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COVID-19 claims life of Baskerville warden / September 30, 2020
Coronavirus infections in Virginia’s prison system have led to 31 inmate deaths and the death of one employee, according to the latest reporting by the Virginia Department of Corrections.

That employee appears to be Earl Barksdale, chief warden of Baskerville Correctional Center, who died Sept. 9 at age 66.

Barksdale, who was laid to rest in Meherrin on Sept. 24, was a long-time Department of Corrections employee with past stints as warden and assistant warden in Virginia prisons. The Baskerville facility has been hard-hit by the virus, with 202 offenders and three employees testing positive for COVID-19.

There have been no deaths of inmates at Baskerville, according to Virginia DOC. The department has declined to provide information about the lone employee death inside Virginia’s prison system, citing privacy concerns.

The Sun contacted the Baskerville facility by telephone on Sept. 22 and spoke briefly to Assistant Warden Joycetine Boone, who confirmed that Barksdale had died of covid-related causes. She ended the phone call without taking further questions.

A family member and girlfriend of two inmates at the facility also said their loved ones there have been informed by prison guards that Barksdale died of COVID-19.

One family member, Felicia Johnson, said her 40-year-old son emailed her with the news, avoiding talking on prison phones because he fears he could become infected. “He’s got some concerns about the protocols [at the prison] and the procedures that they are supposed to be following,” she said.

“Social distancing is not possible there,” said Johnson. “Their beds are like, four feet apart. There may be 75 to 100 people per building.”

Tosha Royse, whose boyfriend, CJ Hylton, is also incarcerated at Baskerville, also said the prison notified inmates that the warden had died of COVID-19 complications. Royse said her second-hand information was based on her conversations with Hylton.

A representative of the Barksdale family reached by The Sun declined to comment on the warden’s passing and asked that the privacy of the family be respected.

On Tuesday, VADOC updated its reporting of COVID-19’s spread inside the corrections system to reflect that 31 inmates have now died of the disease. More than half of those deaths — 17 — have occurred at the Deerfield Correctional Center in Southampton County, where 723 offenders have tested positive, the highest total among Virginia prisons.

While no offenders have died at Baskerville, the virus has claimed inmate lives close to home in Mecklenburg County. One inmate has died at nearby Lawrenceville Correctional Center, where 95 offenders and one employee have tested positive.

VADOC has reported a renewed surge of the virus at Baskerville Correctional Center, coming on the heels of an earlier outbreak that sickened more than 100 inmates — an unknown number of whom have either been hospitalized, released before their sentences are up, or who have recovered from the disease.

The Sun has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Corrections asking for a breakdown of the status of the 202 inmates who have tested positive there. The Sun has further asked for information under the Act to confirm the location of the workplace where the deceased VADOC employee last worked. The request is pending.

Johnson and Royse each expressed their fear that COVID-19 will continue to spread at Baskerville, and separately, they pointed a finger at the prison’s kitchen area as a hotspot for the virus.

Johnson said it was her understanding that with the first outbreak, several infected kitchen workers “came back into the [living] pod before [the prison] moved them to the quarantine area” to avoid further spread. She also said, “people are going in and out” — including possible asymptomatic carriers — “so there’s not a lot of protection when you’re talking about it being airborne.”

In an email exchange shared with The Sun, Johnson’s son, John Johnson, who now goes by the name Khashe’ Abdul Maalik, wrote to his sister that over the past week at Baskerville, “at least one person a day had been removed for elevated temperature or other symptoms of the virus.”

He also wrote: “We still haven’t been given any medical grade PPE, the sneeze guards we were given are more than a month old … no administrative staff has shown their face in the housing unit since the outbreak, so no questions are able to be answered.”

According to Felicia Johnson, her son John was convicted in a string of robberies in western Virginia counties when he was 19 years old. Unlike his partners in the crimes, John Johnson received multiple prison sentences, averaging between 12 and 15 years, that ordinarily might have been served concurrent with each other. However, one judge in western Virginia ordered that the prison sentences be served consecutively, saddling her son with a 36-year prison term.

“He was 19 when he went in, and as of April of this year, he turned 40. He’s been in prison longer than he had lived his life,” she said.

Abdul Maalik and the Johnson family are seeking to have his sentence commuted, and they have requested his early release under Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive orders to reduce prison populations by releasing offenders whose sentences are nearing their end.

In an email to the Governor’s Office, his sister, Melissa Johnson, wrote, “Our brother lives in a congested dormitory where over 70 other men share three phones, three toilets, two urinals, two microwaves, five sinks, and one kiosk. We’ve been informed that bunk beds are less than four feet apart.”

She added, “The health and lives of citizens confined at BACC are in the hands of Gov. Northam. Men who have endured a decade or more in prison like our brother, with hopes of a second chance at liberty and a meaningful release, should not have their rights to life and liberty threatened by the pandemic and government inaction.”

Felicia Johnson said that as a mother, she is haunted by the possibility that her son will become sickened by COVID-19, despite his diligent efforts to stay healthy. She said her son also believes he may have caught the virus months ago when he experienced “chills, coughing, kind of the ‘yuk’ feeling, the nausea.” He has since tested negative for COVID-19.

“We’ve got a broken system when you take a 19-year-old, snotty-nosed kid, who was just smoking weed and acting stupid, and you take him and jack his life up forever,” she said. “We’ve been fighting this forever. Hopefully it will come to and end. The parole board has his petition and hopefully they will treat it with grace and mercy.”

As of Tuesday, the corrections department reported 39 offenders on-site at Baskerville now have COVID-19.

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