McEachin: detention centers lack PPE

Published 11:46 am Wednesday, October 28, 2020

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Two local detention facilities that recently experienced COVID-19 outbreaks are allegedly failing to provide inmates and employees with appropriate personal protective equipment, according to a letter from Congressman A. Donald McEachin.

McEachin, who represents Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District, wrote to Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, Brian J. Moran, on Oct. 26 concerning “the ongoing health and safety crisis in detention facilities located throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia,” specifically, at the Western Tidewater Regional Jail in Suffolk and Deerfield Correctional Center in Southampton County.

“For several months, my office has received concerning complaints regarding the health and safety conditions within Western Tidewater Regional Jail,” McEachin writes. “Both facility staff and incarcerated individuals allege that there is a critical lack of appropriate personal protective equipment … exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus within the facility.”

As of Oct. 5, 14% of the regional jail’s 750-plus inmates and six employees had tested positive for the virus.

When asked for specifics on the allegations brought by employees and inmates at either facility, Ralph Jones Jr., director of communications for Congressman McEachin’s office, was reluctant to share details that “could very easily be traced back to the folks who have an issue” without first obtaining written consent from those individuals.

Jail Superintendent Col. William Smith, on Monday, said he hadn’t received a copy of McEachin’s letter prior to being contacted by the paper, but denied the congressman’s allegation of insufficient PPE.

“I have adequate PPE for staff and inmates,” Smith said, including face masks, face shields, eye protection, disposable or washable coveralls for employees.

On Tuesday, Smith wrote a response letter to Moran, in which he stated, “If Congressman McEachin would have contacted me I would have explained that we have adequate PPE equipment for inmates and staff … Congressman McEachin speaks of the situation worsening, clearly he is misinformed because as of today, October 27th, WTRJ has no active COVID-19 cases.”

“As you may be aware, almost all correctional facilities in our area, State, Local, and Federal have had cases of COVID-19,” Smith writes. “It is difficult to manage because inmates still must go to medical appointments outside the facility, court proceedings and people are still being brought after being arrested. … Should you speak with or correspond with Congressman McEachin please let him know I am always available to answer any questions, complaints or provide insight into how he could help correctional facilities in Virginia during the pandemic.”

Currently, the jail has masks, to include N95s, face shields, goggles, and disposable and washable coveralls, Smith said. Masks are available to all inmates, with replacements available, and all new inmates are given a mask upon intake at the facility.

“We have distributed COVID-19 educational materials to the inmates, and they cannot leave their housing areas without wearing a mask,” Smith writes. “We had no positive COVID-19 cases until September 8, 2020 due to our isolation and screening efforts.”

“As of today, we have no inmates with active COVID-19,” Smith stated on Monday. “We currently have five staff who are on leave who tested positive in the past couple weeks. Several are due to return this week.”

“I will state that PPE has increased in price and when we do place orders it is rare that we receive the complete order,” Smith continued. “But as I mentioned, we currently have an adequate supply.”

At Deerfield, which the letter describes as “home to Virginia’s largest cohort of geriatric male inmates,” more than 800 inmates have tested positive for the virus to date, and of those, 19 have died.

“These figures are higher than several other states’ prison systems,” McEachin writes. “Furthermore, inmates allege that the facility has failed to provide appropriate PPE, as well as other basic safeguards against the virus, including cleaning and sanitation supplies.”

The congressman then asks Moran to provide him with “information on what additional steps the Commonwealth of Virginia is taking” to deal with the situation, including “whether the Virginia Department of Corrections, or another appropriate entity, is making routine, unannounced visits to state-run facilities to review their COVID-19 response.”

“If there are funding inadequacies that are hindering your ability to address this crisis, or if there are additional steps that the Federal government can take that would support the Commonwealth’s efforts, please share that information as well,” McEachin writes.

Lisa Kinney, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Corrections, denied McEachin’s allegations concerning a lack of PPE at Deerfield.

“Virginia Correctional Enterprises manufactures both utility face masks and cleaning supplies approved by the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] for use in combating the coronavirus, so there is no shortage of either in the facilities,” she said.

The Department of Corrections, she added, does a daily, seven-day-a-week PPE survey of its facilities. As of Oct. 27, Deerfield had 1,859 new N95 and KN95 masks, 1,751 disposable gowns, 60,260 latex and nitrile gloves, 804 face shields and 46 goggles.

“Offenders can get new, washable utility face masks whenever they need one,” Kinney said. “Cleaning supplies are readily available.”

[Note: This version adds to the previously published article online, and now includes responses from the DOC.]