COVID-19 Update from Greensville Correctional Center, Virginia

by Daniel A. Rosen |

I’m here at Virginia’s largest facility, the Greensville Correctional Center in southern VA. This place holds up to 3000 inmates, and I’ve heard it’s the largest state prison on the East Coast. On August 7th, we went on lockdown for the second time in four months. There were just too many virus cases and too few staff for this place to function. On August 22, they tested everyone for the second time in three months.

The first round of testing was done in late May, with the National Guard’s help, inmates and staff alike. Everyone was locked down for a week while we awaited results. Around 250 inmates and 60 staff tested positive, roughly 8-10% of both populations. For a couple months after that, when inmates developed symptoms they were removed from the cellblocks, quarantined, and monitored. There was an entire building of sick and quarantined inmates on another part of the compound, though the official numbers didn’t appear to reflect that.

Officially, one person has died from the virus here, according to DOC’s website – but two other recent deaths may have been virus-related. One of them was wheeled down the walk with CPR being performed on him as many of us watched from the rec yard. He didn’t make it, we found out.

Between the May and August rounds of testing, in my ‘cluster’ of buildings most cellblocks have bounced back and forth between “code green” (clear) and “code yellow” (suspected exposure) status. Three have been on code red (total lockdown) at some point because of numerous confirmed cases.

My block was green almost this whole time – officially, no cases at all. We were manning the kitchen for a few weeks, because all the regular workers couldn’t leave their building. We know we were lucky – and we also know there were some people positive in here. They had obvious but mild symptoms, and they just laid low and toughed it out. Those feeling sick don’t want to report it and end up quarantined.

In late July and early August, some inmates in code yellow housing units were tested, and scores of new cases were found. In one cellblock alone, 60 inmates – three fourths of the pod – were infected. They went code red, and the 19 who came up negative were moved to the visitation room. A couple other blocks soon went the same way, and the gym was used for makeshift housing for negatives too.

Between the severe staff shortages and the rising positive cases, the August 9 lockdown was probably inevitable. Over 200 new cases were identified between just a few housing units. We went on code yellow ourselves on August 12 because of just one symptomatic inmate. The testing that followed on August 22 revealed three more positive cases on our block, and those people were moved out to quarantine in the segregation building. Many of the others in here who’d shown symptoms over the prior weeks had recovered enough to test negative by then, apparently.

Things have been going downhill since March, when virtually all classes, treatment programs, religious services, library, and non-essential work were shut down. Strangely though, the Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE) furniture shop has been kept open this whole time. I guess DOC considers VCE profits to be essential.

Visitation was cancelled, of course, and outside volunteers no longer allowed. The chow hall was closed and meals served in cells. Outdoor recreation was curtailed to just a few hours a week, then cancelled outright, and only recently reinstated. We’ve been restricted to cells for all but an hour or two a day. Short-staffing has often meant that even limited rec time was cancelled, in practice.

Workers in the housing units are cleaning constantly, and they give us soap and disinfectant for our cells. Masks were handed out pretty early on, though replacements are hard to get. Movement of inmates between pods was basically eliminated from the beginning. These changes have been unwelcome and people grumble about them, but for the most part we understand they’re necessary to protect everyone.

What hasn’t happened to any serious degree is early release of inmates. Besides the steps described above, thinning our ranks is the most effective thing VADOC could have done to reduce the spread of the virus. To that end, the State Assembly gave DOC authority to release two thousand inmates who were deemed no threat to the community and going home within twelve months anyway.

About 575 inmates (or 1.5% of VA’s inmate population) have been released early so far, and many of those were DOC inmates held in local jails. Given the high number here of probation violators, the very elderly, those with underlying medical conditions – it’s hard to fathom why more haven’t left. Virginia must have thousands of inmates with less than a year left on their sentence.

This place is dysfunctional even on the best days, widely known as one of Virginia’s worst prisons. With the added chaos of the virus, everyone – staff and inmates alike – is now just trying to get through each day intact.

It seems like we are going to be on these restrictions for the long haul – until next year, is the consensus. Meanwhile, no one can see their family or go to work or school, there’s little to do, and more fights are breaking out as frustrations mount. Many of us know that it could be worse though, and understand that things could still go downhill further. We try to stay flexible and roll with the punches. And we wake up every day hoping our color code has gone back to green.

(Ed. Note: 655 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at Greensville CC. The author’s cell block changed back to code green status on September 5, 2020.).

Originally written for Prison Legal News.

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