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More than 50 cars circled in front of the Richmond city jail in April to demand the early release of inmates because of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Phil Wilayto


By Phil Wilayto for The Virginia Defender

RICHMOND, VA, Sept. 8 -- “Some terrible mistake was made along the way.”

That was how a federal judge described the recent massive COVID-19 outbreak at a private immigrant detention center in Farmville, Va., the result of officials transferring a large number of detainees from Arizona and Florida without first quarantining them.

The same words could describe the coronavirus crisis at the Richmond city jail, where one out of every eight inmates now has the disease.

Back on April 27, Sheriff Antionette Irving told this reporter that no inmates at the jail yet had been tested for COVID-19. By that date, Virginia already had reported 13,535 cases, with 2,066 people hospitalized and 458 deaths.

Irving explained that her policy was to test any inmate who showed symptoms of the disease or who asked to be tested. But it is well-known that people infected with COVID-19 can show no symptoms and yet still pass the disease to others, especially in confined spaces such as nursing homes, jails and prisons. 

Irving also stated that she didn’t have any COVID-19 test kits at the time.

In response, this reporter and other advocates on May 11 wrote to Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico County health departments, urging him to make test kits available to the jail administration.

Dr. Avula responded on May 15, stating, “To date, the Richmond City Justice Center has no confirmed cases, and as a result, we have not considered widespread testing.” 

He added that his department had provided test kits to the jail “so that testing can be conducted on any inmates or staff who exhibit symptoms, and a PPS [representative testing] would be considered and likely recommended if COVID-19 was identified.”

In late July, the Defender sent a list of questions to the sheriff under the Freedom of Information Act asking for an update on the COVID-19 situation in the jail. Sheriff Irving’s office quickly responded, stating that 503 out of about 644 inmates had volunteered to be tested, with 340 being tested on July 7, 21 and 27. Of the 340, 12 were found to be infected, with four showing no symptoms. 

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the first case of COVID-19 in Richmond was confirmed on March 18 - nearly four months before this first mass testing in the jail.

Later, in response to a second FOIA request, the sheriff stated that, by Sept. 2, a total of 119 inmates had tested positive at the jail, with 109 - more than 90 percent - displaying no symptoms. By that date, there still were a total of 81 active cases among 675 inmates, meaning that 12 percent - one out of every eight inmates - had the disease. 

Jail officials say they follow all guidelines recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including “wearing masks, social distancing within the facility, and courts, hand washing/sanitizing, daily temperature checks, and increased janitorial cleaning throughout the day at the facility."

The jail can house 1,132 inmates, including in the medical clinic and solitary confinement, so there should be room for isolating inmates with active or suspected cases.

Asked what happens if an inmate declines to be tested, the sheriff told the Defender, “They are quarantined and asked daily if they would like to test, and are educated in regards to COVID-19, and continuously assessed by the nursing staff to monitor if there are any signs or symptoms.”

And are inmates tested before they are released back into the community? 

“No,” the sheriff responded, “but they are provided with resources and education in addition to VDH [Virginia Department of Health] contact person.”

So inmates who may have declined to be tested for COVID-19 and who have the disease but are not showing symptoms can be released back into the community, without being tested. 

Unlike in prisons, most people confined in local jails are there for relatively short periods. According to a study by the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Health Care, the average time an inmate spent in a local jail in 2017 was just 17 days.

And active cases aren’t limited to inmates.

Also by Sept. 2, according to the sheriff, 22 jail employees and/or contractors had tested positive - with none of them showing symptoms at the time they were tested. Staff and outside contractors, who pass in and out of the jail, would seem to be the most likely carriers of the disease. It is not known how many people in the community the infected but asymptomatic staff members or contractors may have infected.

Local activists have charged that one Richmond inmate has died from COVID-19, something Sheriff Irving has publicly denied. In response to a question submitted under FOIA, the sheriff told the Defender that by Sept. 2 no inmate had died from the disease, and no inmate who had the disease has died from what was determined to be other causes. 

Meanwhile, by mid-June, officials at nearby Chesterfield County Jail had tested all inmates, resulting in positive tests for 41, of whom 31 were asymptomatic. The 41 represented about 20 percent of the more than 200 inmates. No employees tested positive at that time.

As of Sept. 1, the Chesterfield jail was reporting no active cases among inmates in the previous month.

Unlike in Richmond or Henrico County, the Chesterfield jail posts updated information about active COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths on its website, as does the Virginia Department of Corrections. 

The tragedy is that if all Richmond city jail inmates and staff had been tested back in April - or earlier - the present outbreak in the jail may have been avoided.

One problem may have been the lack of outside pressure. Except for The Virginia Defender and the Richmond Free Press, there was little media coverage of the COVID-19 crisis in the city jail until 11 young activists were brutally arrested Sept. 1 during a protest outside the jail, resulting in wide media attention.

And, to the best of our knowledge, the Richmond and Henrico County health departments have not sought to make the crisis a public issue.

As of Sept. 2, the sheriff’s office stated that that jail had both testing kits and PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], adding, “We are always excepting [sic] more cleaning supplies PPE and testing kits for the appropriate outside escorts.”

Advocates including the Richmond Legal Justice Center, Richmond Community Bail Fund, Richmond Public Defender Tracy Paner, S.O.N.G, American Civil Liberties Union, Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality have been calling on jails to release more inmates because of the coronavirus pandemic. As of Sept. 2, 675 women and men were being held in the jail, a decline of 12.2 percent from the average of 769 held in January of this year.

Editor’s note: The formal name of the Richmond city jail is the Richmond City Justice Center. It is the policy of The Virginia Defender to use the more accurate term, “Richmond city jail.”)