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‘We were basically in a black hole, like no one cared’: Inmates speak about catching COVID-19 in Virginia state prisons

Coronavirus

(Left to right) Antwain Steward and Candace Williams are both Virginia inmates who were both diagnosed with COVID-19 while incarcerated. (Photos courtesy of their respective families)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Antwain Steward is one of the thousands of inmates in Virginia correctional facilities who have contracted the coronavirus.

He says he is not guilty of the firearms charges that he was sentenced to 21 years behind bars for in 2014. Nevertheless, Steward has been incarcerated during the coronavirus pandemic. Not long after a corrections officer tested positive for COVID-19, Steward said his cell block was shut down for an outbreak in the prison.

“And it spread quickly … the whole block lost their sense of smell, taste, fevers, everything like that,” Steward said. “It was like walking dead in here.”

During the outbreak, he said he and his fellow inmates were not given proper medical care or even treated with proper respect.

“We were basically in a black hole, like no one cared. The warden didn’t even come back here not one time to check on us,” Steward said.

Steward is not alone. Karen Morrison, a national advocate for The Ladies of Our Hope Ministries, said she gets daily emails and calls from inmates who are afraid for their lives.

This is why Morrison is fighting for the rights of inmates. When the pandemic began, state correctional facilities across Virginia saw spikes in cases. For example, Deerfield Correctional Center had more than 360 inmates infected with COVID-19 in 2020.

On Dec. 15, Augusta Correctional Center reported 328 inmates on site had the virus and four inmates were hospitalized because of it. Nottoway Correctional Center, which includes Nottoway Work Center, reported 212 cases of the virus on Dec. 14. Pocahontas State Correctional Center reported 186 cases of the virus on Dec. 16.

In February the numbers went down again. The largest outbreak on Feb. 19, was in Green Rock Correctional Center which has 130 active cases

While large outbreaks subsided for a while, Morrison said thing have started to ramp up again.

“These gentlemen feel like they’re going to die in prison,” Morrison said.

“I am getting emails, even from my younger gentlemen who are incarcerated, telling me they are watching people die in prison because of COVID-19 and there’s not much that they can do.”

After the initial outbreaks in spring and early summer, Morrison said it seemed like the Virginia Department of Corrections had gotten a handle on the outbreaks. She said just a few months ago, when Morrison had inmates tell her they weren’t getting the proper medical treatment, VADOC had the warden from those facilities check on the person and get back to her.

After Thanksgiving, a second surge of cases within state correctional facilities began.

“Because the virus is spreading in the United States, now it’s impacting the prison. But it is spreading faster in the prisons just because they’re not able to socially distance,” Morrison said.

She added that PPE isn’t always readily available to prisoners inside correctional facilities, and hand sanitizer is banned because it contains alcohol.

Morrison wants these prisoners to be released early to help alleviate some of the conditions that are contributing to the spread of the virus.

But not everyone agrees with Morrison. Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-District 8, said during the outbreak, many violent offenders have been released. He highlighted some of these during the Senate’s special session.

“I don’t know if COVID-19 was the main reason for those or not. I’m sure for some of those it was and for others it was not, but every one of those they had more than a year left on their sentences,” he said.

Antwain Steward

Antwain Steward, a Newport News native and rapper who performed under the name Twain Gotti, is currently an inmate at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center. Steward’s case gained national recognition from the New York Times and PBS because of the nature of the case. Their investigations noted that Steward was prosecuted largely on lyrics in a song.

While his murder charges were dropped, the firearms charges, which included one count of shooting into an occupied building, and two counts of use of a firearm, stuck. Steward is considered a violent offender.

Steward was exposed to COVID-19 while serving time for these charges.

At first, Steward said he didn’t know he caught the virus because the prison wasn’t testing inmates. Instead, prisoners were quarantined for 14 days at a time. After quarantine ended, Steward said it was only a matter of days before a new case popped up and they were back under lockdown. He said this went on for nearly two months, from May to June.

When asked if this was true, an official from VADOC didn’t directly answer if this happened, but referred back to the organization’s COVID-19 testing guidelines. However, the spokesperson said they tested all inmates and staff for the virus on June 10, 2020.

A spokesperson from the GEO Group, the private company that runs the Lawrenceville Correctional Center, said they have periodically conducted facility-wide testing, to manage the impact of the virus.

“Realizing who is positive, asymptomatic and who could still be susceptible to the virus allows the Center to separate and manage individuals until the required quarantine time has elapsed – significantly reducing the spread and keeping staff and inmates safe,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “Additionally, once an inmate returns to the community, he or she can make informed decisions based on their testing status.”

Steward said when the prison started testing for the virus, he came up positive.

“I didn’t notice my senses were gone because at first I just lost my sense of smell, and for like four days straight,” Steward said. “I didn’t even know that my sense of smell was gone, I just thought — I didn’t know what I thought, but I knew something was wrong when I couldn’t taste something.”

After the positive test results, Steward said he and several other inmates were moved into a pod to quarantine. VADOC confirmed that on June 15, 2020, 13 inmates tested positive for the virus — 12 were kept on site and one was sent to the hospital.

During this, time Steward said he didn’t feel like he was being treated like a human being. He said guards wouldn’t even serve him food. They would just slam the food down in the pod, close the door and run.

“It was crazy, like I couldn’t believe what was going on,” Steward said.

When asked about Steward’s claim, an official did not address the incident but said this behavior is not in line with VADOC procedures from the Food and Service Manual.

For a short period of time, Steward said nurses would go into the pod and check their temperatures and vitals. There wasn’t much else the nurses could do to help the inmates recover.

“The only thing they told is basically nothing they could do, drink water and try not to lay down too much because you got to fight it off,” he said.

Steward said the warden never came to check up on him or any of the other infected inmates. An official from the VADOC said the warden makes rounds to all COVID-19 PPE Risk Zones on a weekly basis.

During the period he had the virus, as well as during the lockdowns, Steward said he had no contact with his family, and they weren’t even alerted he had the virus.

Asia Lane, Steward’s fiancée, said no one from the prison contacted her. When Steward didn’t call home for a few days she called the prison to see what was happening. The people she spoke with said there was nothing they could tell her — a dead end.

Watching how the pandemic was playing out on the news, Lane said she was extremely worried about it. While she said she wished there was more she could do for her fiancé, all Lane and the rest of Steward’s family could do was wait it out. 

In response to the claim that his family wasn’t contacted, the VADOC said inmate health records and health status are both legally protected medical information. VADOC’s operating procedures for health records states that these records can be given after after an offender completes and signs a release form, and only certain personnel can be given this information without “offender approval.”

“While a completed form gives healthcare providers permission to share confidential information with the listed parties, it does not act as a directive requiring notification of the patient’s health status,” said Gregory Carter, a spokesperson with the VADOC, in an email.    

Steward said when he finally got in contact with his family and told them he had been diagnosed with coronavirus, they didn’t take it well.

“My momma was so sick. My grandma almost had a doggone heart attack,” Steward said. “My kids had a million questions — they were super worried.”

Steward said he wanted to keep it together to keep his family from worrying too much, but he couldn’t stop them from being concerned. Steward said his family was seeing people die from the virus outside of the prison and that worried them.

Steward was able to eventually fight off COVID-19. He says he is still seeing the effects of the virus on his body such as hot flashes, shortness of breath and fatigue.

Even though Steward didn’t talk to her much about his experience, Lane said she feels like the prison just didn’t care about him or the other inmates.

“I just wished the prisons cared a little bit more about their inmates because they’re human beings as well,” Steward’s fiancée said. “We just have to wait and see how this whole pandemic will play out.”

GEO group didn’t specifically address any of Steward’s other claims about his treatment while he was infected with the coronavirus, other than the frequency of their testing. They did issue the following statement from Christopher V. Ferreira, spokesperson for the GEO Group, Inc.:

“We strongly reject these allegations. While the COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges, from the very beginning we have taken extensive measures (see geogroup.com/COVID19) to ensure the health and safety of those in our care and our employees, who are on the front lines making daily sacrifices at the facility. Their health and safety have always been and remains our number one priority.”

Candace Williams

Candace Williams said she only pleaded guilty to murder because she was afraid to go to trial.

“I know my mistakes in the past placed me here, however, I have come so far to be treated less than any other person who has contracted the virus,” said Williams, an inmate at the Virginia Correctional Center for Woman in Goochland County.

She is serving an 18-year sentence for first-degree murder and robbery. Williams said she didn’t commit the crime — she was there when it happened, and signed a plea deal in 2008 to avoid standing trial. She is considered a violent offender.

With a little over three years left, Williams always talks about how much she wants to see her kids again.

Williams said she was one of the first inmates in the state to catch the virus in March 2020. She started to feel sick on Mar. 27, and was taken to medical and tested for the flu, then sent he back to her housing unit.

However, after a few days her symptoms got worse. She had body aches, chest pain, lost her sense of taste and smell, and had a temperature over 103 — all symptoms of the coronavirus.

Candace Williams. (Photo courtesy of William’s family)

After her second trip to medical on Mar. 30, Williams said she was placed in “segregation” with a cell where the emergency buttons did not work. This was an issue because she said nurses were not consistent with their rounds, and once didn’t come by for four hours.

In reference to Williams’ claim about the broken intercom, the VADOC said the malfunction impacts calls from staff to cells, but inmates can still use the system to call staff.

“In addition, both security and medical staff have significantly increased the number of rounds made in this unit, well beyond the daily requirement,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Williams said it wasn’t just the nurses not taking it seriously.

“On the second day of me being down there the warden and an officer did a round and jokingly made the statement ‘was anybody dead yet?'” she said.

 “It was just a lot of things that they didn’t take seriously, and they thought was a joke until the numbers started rising with people having the coronavirus,” Williams said. “And I feel like that’s probably why we didn’t get tested back in March because they knew the whole compound would have came back and had the coronavirus.”

This experience made Williams fear for her life.

“Yes, it did scare me — it even prompted me to write a letter home to my cousin letting her know if anything happened to me what do for my kids,” Williams said.

Months later, like Steward, Williams said the virus is still impacting her health. She still has fluttering of the chest and breathing issues. She’s received Claritin and heartburn medication to treat the symptoms.

“Yet I have still not really seen a provider since I got COVID-19 back in March,” she said.

When asked if this was the only treatment Williams had received, VADOC said “inmate health records and information about an inmate’s health status is confidential.”

Williams said the prison did not conduct widespread COVID-19 testing on inmates until after the massive outbreak.

The Virginia Department of Corrections confirmed that they started testing inmates with symptoms in April and did not test the entire prison for the virus until Oct. 6, nearly seven months after the pandemic began.

Overall trends

Even before the pandemic, Topeka Sam, founder of The Ladies of Our Hope Ministries, said the healthcare given at state correctional facilities was subpar.

“Many times, people are given and told they should just buy OTCs– over-the-counter drugs, pills, Tylenol — and they may not even have money,” Sam said. “Especially now people who’ve had jobs working, in COVID, a lot of those jobs they can’t work anymore because people are locked in.”

She added there is a lack of airflow in these facilities, and they’re not built for social distancing.

“Many times, there’s more than one person in a cell, in a unit, stacked up above each other,” Sam said.

Ferreira with the GEO group that runs Lawrenceville Correctional Center, said they provide access to regular handwashing with clean water and soap in all housing areas and throughout the facility and provide 24/7 access to healthcare.

“We continue to deploy personal protective equipment, including facemasks for all staff and inmates at the Center … We also continue to deploy specialized sanitation teams to sanitize high-contact areas of the Center and have developed intensive schedules and procedures for the cleaning and disinfecting of Center spaces above and beyond normal cleaning activities, as well as adjusting laundry schedules for more frequent cleaning,” he said in an email.

Morrison, who is also with The Ladies of Our Hope Ministries, said the country as a whole was underprepared for the pandemic.

She said if hundreds of thousands people who had the ability to social distance, get PPE and stay at home died of the virus, it’s not hard to imagine what that same virus can do in an environment like a prison where social distancing is virtually impossible.

“How many more facilities are we going to wait to see get infected before they act?” Morrison asked, in October before the second wave of the virus hit prisons.

“[At] Deerfield it spread like wildfire and I got emails every single day with men just crying out for help. That they’re watching people that they take care of –they’re watching people that they love within the prison die.”

Since there are no guests allowed and inmates can’t move freely, Sam said it is the guards and volunteers who bring the virus in. For example, with the recent outbreak at the Augusta Correctional Center, more than 330 inmates caught the virus and 62 staff members tested positive for the virus on Dec. 16.

“I know it wasn’t intentional … nobody even knew what was going on. But the idea is again that people shouldn’t have to have a death sentence because the country wasn’t ready for this,” Sam said.

8News asked the VADOC if guards and staff were the sole cause of the introduction of the virus into prisons or if inmates.

“COVID-19 is transmitted in prisons and other congregate care settings the same way it is transmitted in the community.  It is an invisible virus, transmitted from person to person,” a spokesperson with the department said.

As of Dec. 16, 35 COVID-19 positive inmates from Virginia correctional facilities had died.

Early release

In April 2020, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and VADOC agreed to early release for nonviolent offenders with less than a year on their sentence. Despite this, Morrison said inmates who are eligible are having trouble getting released.

“My understanding is that the process is actually slow and there are gentlemen who have release dates probably like in January, February, who are still sitting, waiting for the Department of Corrections to release them,” Morrison said in October.

As an inmate advocate, Morrison is concerned because she feels the current conditions in prisons leave inmates extremely vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.

Sam said because of these factors, the guidelines for early release should be expanded. She said 95% of all people who are currently incarcerated, violent and nonviolent offenders alike, will eventually come home.

“You know when you think about the conditional pardons because of COVID, you think about compassion and release, you think about ending sentences early and letting people out on parole early, this is the time that needs to happen,” Sam said. “So we’re hopeful through the work that we’re doing that the governor and attorneys, judges, will allow that to happen.”

During the 2020 General Assembly special session, Sen. DeSteph highlighted inmates who have recently been released, including some who were related to Northam’s early release program. He said a few inmates who were released this year reoffended within 30 days, and one or two reoffended within 60 days

Morrison reiterated the VADOC needs to use these early releases to help curb the spread of the virus within correctional facility walls.

“The Department of Corrections, if they understood what COVID-19 is like … even if we have issues with violence, start with the nonviolent offenders,” Morrison said. “They’re not even releasing the non-violent offenders and people are literally dying.”

In recent weeks the VADOC has begun vaccinating inmates and staff for the coronavirus. As of Feb. 18, the department reported more than 13,000 inmates and over 6,000 staff have received the first of the two Moderna COVID-19 shots.

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