COVID in Fluvanna Prison: This is a Runaway Train

By Heather Michon

At least 115 inmates and 10 staff members at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW) have tested positive for COVID-19  since early September, and two are currently hospitalized.

Shannon Ellis, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, learned about the spread of the virus in the first week of September. According to her clients at FCCW, the outbreak was discovered when at least one of the inmates who worked in food service became symptomatic.

Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) spokesperson Lisa Kinney said two inmates were initially found to be symptomatic. Both were food workers and both were housed in the same unit. Once the entire housing unit was screened, 39 of 234 were found to be positive. Ellis said the positive cases were placed under quarantine in a cordoned-off section of the housing unit.

At least a week passed between the discovery of the two symptomatic cases and the mass testing of all 953 inmates. Kinney said the tests were conducted on Sept. 14-15, and the results were released later in the week.

The cumulative number of COVID infections at FCCW since the start of the pandemic is now 166. There have been no fatalities to date.

Advocates for prisoners housed at FCCW have been dreading a potential surge in cases since the virus emerged earlier this year.

Prison populations are always at a high risk for viral spread, but the women at Fluvanna are uniquely vulnerable. “It’s the facility where Virginia sends its sickest female prisoners,” said Ellis.

Adding to the risk, FCCW has a poor track record of caring for the women in its facility. In recent years, several prisoners have brought and won federal lawsuits against VDOC, successfully arguing that medical mismanagement and neglect violated their constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2019, Federal Judge Norman K. Moon found that the prison had violated previous court orders to provide basic medical services and adequate staffing, leading to the deaths of at least a dozen inmates since 2014.

Ellis said her clients described the current conditions within the facility as “pretty awful,” with all inmates on lockdown and unable to even go outside for exercise. “It’s an incredibly stressful and incredibly dangerous situation that they’re in.”

Understaffing in the medical unit is a longstanding problem at the facility, and Ellis has heard that the turnover in nursing staff has been high in recent months. One of her clients has told her that “it seems like every morning [at sick call], there’s a new face.”

Kinney said that FCCW is following the protocols for sanitation and all inmates and staff are required to wear personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, at all times. “Virginia Correctional Enterprises manufactures both utility face masks and cleaning supplies approved by the EPA for use in combating the coronavirus,” she said, “so there is no shortage of either in the facilities.”

“We continue to work hand-in-hand with the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and our university hospital partners, and to follow corrections guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” she added. “When there is an outbreak our medical folks are on the phone with VDH every day, and Fluvanna works closely with UVA.”

Ellis said that now that there has been a major outbreak, VDOC and the state need to do more — from reducing the prison population through early and provisional release, to moving people around to allow for more single occupancy cells.

“Once it started, this is a runaway train, and it’s really likely to be devastating,” she said. “The state needs to do everything it can to treat and protect these women.”

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