‘A total disaster’: Families report AWOL admin, insufficient precautions as COVID runs rampant in Buckingham state prisons

Dillwyn Correctional Center has had the most coronavirus cases of any prison in Virginia. Staff Photo Dillwyn Correctional Center has had the most coronavirus cases of any prison in Virginia. Staff Photo

 

“When we found out he had it, we was pretty sure he was going to die,” says a sibling of a man incarcerated in Buckingham Correctional Center.

Buckingham is home to the fourth-worst coronavirus outbreak of any correctional facility in Virginia—112 inmates have tested positive. Dillwyn Correctional Center, a lower-security facility across the street, has the state’s worst outbreak, with 122 active cases and 321 total positives. Families of inmates say that the prison administration has failed to adequately communicate with family members, failed to set up safe quarantine zones inside the facilities, and dragged their heels to release prisoners who should be eligible.

“Everything that’s going on at Dillwyn is a total disaster,” says Monet Anderson, whose son, Antonio Funn, is being held in Dillwyn and has contracted coronavirus. Anderson says Funn, 30, has lost his senses of taste and smell.

In Virginia, more than 1100 people have contracted the disease while incarcerated in the state prison system. Six people have died while incarcerated; one of those deaths occurred at Dillwyn and two at Buckingham.

Families of the incarcerated say administrators have been AWOL. “The [Dillwyn] warden has been gone, they don’t even see her,” Anderson says. “She doesn’t want to catch the virus.”

C-VILLE called Dillwyn Correctional Center Warden Dana Ratliffe-Walker on Wednesday afternoon, and found that her voicemail inbox was full. Staff at both Dillwyn and Buckingham referred inquiries about the situation to Department of Corrections spokesperson Lisa Kinney, who declined to respond to the suggestion that the warden had been absent.

A state resident, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for the safety of a brother, says the brother, who is 64, tested positive for the virus in Buckingham. He was briefly quarantined inside the prison, then hospitalized, then returned to quarantine, but the family wasn’t aware that he had even tested positive until he was in the hospital. Later, when they called the hospital, they say the nurses reported he wasn’t there.

“Has he died?” the sibling wondered. The only way they were able to find out was by checking if the inmate’s prison-issued email was in service. When they saw it was active, they knew he was back in the prison, but the sibling thought he was too sick to write back.

“I just wish we could know what shape he’s in,” the sibling says. Normally, the family drives three hours each way to visit him a few times per month. “He lives for us to come visit him.” But the virus has made those trips impossible, and uncommunicative administration amplifies the problem.

“Our offenders are adults,” Kinney responded in an email. “Just as your doctor wouldn’t call your family members if you tested positive for a condition, we cannot share offenders’ confidential medical information.”

Families think the precautions being taken inside the prison are inadequate.

“They said they set up a bunch of beds in the gym, whatever the gym is,” says the anonymous source. “The nurses are checking him twice a day, taking his temperature. If they’re giving him medication, I have no idea.”

At Dillwyn, Anderson says her son’s living area is an “open pod. There’s no way to get away from anyone.”

Two weeks ago, four inmates were transferred out of Dillwyn and sent to a higher security facility. The DOC claims the move was in response to a hunger strike by the inmates, a claim the ACLU is investigating.

Anderson says the four men who were transferred had been in Funn’s pod, and that the DOC hasn’t been telling the full story. “[The inmates] blocked the doors to their pod, so [the prison] could not bring in any more infected inmates,” Anderson says. “Every time their 14-day quarantine period was coming to an end, they would try to bring in other inmates. And they were tired of it…They were trying to get well.”

Asked about the situation, Kinney responded that the DOC doesn’t release reasons for transferring prisoners, adding that “during the pandemic the DOC is restricting the transfer of inmates between DOC facilities unless it is necessary to transport an inmate for security reasons.”

Around the country, some prison systems have dealt with the virus by decreasing the number of people housed in their facilities, but the Virginia state prison system has been slow to act. The General Assembly approved an inmate release program on April 22, allowing those with less than a year of their sentence remaining and a record of good behavior to be transferred out. That program applies to just 2,000 of the roughly 30,000 inmates in the state system. As of May 24, just 208 inmates had actually been allowed to leave the correctional facilities, according to state data.

Funn, whose sentence ends in July, meets the state’s criteria for early release. Anderson says a home plan was approved weeks ago, but nothing happened. Then, last week, “after numerous calls and emails,” the family heard Funn had been approved for release last week—but he still hasn’t moved.

Kinney declined to comment on Funn’s case but wrote that “offenders are being reviewed for release as quickly as is responsibly possible.”

“We’re just trying to figure out, why is this moving so slow.” Anderson says. “You have guys sitting, who have home plans in place, and they’re not moving, they’re sitting.”

“Because he’s an inmate, it’s almost like we don’t count,” says the sibling whose brother is sick.

“No one listens to them in there,” says Anderson. “My job, as the mother, is to get out there and get this voice. I tell him it’s not just for you, it’s for everyone.”

 

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