes the Legal Aid Justice Center, Richmond Community Bail Fund, Southerners On New Ground and Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality.

After the fourth protest, Sheriff Irving agreed to participate in a conference call with coalition representatives, including this reporter.

Toward the end of the April 27 conversation, the sheriff was asked how many jail inmates and staff members had been tested for COVID-19. She answered that the jail tests those who ask for the test or are showing symptoms. Pressed on how many tests had actually been administered, she said none.

She added that she did not have any tests kits, but would use them if she had them.

On May 11, the coalition emailed Dr. Avula, asking if he could arrange for test kits to be supplied to the jail. He responded May 15, stating, “To date, the Richmond City Justice Center has no confirmed cases, and as a result, we have not considered widespread testing. The Richmond City Health District has provided test kits to RCJC medical staff so that testing can be conducted on any inmates or staff who exhibit symptoms, and a PPS would be considered and likely recommended if COVID-19 was identified.”

Across the state, testing in jails and prisons have found both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases of the novel coronavirus, demonstrating that only testing when an inmate shows symptoms is completely inadequate to determine if there are any active cases in the facility.

As of 5 p.m. June 25, the Virginia Department of Corrections is reporting that a total of 1,501 COVID-19 cases have been identified in the 40-facility prison system, 5 percent of the total population of 30,000 prisoners. That includes 231 current cases among prisoners, seven of whom have been hospitalized. Another 10 prisoners have died. In addition, there currently are another 73 cases among prison employees or contract workers.

Local and regional jails are independent of the Department of Corrections, but as of June 17, Chesterfield County’s jail, which tests all its inmates, reported 37 active COVID-19 cases among its 230 inmates, about 16 percent of its population. The majority of those cases have been asymptomatic.

Chesterfield jail posts the number of current cases on its website. To date, the Richmond jail does not do that. According to Dr. Avula, whether to do so would be up to Sheriff Irving.


In his May 15 letter to the Richmond #FreeOurPeople coalition, Dr. Danny Avula listed “some of the measures we have recommended to Sheriff Irving and the RCJC medical team to aggressively monitor the facility and help protect all inmates and staff:

• Screening all staff and visitors for symptoms, including temperature measurement
• Screening all inmates for symptoms daily
• Cohorting both inmates and staff to the same pods/areas to limit the risk of broader transmission
• Following CDC guidelines for environmental cleaning to prevent contaminated surfaces
• Establishing detailed plans to address any positive cases that may occur among inmates or staff and minimize risk of transmission to others in the facility.

He added, “We have also offered to do a walk-through of the entire facility to observe their COVID-19 prevention strategies in action and identify improvements they might make to better protect inmates and staff. We will continue to work closely with the Sheriff and her team to evaluate the situation at RCJC.”

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