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Family worries about inmate safety, health at Sussex prison

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WAVERLY - The family of an inmate housed at Waverly’s Sussex I State Prison said they’re concerned for the health and safety of their loved one incarcerated at the state-operated prison following apparent changes to how prisoners are secured in their cells, reduced access to showers, and a seeming lack of guards during the overnight hours at the facility.

Speaking with The Sussex-Surry Dispatch on the condition of anonymity to protect the inmate’s identity, the prisoner’s spouse said she felt both angry and helpless as she shared details of what is allegedly happening behind the walls and fences of the Virginia Department of Corrections facility, which also serves as a major employer in the region.

During their conversations, which have become virtual as in-person contact visits have been suspended across the state due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, they were told “padlocks and chains” were being used to secure inmates in their living quarters.

According to a document obtained by The Sussex-Surry Dispatch, in a message to prisoners at the facility, prison warden Ivan Gilmore told inmates the prison would be “off [lockdown]” beginning April 1 and on “modified movement” due to COVID-19, with the jail “placing padlocks on all cell doors for staff and offender safety.”

“Upon returning to the pod, the offender will stand in front of their cells until the floor officer can open the cell door for the offenders to be placed back in their cells and then padlocked,” the document read. “The padlock on the door is approved through the Fire Marshal.”

The inmate, who also asked to remain unidentified out of fear of retaliation said, while he understands the need to limit offender movement in the prison, the way corrections officers are going about it places both his and other prisoners’ safety at risk.

“That doesn’t give anyone the right to put hundreds of inmates at risk,” they shared. “Having a key-and-padlock wrapped around our cell doors does not solve it because, what if a fire breaks out in my cell, if my ruptured lung needs immediate attention,” an injury suffered during a stabbing attack at the prison, “or an inmate and his cellmate has a physical altercation and somebody gets hurt severely or even dies, who is going to be held responsible?”

In February, the Virginia Department of Corrections announced a three-year, nearly $14 million prison door replacement project at Sussex I and II State Prison to combat inmates jamming the locking mechanisms.

At that time, officials explained cell doors at the prison could be opened via control booths at each of the jail’s various pods but, the doors at the facility were “designed differently” than those at other VADOC prisons and “inmates are able to jam the doors to prevent them from closing completely,” creating safety issues for both inmates and staff at the prisons.

Lisa Kinney, communications director for the VADOC said in February there had been “more than 500” jamming incidents at Sussex I and II over the last two years.

As that work remains ongoing, officials said inmates were being secured with “keyed locks” and “additional staff [are] assigned to each pod while the keyed locks are in place in case of an emergency in which the cell doors need to be opened quickly for inmate evacuation,” noting they had been working with the fire marshal on the matter.

Calls to the prison requesting comment from Warden Gilmore were directed to VADOC’s Kinney.

Several emails to the department were not returned until after The Sussex-Surry Dispatch contacted Governor Ralph Northam requesting a comment on the allegations, with the department’s responses arriving a day after our deadline for rebuttal.

According to Kinney last week, “The DOC has been working with the State Fire Marshal's Office on the cell door locks and security.”

“A temporary code modification was issued to DOC as they make the necessary repairs to cell door locking mechanisms,” she continued. “As part of the temporary modification the SFMO required the DOC to meet the intent and spirit of the SFPC and have an emergency plan in place that outlines procedures and training for DOC staff.”

“The emergency plan has been reviewed and procedures witnessed (exercise/drill) by the SFMO in order to ensure compliance with the emergency plan,” the agency’s spokesperson said.

Regarding staffing, even though state corrections officials said in February more staff would be assigned to each pod while the keyed locks are being used, the inmate and their family alleged there are no guards in the pods from roughly 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily, prompting concerns about safety from both.

“There is an emergency button labeled in each and every cell in case there is an emergency at the inmate’s request, however, each and every button doesn’t work in the cells and with the prison being short of staff everyday, there’s no correctional officer on the floor or making proper security rounds at all times,” the inmate shared. “How is an inmate supposed to exhaust their emergency if the emergency buttons don’t work and there’s no officers hardly ever on the floor, even if it's life-threatening?”

Suffering from the effects of a stabbing at the prison, the inmate said they experience swelling and “there’s no way to get immediate attention because of the alleged shortness of staff as well as the emergency buttons not working.”

“My husband is definitely fearful given the circumstances,” the prisoner’s spouse shared. “He never knows what will happen while he is in or out of his cell. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone but he will protect himself given the circumstances. Anything can happen between those hours to any of the inmates and no help will arrive on time.”

When asked, Kinney of the VADOC said, “Like many other facilities, Sussex I has correctional officer vacancies. However, through the use of overtime and scheduling variances, there is adequate staffing for every shift at Sussex I.”

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the Commonwealth with hundreds of new cases being reported daily, many correctional facilities have altered their operations to prevent an outbreak among the prison population and facility employees. As of the most recent health data from the Virginia Department of Health, 17 confirmed outbreaks of the respiratory illness have been recorded at correctional facilities in Virginia, combining for roughly 300 cases.

At the pair of Sussex prisons, while no cases of COVID-19 have been reported at Sussex I, roughly two dozen inmates have been stricken ill by the disease at Sussex II, with six of its employees also confirmed to have the respiratory illness. One offender has died at Sussex II.

In total, over 360 inmates across the state prison system have been diagnosed with COVID-19, two having died from the illness. 66 prison employees have also contracted the illness, according to VADOC data.

Since March, state prison officials have suspended visitation and volunteer activities on-site at the facilities while maintaining off-site video visitation and phone calls, with the state’s offender phone service provider providing two free calls per week to inmates from March through the end of last month. As of this report, it is unknown if that program will be extended.

VADOC, according to their website, has implemented several screening policies for COVID-19, such as forehead thermometers screenings for those entering facilities, while noting there are separate screenings for its employees and, “All employees must assess their risk on a daily basis prior to reporting to work.”

With calls from health officials to maintain or heighten hygiene practices to help quell the spread of COVID-19, some at the Sussex prison claim they are going days without proper access to showers despite state regulations requiring showers be provided at least every three times a week.

“I’ve been in my cell for four days and eight hours without a shower,” the inmate revealed. “It is very normal where I go five to seven days at a time without a shower or proper grooming time.”

According to the Virginia Department of Corrections Offender Management and Programs manual, available on the department’s website, “Offenders should be given the opportunity to shower daily [or] must be no less than three times per week.” The agency’s website detailing its response to COVID-19 doesn’t list any changes to shower access to offenders, either increased or decreased, and states, as of April 15, “There is plenty of soap and water at the facilities, and that remains the best way to keep hands clean.”

“We are both concerned about having access to showers,” the inmate’s spouse shared. “With COVID-19, the inmates should have access to shower more often than the law requires.”

In March, VADOC officials told WRIC-TV 8 offenders at the prison were being permitted showers every three days due to a lockdown that was in place and wasn’t set to be lifted until April 1. One month after that report and the lockdown seemingly over based on the memo distributed to prisoners by Warden Gilmore, little has allegedly changed in the way of shower access, resulting in inmates and their families alike questioning the treatment they are receiving behind bars.

“Why do prisons have correctional officers if they’re not doing things the right way,” the inmate questioned. “They’re here to make sure things are done correctly and to supervise in a correct manner, as well as give inmates what they’re supposed to have and need.. not degrade inmates by not treating them with ‘common’ respect, or even just giving inmates what they’re supposed to have, like a proper shower and grooming time, or time to speak with our families, and not treating inmates like pets and more like human beings.”

For the prisoner’s wife, she said her efforts have fallen on deaf ears, saying she had reached out to VADOC about her concerns at the jail but never received a response.

“I will be the voice of, not only, my husband but other people’s loved ones because something needs to be done. They are not animals,” they shared.

When asked about inmates’ access to showers, VADOC’s Kinney said simply, “Offenders at Sussex I are offered time to shower every day. They can choose to shower or not shower.”

Nor Kinney or the Northam Administration commented on the concerns raised by the family of offenders being housed at Sussex I State Prison and their feeling that their loved ones are not being given proper treatment or a question about how state prisons are working to keep employees safe when coming to work every day.

With cases of COVID-19 cropping up at the Waverly prison, longtime Sussex County Supervisor Eric Fly said he is concerned about what he sees as an ongoing lack of communication between the county and the VADOC when it comes to the prisons, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There has been a complete breakdown between [Virginia Department of Corrections] and Sussex County for years and I think it is grossly negligent on their part not to inform us in the county what they are doing, considering we have to supply fire and rescue to them,” he said. “Our phone calls and emails are never returned. It is not a good working relationship between the county and the state in relation to the prison and that has to change.”

“If they are going to be housed in our county and we are going to supply services, then we need to know things. We had no warning [Sussex II State Prison] had positive cases but our rescue squad goes in not prepared to face COVID-19 and our people were exposed to someone that was positive. The communication between the state and those communities that have these state prisons has to improve,” the supervisor closed.