Cops, Courts & Prisons


Originally published in the Summer 2020 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 62, printed August 14. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Summer 2020 issue or download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Phil Wilayto

Yes, there are COVID-19 cases in the Richmond city jail. And not all those infected are showing symptoms.

In response to a FOIA request by The Virginia Defender, Richmond Sheriff Antionette Irving has provided the following information:

The jail administration has arranged for the testing of 503 inmates who volunteered to be tested. Of these, 340 were tested on July 7, 21 and 27. On those days, there were an average of 644 inmates in the jail, so about one in five were not tested.

Of the inmates who were tested, 12 were found to be infected with the virus. Of these, four were not exhibiting any symptoms.

The sheriff reported that deputies and administrative staff also were tested. Two out of the 325 staff members tested positive, she stated, both of whom were exhibiting symptoms.

As of Aug. 6, there had been no COVID19-related deaths among inmates or staff at the jail, according to the sheriff..

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 included the Legal Aid Justice Center, Richmond Community Bail Fund, Southerners On New Ground and the Virginia Defenders.

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, I asked the sheriff how many jail inmates and staff members had been tested for COVID-19. She said 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.

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

On May 11, the coalition emailed Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico health departments, 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.”

PPS testing involves testing a representative sampling of a population.

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

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

As of Aug. 5, the jail was reporting no cases among 300 inmates.

The Chesterfield jail posts the number of current cases on its website. To date, the Richmond jail does not do that.

Accoding to Dr. Avula, whether to do so would be up to Sheriff Irving.

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