RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Dozens rallied from their cars in Richmond Friday afternoon to address what they say is the state’s failure to keep incarcerated inmates safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a statement released by event organizers, “prisons, jails, detention centers, and juvenile correctional facilities are dangerous settings that increase the spread of infectious diseases.” Citing the limitations of social distancing and other preventative measures in response to COVID-19, event organizers say the mass release of inmates is essential to reducing the spread and harm of coronavirus.

Beginning at 2:30 p.m., cars gathered in a parking lot in the 1600 block of E. Broad Street for the #FreeOurPeople car rally. Among the vehicles that blocked Fairfield Way, one sign read, ‘My son is essential to me,’ while another read ‘Free my Brother.’ The car rally came to a standstill after vehicles drove a few laps around Oliver Hill Way.

“I don’t want my son to die alone…free my son,” Shontrese Otey, who has a 19-year-old son in Richmond City Jail, said to 8News.

For more than 30 minutes, Richmond City Police talked to organizers in hopes of clearing traffic.

Amid the protest, one person laid down in the middle of the street. He got up and walked away when approached by officers. 

We stand in solidarity with the 60,000 people housed in Virginia’s 41 state prisons, 72 local and regional jails, and nine secure juvenile facilities. This is why Richmonders are rallying.

Organizers of the #FreeOurPeople car rally

As of April 9, there have been 47 confirmed cases of inmates and staff infected with COVID-19 in its correctional facilities. According to the latest update, posted to the Virginia Department of Corrections website, 20 on-site inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, while five remain hospitalized. Additionally, 22 staff members, which includes both employees and contractors, have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Virginia Department of Corrections says it’s taking precautions in its prisons by following CDC guidelines and requiring all offenders to wear sneeze and cough guards. Visitation and volunteer activities remain canceled as a result of the outbreak until further notice.

But protesters at the rally today are are calling on the state to do more.

“The Governor, Secretary of Public Safety, Commonwealth’s Attorneys, Sheriffs, and the Parole Board have the power to release incarcerated people and temporarily close Virginia facilities to protect the health of correctional workers,” the statement read. “Now is the time to address the life-threatening public health consequences that will result from a coronavirus outbreak within Virginia’s jails, prisons, detention centers, and juvenile facilities.” 

The Legal Aid Justice Center, Southerners on New Ground, Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, and Richmond Community Bail Fund, and Richmond Public Defender Office organized the event.