Concerns loom following COVID-19 outbreak among dozens of inmates at Virginia prison camp

Coronavirus

PETERSBURG, Va. (WRIC/WFXR) — WFXR’s sister station, WRIC, has obtained a letter stating that 60 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at the FCI Petersburg prison camp.

According to the letter sent to staff, the 127 inmates who tested negative are still being housed in quarantine status. The prison is in the process of renting mobile shower units.

“We do not speak about the conditions of confinement for any particular inmate or group of inmates. The Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Petersburg has increased testing for COVID-19. This allows for the FCI to slow the transmission of COVID-19 by identifying inmates who are asymptomatic and unknowingly carrying the virus, which is key to mitigating the spread of the virus,” said Emery Nelson, who works in the public affairs office at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. “Increased testing of the inmate population at the FCI may increase the number of COVID-19 positive cases reflected on the Bureau of Prisons’ public website. While a number of inmates are testing positive for COVID-19, the majority of these inmates are exhibiting mild to no symptoms. FCI Petersburg maintains 24-hour on-call medical staff coverage.”

On the Federal Bureau of Prison’s website, data shows 56 COVID-19 inmate cases and two confirmed staff cases as of Thursday, Aug. 20.

According to the Bureau, “FCI Petersburg has an ample supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Staff are provided the appropriate levels of PPE (i.e. masks, gowns, eye protection, and gloves) when entering isolation/quarantine units, and during enhanced staff screenings. Cloth face-coverings are issued to all staff and inmates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) informational flyers are posted throughout the institution and on the inmate email system, in both English and Spanish.”

If an inmate tests negative and is asymptomatic, they remain in quarantine and are observed for symptoms and signs of the illness during the incubation period, and must test negative again prior to being placed in general population.

Michael Castelle is the National Representative for the American Federation of Government Employees’ fourth district. Castelle oversees Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and West Virginia, which means 10 federal prisons fall under his jurisdiction, including FCI Petersburg. He believes the inmates are not being protected. 

“They don’t get proper PPE. They don’t get face masks issued daily,” said Castelle.

According to a former inmate, there were four showers and seven sinks shared among more than 70 inmates on his floor. The inmate says social-distancing did not exist and bathrooms were cleaned once every morning. 

“We’re not protecting the inmates, then we’re putting the staff and the community at larger risk.. period,” said Castelle.

Castelle says the prison is packing inmates and not abiding by CDC guidelines to keep a six-foot distance.

In letters sent to staff from Warden Justin F. Andrews, at least four Petersburg staff members have also tested positive for coronavirus.

One woman who spoke with WFXR’s sister station has a fiance who is an inmate. The woman is devastated over her loved one’s condition, and says he’s supposed to be released in a few months.

“It hurts me to know that they cannot protect themselves.”

She wants to be the voice for other family members searching for answers.

“Not only him… all of them because that’s somebody’s child, somebody’s brother, somebody’s father.”

Several family members of inmates at the FCI Petersburg camp have attempted to contact the prison for more information. One woman even drove from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Petersburg. Many have no way to communicate with their loved ones.

“I haven’t gotten an email. I haven’t gotten a phone call. I call up there and I got nothing. I got hung up on.”

Castelle believes it is a mismanagement of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

“If there was real accountability in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, this would not have occurred,” said Castelle.

Inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 will be offered the opportunity to shower starting Thursday.

“FCI Petersburg is committed to the health and welfare of our staff, the inmates entrusted to their care, and the surrounding community. As staff diligently and safely carry out their responsibilities during this unprecedented time, they remain vested in ensuring public safety. Our highest priority is to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” said Nelson.

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