Sam Fowler

Alternate: Advocates, inmates want more from DOC as COVID-19 spikes

 

By Joseph Whitney Smith and Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va -- Prisons are divided into “zones.” Inmates have been given personal protective equipment. Visitation is canceled. Testing has ramped up. Still, the positive COVID-19 cases continue to climb within Virginia prisons.

The Virginia Department of Corrections reported on Dec. 10 that there are 593 active cases among inmates and 227 among staff, which includes employees and contractors. There have been over 5,200 positive COVID-19 cases and 35 deaths reported among inmates since late March. More than 1,250 staff cases have been confirmed since the spring.

The recent spike in cases came after a dip in October and November, which followed a flurry of positive cases in September. Outside of prisons, COVID-19 is rippling through the state with a new high daily record reported this week. 

Advocates question the safety of inmates and why the virus has spread so quickly in prisons that are removed from day-to-day activities that contribute to spread. 

Eden Heilman, the legal director of the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, said that Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper County has received multiple complaints from inmates regarding the facility’s handling of the virus. Almost 600 inmates at Coffeewood have tested positive for COVID-19—the prison ranks third in the state with the most cases. 

“I know the department is working really hard and the state is working really hard to address these issues,” Heilman said. “That being said, I think that there are a lot of problems with the way that the Department of Corrections and the state have handled the spread of COVID-19.”

Keith Hill, an inmate at Buckingham Correctional Center located outside of Dillwyn, informed the Coalition for Justice that there have been issues with proper isolation within cells and that individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 have not been properly isolated from inmates who haven’t contracted the virus. The Coalition for Justice is a Virginia-based nonprofit that seeks to drive positive social change. 

However, VADOC said prisoners with COVID-19 are separated from others. Offenders who test positive are placed in medical isolation so they don't infect others and treatment follows the department's COVID-19 medical guidelines, according to Lisa Kinney, VADOC spokesperson. 

Prisons are divided into three “zones” to help mitigate the spread of the virus, according to VADOC spokesperson Greg Carter. The red zones are COVID-19 areas, yellow zones are quarantined areas or busy areas with undifferentiated patients, and green zones are low traffic areas and places with no known COVID-19 cases and no symptomatic offenders. 

Christopher Wright, an inmate of over five years at Coffeewood, contacted a Capital News Service reporter by phone. He said the facility was doing a good job until they took in transfer prisoners from Buckingham Correctional at the end of September. Wright said he tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 4.

Wright said that in order to create more social distancing at Buckingham, inmates were sent to Coffeewood. There are three active COVID-19 cases currently at Coffeewood. The facility has reported a combined 590 positive cases among inmates. Buckingham currently has 118 positive cases on site and reported a total of 345 positive cases. Both facilities rank within the top five for most combined cases among inmates.

VADOC suspended facility-to-facility transfers in March. Carter said that transfers remain suspended except “under special circumstance,” warranted by medical or security issues. He did not have information on which transfers have been completed. 

VADOC provides inmates with masks, gloves, gowns and face shields, Kinney said in an email. Inmates and employees are required to wear personal protective equipment at all times, Kinney said. The department also provides oxygen on-site and inmates are transported to hospitals if necessary, she said.

Kinney said VADOC spent approximately $2.7 million through June 30 on PPE, hand sanitizer and cleaning and sanitation supplies. The department anticipates it will spend an additional $2.5 million from July 1 through Dec. 31.

VADOC is also manufacturing masks for use by staff and inmates at its four apparel plants. The agency said in March that they hoped to produce 15,000 masks per day. 

Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said during a Nov. 15 press conference that close to 50,000 tests had been administered in prisons. Moran said that roughly 3,812 inmates recovered from the virus. In November, VADOC said it began weekly testing of infirmary staff.

Bryan Lewis, an epidemiology expert at the University of Virginia, said although he doesn’t closely follow the number of cases or distribution of protective equipment within prisons, that “clearly there have been sizable outbreaks in the prison system.”

 “So one could conclude that perhaps the current levels of PPE and the stringency of infection control measures have not been sufficient to keep disease at bay,” Lewis wrote in an email. “In some ways this is an impossible situation, either you have to cut off visitors and institute very strict screening etc. on employees, and even if you do, eventually the disease will get in somehow.”

VADOC did not respond to an inquiry asking how effective the zones are given the spikes in new cases. VADOC was asked to elaborate on what could be contributing to the increase in cases, and if it was planning to change anything about its procedures, such as the zone management of inmates. 

VADOC has issued guidance on food service for inmates and staff throughout the pandemic.

Margaret Breslau, a chair of the Coalition for Justice, said she has received multiple letters containing complaints by inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“They’re shutting kitchens down, so they developed an emergency menu,” Breslau said.

VADOC created an emergency two-week menu in March to be used in the event of reduced staff. The menu consisted of items such as boiled eggs, hotdogs or chicken patties for lunch, served with chips and MoonPies or a fruit snack. Whether or not it was implemented, Breslau said, “no one in the administration is saying so, but given what is being reported, it sure seems to be the case.” Breslau said that in some places this menu has lasted for a long time.

VADOC did not respond to two CNS inquiries asking if the emergency menu was still in place, or if food service was operating as normal.

Multiple prisons within the state have reported outbreaks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Five prisons with the most confirmed total cases and deaths include: Deerfield (835 cases), Greensville (690), Coffeewood (590), Dillwyn (350) and Buckingham (345). Deerfield has the state’s largest population of older inmates, and an assisted living unit on site. Many have physical disabilities or medical issues, according to VADOC.

VADOC reports daily the cases from 40 state prisons. Jails in Virginia are run locally and overseen by the Board of Local and Regional Jails. More than 230 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Chesapeake Correctional Center in Chesapeake County as of November, according to a news release. 

The Virginia General Assembly approved a measure earlier this year that allows VADOC to release inmates with less than one year left to serve in their sentence while the COVID-19 emergency declaration is in effect, according to a press release. Offenders convicted of a Class 1 felony or a sexually violent offense are not eligible for consideration. The exact number of individuals eligible for early release consideration will change depending on the length of the emergency declaration order. Part of the criteria considered for early release also includes that the inmate has a low recidivism risk ranking and an approved home plan, according to VADOC’s website

Regarding early release for inmates with COVID-19, VADOC is moving incredibly slow and is tied up in a “bureaucratic review process,” Heilman said. As of Dec. 8, 786 inmates had been issued early release, according to VADOC. Almost 430 inmates have been released from local jails whose cases fell under VADOC jurisdiction.

Wright, who said he is serving an 8.5-year sentence for robbery that ends in three years, is frustrated by the pandemic and the lack of attention to issues in the prisons. He said “nobody really cares about us.”

“We're the bottom of society,” he said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Legal state marijuana sales could overtake illegal trade by year four

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia’s commercial marijuana market could yield between $30 million to $60 million in tax revenue in the first year, according to a new report by the state’s legislative watchdog agency.

The Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission released a report this month that explores how the commonwealth could legalize marijuana. The agency, however, did not give its take on legalization. Shortly after the report was released Gov. Ralph Northam announced that “it’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia.”

The state’s tax revenue could grow to between $150 million to more than $300 million by the fifth year of sales, according to JLARC. The revenue depends on the tax and demand of marijuana products. 

 Most states with commercial marijuana markets tax the product between 20%-30% percent of the retail sales value, JLARC said. Colorado, one of the most mature and successful U.S. marijuana markets, currently has a tax rate close to 30%, showing that while the tax may be high, the market could still be successful, said Justin Brown, senior associate director at JLARC. 

“But in reality, there's no magic rate that you have to use, and I think that's one thing that the other states' experience shows,” Brown said. 

Virginia decriminalized marijuana possession earlier this year. The substance is still not legal, but possessing up to an ounce results in a $25 civil penalty and no jail time. In the past, possessing up to half an ounce could lead to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. 

If the Old Dominion makes marijuana legal, it will follow in the footsteps of 15 states.

The legal marijuana market should overtake the illegal market in marijuana sales by the fourth year of legalization, JLARC said. The legal market could likely have two-thirds of sales by the fifth year of legalization. JLARC looked at the reported use rates compared to the use rates of other states to determine this figure, Brown said. 

“In the first year the minority of sales will be through the legal commercial market,” Brown said. “But then over time, particularly if supply and demand works out, you'll capture at least the majority of the full market through the legal market.”

JLARC said that if the General Assembly legalizes marijuana, the total sales tax would come out to around 25%-30%. This figure also came from the analysis of other states and how they taxed marijuana. 

The industry also could create over several years between 11,000 to more than 18,000 jobs, JLARC said. Most positions would pay below Virginia’s median wage. 

The revenue would cover the cost of establishing a market by year three, according to JLARC.

Northam said in a press release last week that his administration is working with lawmakers to finalize related legislation in preparation for the upcoming Virginia General Assembly session, which starts Jan. 13. 

Virginia localities take precautions to protect voters, workers

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia localities are taking a number of precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at polling places even though masks will not be required. 

Saturday marked the last day to cast early, in-person ballots before Election Day, but voters can still cast in-person ballots on Nov. 3. They also can mail or return absentee ballots by that day. Election officials have been working to keep voters and workers safe during an election that has yielded a record number of early votes.

More than 5.9 million Virginians were registered to vote as of Oct. 1, with the cut off date in late October. Early voting commenced 45 days before Election Day, due to a new law. Legislators also recently changed laws to allow no-excuse absentee voting and made Election Day a state holiday. More than 2.7 million Virginians had voted as of Nov. 1, with around 1.8 million individuals voting or casting an absentee ballot in-person, according to the Virginia Department of Elections website. More than 886,000 voters have cast absentee ballots by mail and nearly 1.1 million mail-in ballots have been requested. 

Voters are encouraged to wear a mask, and will be offered one, Andrea Gaines, director of community relations at the Virginia Department of Elections, said in an email. They will also be offered the opportunity to vote without leaving their vehicles.

“Ultimately, a voter will not be turned away if they are not wearing a mask but the Department strongly encourages them to do so to keep themselves and others around them safe,” Gaines said. 

Even though there is a state mandate requiring individuals to wear masks when in close proximity with others, it’s against state law to “to hinder or delay a qualified voter in entering or leaving a polling place,” regardless of whether they have on a mask, Gaines said.

Poll workers and voters will be buffered with a number of measures. Such precautions include enforcing social distancing as well as placing plexiglass between voters and poll workers, according to Gary Scott, general registrar and director of the Fairfax County Office of Elections. Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers will assist at polling places to ensure social distancing and sanitization measures are followed, according to Gov. Ralph Northam’s office.

Fairfax County workers will also have shields, gloves and masks, which will be replaced throughout the day, Scott said. To avoid the chance of voters sharing pens, Fairfax County will provide voters with “I voted” pens that they can use to fill out their ballots and keep instead of offering stickers.

The Virginia Department of Elections distributed $9 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding that could be used to help secure personal protective equipment needed by local election offices, Gaines said.

In Charlottesville, poll workers will have sanitizing wipes and ponchos to help provide an extra layer of protection, said Taylor Yowell, the city's deputy general registrar.

“We have plenty of sanitizing wipes and the sterilizing spray and paper towels in order to wipe down each polling booth after every voter throughout the day,” Yowell said. 

Danville poll workers checking identification will be buffered by the use of a shower curtain placed on PVC pipe, said David Torborg, a chief poll worker at one of the city’s 16 precincts. 

Torborg, who has been an election worker for about 20 years, decided to serve as an election worker again this year because he believes the precautions in place are good and will be enough to protect workers and voters from the coronavirus.

“I’m aware of COVID, I’m cautious as I can be,” Torborg said. “I’m not freaking out over it.”

Others, like former Danville poll worker JoAnn Howard, have decided against working at the polls this election to mitigate the chance of contracting the coronavirus.

“I was given the option and I did feel guilty because I’ve been working the polls for 10 years, and I really enjoy it,” Howard said. “Something could go wrong, I just didn’t want to take a risk.”

Election workers in Fairfax County are trained every three years or when laws impacting election workers or voters change, Scott said. The county has been training election workers since July on how to follow and implement social distancing measures. In Charlottesville, training sessions for new election officers were kept small to stay within Centers for Disease Control guidelines. 

“All election officers do get trained on protection and making sure they’re wiping down, sanitizing,” Yowell said. “Our chiefs get trained more thoroughly with helping with de-escalation and sanitizing throughout the day.”

Virginia Department of Elections also provides training along with each locality’s specific training, Gaines said over email.

Around half of registered voters had voted in Fairfax and Charlottesville, according to Scott and Yowell. 

Around 9,000 people have voted in Charlottesville as of Oct. 28. Around 5,000 to 6,000 mail-in ballots were sent out, Yowell said. The number of in-person and absentee requests accounts for nearly half of the city’s 33,000 active registered voters.

“We've already gone over 50% of our anticipated turnout in five days of in-person voting,” Scott said. “We anticipate close to 60% of our voters will have voted prior to elections.”

Virginia lawmakers pass legislation to make Juneteenth a state holiday

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Juneteenth has officially become a state holiday after lawmakers unanimously approved legislation during the Virginia General Assembly special session. 

Juneteenth marks the day news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, which was the last state to abolish slavery. The companion bills were introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond. Gov. Ralph Northam signed the legislation on Oct. 13.

“Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States,” Northam said during a press conference held that day. “It’s time we elevate this, not just a celebration by and for some Virginia, but one acknowledged and celebrated by all of us.”

Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, introduced a bill in the legislative session earlier this year to recognize Juneteenth, but the proposal didn’t advance. 

Northam proposed making Juneteenth a state holiday in June during a press conference that included musician and Virginia-native Pharrell Williams. Northam signed an executive order that gave executive branch employees and state colleges the day off. Some Virginia localities, such as Richmond and several places in Hampton Roads, also observed the holiday this year.

“I think it is overdue that the Commonwealth formally honor and celebrate the emancipation and end of slavery,” Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, a co-patron of the bill, said in an email. “It was a step towards fulfilling the promise of equality contained in our founding documents.” 

The Elegba Folklore Society, a Richmond-based organization focused on promoting African culture, history and arts, is one of the groups that has been celebrating the holiday for decades. The celebration usually is a three-day weekend event that looks at the history of Juneteenth. A torch-lit walk down the Trail of Enslaved Africans in Richmond is also held, said Janine Bell, the society’s president and artistic director. 

“We take time to just say thank you to our ancestors, their contributions, their forfeitures, their trials and tribulations,” Bell said. “We invite people to Richmond’s African burial ground so that we can go there and pay homage from a perspective of African spirituality.”

Juneteenth should not be used as another holiday to look for bargains in stores, Bell said. It should be a time for reflection about liberty, as well as for celebration and family strengthening.

“It’s a time for optimism and joy,” Bell said. 

The Elegba Folklore Society broadcasted its Juneteenth event online this year due to the coronavirus. Although there were still around 7,000 views, Bell said that it is usually much larger and has international influence. 

Cries for police reform and social justice continue to increase, Bell said. More attention is being drawn to the racial disparities across America. With this, people have been changing their priorities concerning issues such as discrimination.

“This was a step towards equity,” Bell said about the bill. “A symbolic step, but a step nonetheless.”

State workers will be off during Juneteenth. If the job requires individuals to come in to work, then they will be compensated with overtime or extra pay, said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a patron for the bill. 

The General Assembly wrapped up the agenda last week for the special session that began Aug. 18. Northam called the session to update the state budget and to address criminal and social justice reform and issues related to COVID-19.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia voter registration continues to climb as deadline looms

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The deadline to register to vote in Virginia is Tuesday, Oct. 13, and organizations and government officials continue to remind people to register by the deadline. 

Gov. Ralph Northam encouraged residents to register to vote before the deadline, and said in a statement Friday that it has never been easier to vote. The statement coincides with Virginia’s annual High School Student Voter Registration Week. 

This year over 1 million absentee ballots have been requested, Andrea Gaines, director of community relations at the Virginia Department of Elections, said in an email. Around 370,000 absentee ballots have been returned as of Thursday, Gaines said. 

Early, in-person voting has also yielded a large turnout. More than 420,000 people have voted in-person as of Oct. 8.

“It is the largest turnout we have seen at this time of year in Virginia,” Gaines said.

This is the first year there has been no-excuse absentee voting and a 45-day early voting period. The General Assembly recently passed a host of voting reform bills to allow for these changes. 

Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond is spreading the message to vote through VCU Votes, a class that coordinates voter engagement events and educates students and faculty members about voting.

“Our messages emphasize that registering to vote is easy,” Nicole O’Donnell, an assistant professor in public relations who teaches the class said in an email. “It should take less than five minutes of your time.”

VCU Votes has reached thousands of individuals through social media. Students are excited to vote, and they are well versed and knowledgeable about politics, O’Donnell said.

Getting students to register to vote has not been a problem at VCU, Jacqueline Smith-Mason, senior associate dean at VCU and co-chair of VCU Votes Advisory Council said in an email. However, she encourages people to check the Virginia Department of Elections website to ensure they’re registered to vote.

“It would be disappointing to think that you are registered to vote and later learn that your application was not processed,” Smith-Mason said.

Problems can arise if students renew or update their license with their home address, according to Adam Lockett, a VCU student who volunteers with Virginia21, which aims to drive civic engagement among college students. That updated information is sent to a registrar in the student’s home district, but the student may have planned to vote where their university is located.

Lockett said that students who renewed their driver's license in the past year should verify their address at the Department of Elections website before the registration deadline.

VCU Votes has arranged a number of events, including film screenings and registration drives. There are still two drives left. One will take place Oct. 12 at the Hunton Student Center on the MCV campus while the other will occur Oct. 13 at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.

Nationwide initiatives such as National Voter Registration Day, which occurred Sept. 22, broke new ground. An estimated 1.5 million people registered to vote nationally during the event this year, the largest number of registrations since the campaign started in 2012, according to the organization’s website. Celebrities got involved to help the cause trend on Twitter with #NationalVoterRegistrationDay. 

A record number of over 5.8 million Virginians have registered to vote as of Aug. 31, when looking at records that go back to 1976. Over 5.5 million voters were registered in the 2016 presidential election year, and turnout that year hit 72%. 

Individuals can register to vote through the state elections website or by mailing in a registration form, which must be postmarked by Oct. 13.

Other upcoming deadlines include Oct. 23 to request an absentee ballot by mail, or Oct. 31 to request an absentee ballot in person. All absentee ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received by noon on the third day after the election.

 

 

Efforts falter to require schools to provide in-person options

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- An effort to require Virginia school districts provide in-person classes to students with poor internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic is most likely dead. 

House Bill 5009, introduced by Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, would require public schools to offer in-person classes to elementary, middle and high school students who have substandard internet connections at home. 

The bill was referred in August to the House Committee on Education during the Virginia General Assembly special session, but the legislation still hasn’t been addressed as the legislature nears crossover day—when each chamber must act on bills for them to advance.

“Anything still left in committee, will essentially die. So it doesn’t look like this bill will progress,” Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, who co-sponsored the bill, said in an email. 

Mark Cole’s bill would have required schools to provide in-person instruction to individuals who can’t access an internet speed of more than 10 megabits per second download and one Mbps upload. 

“This is an equity issue,” Mark Cole wrote in an email earlier this month. “Some children do not have access to the internet or internet of sufficient capacity to be able participants in online instruction, primarily rural and poor children.”

More than 1 million public school students were slated to start school in an online-only format, according to data posted in August by the Virginia Public Access Project. That includes Fairfax County, home to almost 189,000 students. More than 269,000 children were set to start school in a hybrid format that offers in-person and online instruction. Many of those students are located in rural areas. Hanover County, which enrolls more than 17,500 students, is the largest school district offering a blended format, according to VPAP. 

Russell County in Southwest Virginia is among the schools offering an in-person and online learning format. The school has set up an internet hotspot on school grounds to help students download material for class, and zip drives to store what they download, according to Janice Barton, a teacher at the school. High schools in the surrounding area have also done the same, Barton said. 

Even though schools are offering ways to access the internet, they’re still not offering high-speed access, Mark Cole said.

“This still puts children without high speed internet at a disadvantage over those that can participate in the comfort of their homes,” he said. “Children have to be driven to a hotspot, often a school parking lot, where they try to receive instruction while sitting in their car.”

Joshua Cole believes children should have an equal opportunity to learn without having to worry about attending online classes.

“If you don’t have internet, if you don’t have high speed internet, if your speeds are low, we want to make sure that your student is not left out,” he said. 

Stafford County gives some students an opportunity to come to school if they need to, said Joshua Cole, who is one of the county’s representatives in the House. The lawmaker said only some students are attending in-person classes in Stafford County, primarily students with disabilities or those without reliable internet access.

“It's not a bunch of students coming in,” he said.

Fredericksburg City Public Schools partnered with business owners in the area who are helping fund internet hotspots for students to access from their homes, according to Joshua Cole.

Many schools that are offering in-person instruction have created spaces to accommodate students and follow social distancing guidelines.

“We have signs in the hallways, in our classrooms. We have it set up 6 feet apart,” Barton said. “We have cleaning supplies, every teacher has that.”

Russell County Public Schools also provide students and teachers with masks, Barton said. 

Senate Bill 5114, sponsored by Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Mechanicsville, had similar wording to Mark Cole’s bill, but it was passed by indefinitely, which means the bill is dead unless the committee takes additional action.

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