Coronavirus

Virginia prisons, local jails take extra precaution in response to COVID-19 pandemic

Coronavirus

ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — Jail and prison inmates in the Commonwealth are particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease due to the confined and restricted spaces they occupy, according to the New River Valley Jail.

Jail and prison personnel tell WFXR they are taking precautions, so the COVID-19 pandemic does not enter detention centers, which could spill over to inmates, personnel and the communities in which they reside. This includes canceling check-in programs and limiting detention visitations.

The Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) will use a questionnaire to screen visitors visiting prisoners beginning this weekend in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Visitors are asked to reschedule their visit if they do not feel well, have traveled outside the country in the last 14 days, or have been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. Contractors, volunteers, and inmates transported from local jails to a state facility will also be screened.

According to VADOC, on average 4,000 people visit state correctional facilities each weekend.

While coronavirus is a new threat, VADOC stated, “As a large public safety agency, the VADOC is accustomed to managing communicable diseases.”

No reports of COVID-19 have originated in state prisons. If a prisoner were to contract the virus, VADOC would report it to the Virginia Department of Health and follow its instructions. The facility where the prisoner resides would be placed in lockdown and visitation at that facility would be stopped, said VADOC.

VADOC said it’s taking inventory of their protective equipment including masks, face shields, gloves, and gowns in preparation for a possible outbreak.

Roanoke County Sheriff’s Office suspended its Weekender/Delayed Reporting program.

“Any person that is scheduled to report to the Roanoke County/Salem Jail with a reporting date of March 13 through the end of April needs to call (540) 283-3162 and speak to a deputy. The new reporting date will be May 22, 2020.”

Roanoke City Sheriff’s Office has also implemented changes to its everyday operations, including suspending programs as a manner of preventing the potential spread of the coronavirus.

A list of suspended programs include:

  • Weekender Program, until April 25;
  • Court-ordered workforce program, until April 25;
  • Outside inmate work crews, until further notice;
  • Outside volunteer programs, until further notice; and
  • Physical visitation on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, until further notice.

Visitors can visit inmates via video in the absence of physical visitations, the sheriff’s office said.

The sheriff’s office has enhanced its arrestee medical pre-screening process and its daily cleaning. Staff is also keeping track of cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment to ensure that it’s stocked.

A New River Valley Jail official said he does not anticipate making changes operations in light of coronavirus concerns.

Gregory Winston, jail superintendent, said due to the tight space in which inmates are confined, jail personnel already take precautionary measures to prevent the spread of illnesses. This includes taking steps to avert the spread of influenza, hepatitis A, and now the coronavirus.

According to a 2007 study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, newly incarcerated inmates, compared to the general public, have an increased prevalence of infection with airborne organisms including M. tuberculosis, and influenza virus.

Winston said jail personnel are in a constant state of readiness and treat efforts to maintain a sanitary facility as a “daily battle.”

“We don’t have alternatives,” he said. “You just can’t relieve overcrowding.”

The jail holds an estimated 960 inmates and serves Radford, Pulaski, Floyd, Carroll, Wythe, Bland, Giles, and Grayson Counties.

When people enter the jail, they receive a medical screening, including taking their vital signs, Winston said.

Inmates’ length of stay is an estimated 27 days. The jail may release detainees who return to their community or transfer them to a state detention center.

He said the jail transfers inmates to state prisons on an ongoing basis and communicates with personnel about people who are at higher risks of contracting illnesses such as the coronavirus.

The jail will not implement changes to visitors, Winston added, since visits happen behind glass with no possible physical contact with inmates.

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