ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — Many health districts in the Commonwealth are moving into Phase 1b of the COVID-19 vaccination efforts. That includes a number of frontline essential workers, including correctional workers and those living in correctional facilities.
Tracy Moss has been living behind bars for the past nine years. He is expected to be released in September 2023, and tells WFXR News that he has spent the past year and a half at Bland Correctional Center after spending time at other correctional institutions in the Commonwealth.
Moss says medical staff at Bland have asked offenders there if they would like to be vaccinated. He says he has reservations about the vaccine and likely won’t be a part of the initial group to get vaccinated.
Moss first wrote to WFXR News in May about the challenges of living behind bars during the pandemic.
“It is impossible to be six feet or any feet apart,” he wrote. “We are warehoused in a dorm, literally on top of each other,” he said then.
At the time, Bland Correctional had zero cases of COVID-19.
“We, ourselves, was not the concern because we were already in a bubble. We live in a bubble amongst each other, so the virus amongst us really was not the concern. The concern was the way they were coming in and out,” Moss said in a phone interview with WFXR News.
Data provided by the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) shows the first confirmed case at Bland was among a staff member in August. In response to the pandemic, VADOC implemented guidelines for all state correctional facilities. The incarcerated have been placed on modified lockdown to prevent close contact between groups. But Moss says it has also led to the modification of certain educational and reentry programs.
“A lot of the programming that goes on is essential to the rehabilitation of us,” Moss said, adding that the adoption of an independent learning model had made much of the programming more of a challenge.
VADOC also has guidelines governing sanitation and personal protective equipment (PPE), noting on its website that all offenders and staff members are required to wear masks. But Moss says in his experience, those guidelines have not been enforced across the board.
“We were told to wear them constantly and consistently, but when we see them they don’t have them on constantly and consistently,” said Moss.
Moss filed a grievance with Bland Correctional regarding a correctional officer he says he observed without a mask. WFXR News reached out to VADOC requesting copies of grievances filed at Bland to see whether other offenders voiced similar concerns. VADOC denied that open records request, citing Virginia Code that says prisoner records are discretionary releases.
“Accordingly, the Virginia Department of Corrections is exercising its discretion to withhold these records in their entirety,” the Department noted.
A VADOC spokesperson did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
Moss tells WFXR News he has seen a difference in the number of offenders housed at Bland.
“As the old saying goes about us, today’s prisoner is tomorrow’s neighbor. We want to go home and be better people,” Moss said.
So far, more than 1,000 state offenders have been released from jails and correctional facilities around the Commonwealth in an effort to reduce the incarcerated population and stop the spread.
Data provided to WFXR News by VADOC shows the highest number of on-site cases of COVID-19 among offenders at correctional facilities was on Dec 24, 2020, with a total of 1,552 cases. As of Friday, Jan. 15, the total number of on-site active cases was 624.