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Outbreak spreads inside Sinai prison (UPDATED)

South Boston News
Halifax Correctional Unit 23 / January 14, 2021
UPDATE: The Virginia Department of Corrections reported Thursday and Friday that 129 offenders at the Halifax Correctional Center on Farm Road have tested positive for COVID-19, and nine employees have also contracted the virus. The fast-moving outbreak has developed at the Sinai-area facility in the past two weeks, according to a review of the VADOC COVID-19 tracking website, which showed no inmate infections prior to the latest outbreak. Statewide, the virus has claimed the lives of 51 offenders in the state prison system and sickened 7,913. Two corrections employees have also died, and 350 members of the VADOC staff have tested positive.

An outbreak of COVID-19 at Halifax Correctional Center Unit 23 in the Sinai area has sickened a dozen inmates and employees at the facility, according to a count Wednesday by the Virginia Department of Corrections, which operates the prison.

Inside the facility, once commonly known as Camp 23, one inmate says the outbreak is much more widespread and that up to 50 offenders are infected with the virus.

While the exact number of cases may be in dispute, all signs point to a quickening spread of the virus inside the prison walls. Eight days ago, the Department of Corrections reported that no inmates at Unit 23 had contracted COVID-19, although two employees tested positive.

On Wednesday, the employee caseload remained at two persons, according to information posted on a DOC covid tracking website, but the number of infected inmates had shot up to 10.

Currently, all offenders at the prison unit are awaiting the results of a second round of COVID-19 testing that occurred on Monday. However, one inmate estimated that DOC’s official caseload count of 10 offenders had spun out of control by Wednesday.

The inmate, Larry Del Hunt, said members of the prison population were being shuffled around the facility Wednesday to try to stem the transmission of the disease. Hunt said he believes 48 people are now sick. He is one of them, having tested positive for COVID-19.

“Many in here with me do not have a fever, it’s just like an allergic sniffle,” said Hunt.

Halifax Correctional Unit is a Level 1 minimum-security state facility that opened in 1955 and currently houses 173 inmates. The Northside and Southside housing units have three dorms each, labeled A, B, C. (Dorms A house 18 people, dorms B and C house up to 24 people each.) Also, offenders are housed in the Main Building, which holds up to 58 people.

“We are in a predicament, we cannot do anything,” said Hunt, who said he feels that all necessary precautions have not been put in place since the first case was reported.

On Friday, Jan. 1, an offender housed in Northside Dorm C had symptoms of a cold and went to the medical office, Hunt said. Since the man was not running a fever, he was issued an allergy pill and returned to his dorm. On Monday, Jan. 4, his symptoms had worsened and he issued a grievance for a COVID-19 test that retuned positive. This inmate was on kitchen duty before all duties were suspended and all offenders were quarantined to their dorms, Hunt continued.

His account could not be immediately verified with prison officials. As a Virginia Department of Corrections facility, Halifax Correctional Center Unit 23 is distinct from the Halifax County Adult Detention Center in the Town of Halifax. That facility is operated by the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority, a regional pact comprised of Lynchburg, Amherst, Campbell and Halifax County local governments.

Like nursing homes and other settings where people live together in close quarters, jails and prisons have proven to be highly susceptible to the coronavirus. On its covid tracking website, Virginia DOC reports that 7,708 offenders statewide have tested positive for the disease, and 564 cases are active on site at state prison facilities. There have been 51 inmate deaths due to COVID-19, and two employees who have died, one being the late warden of Baskerville Correctional Center in Mecklenburg County, Earl Barksdale. The veteran DOC superintendent died of covid-related causes in September.

Hunt, the sickened inmate at Halifax Unit 23, said he wishes he had been tested sooner for COVID-19 and expressed that inmates are very worried about the spread of the virus and lax adherence to safety guidelines.

In the past week, Hunt’s dorm, Northside C, has gone from housing 24 offenders to 16, after eight persons who tested positive were moved out. Trying to follow six-foot social distancing rules is impossible, Hunt said, and as of Wednesday evening, he said his dorm was now a Red Zone — meaning everyone in the Red Zone tested positive with COVID-19.

“We can’t maintain six feet apart, our bunks at most are 18 inches apart,” said Hunt, adding that the dorms are about 60 feet long and 40 feet wide, and hold up to 24 people.

Family members of inmates want to know why are some of their loved ones who have only a few months left on their sentences are not being released early, per Governor Northam’s request to help create more room for social distance. When this question was posed to a DOC spokesperson, this newspaper received no reply.

Some inmates have had to use the same facemask for roughly nine months, Hunt said, a claim that could not be immediately verified. A second set of face masks was issued on Jan. 7 after the first positive test of COVID-19 surfaced at the facility.

Per Department of Corrections policy, face masks must be issued when inmates request a new one. As of late Wednesday evening, the inmates at Unit 23 were still in possession of the face mask they received a week ago.

“They are supposed to give us a mask every time we ask for a new one, but I was told the mask is good for 14 days,” said Hunt.

Hunt said inmates are responsible for washing their disposable face masks in the showers with hand soap and air dry. After two days of that, he said, the mask begins falling apart. In keeping the dorms clean, inmates are responsible for spraying down surfaces with harsh chemicals without respirator or glove protections.

“All DOC facilities are following a pandemic sanitation plan, and inmates and staff are required to wear appropriate PPE at all times, including medical-grade PPE, such as N-95 masks, when appropriate,” said Lisa Kinney, Director of Communications for the Virginia DOC.

When the entire facility went on quarantine lockdown, everything stopped, said Hunt. Those like him who were working outside could no longer do so. This also went for those who were in charge of washing bedding and clothes, and preparing the meals.

“Meals are now fixed by the officers,” said Hunt, who was not sure if they have received ServSafe certification.

For inmates who have tested COVID-19 positive, they have been spread out into other buildings on the 10-acre compound on Farm Road. They were not all placed in one isolation dorm.

“Before September, inmates housed at the Southside dorms were relocated to the Main Building and Northside dorms,” said Hunt. He added the prison population was under the impression that this building would provide space for anyone who came down with the coronavirus because it was empty and they were installing Plexi-glass windows.

However in October, new inmates started arriving from Nottoway, Deerfield, Greenrock and other correction facilities that have been hard hit by the virus. This left space for the COVID-19 inmates to be located in segregation cells, or “the hole” as the inmates call them. These cells are completely isolated and anyone who has to travel to a dentist or eye doctor is required to spend 14 days in the “hole” before returning to the general population.

“There were about 18 new inmates who arrived in October and another 18 who arrived around December,” said Hunt, adding there are only eight segregation cells.

All inmates and staff at Halifax were tested on Dec. 3. Hunt did not know of any positive COVID-19 results from this testing.

“Virginia Correctional Enterprises manufactures both utility face masks and cleaning supplies approved by the EPA for use in combating the coronavirus, so there is no shortage of either in the facilities,” said DOC spokesperson Kinney.

Halifax Correctional Unit 23 runs a small textile industry which manufactures clothing, sheets, face masks, and other items. The prison unit also has three large greenhouses and a garden, and an agriculture meat production operation that allows the inmates to work with Boer Goats. However, all of these duties were stopped when inmates were put on quarantine and forced to stay in their dorms.

All “red zone” dorms will be tested again in 14 days.

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