Sister of inmate who died from COVID-19 demands answers: ‘Why would you keep him in there to let him die?’

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The sister of an inmate who died from COVID-19 at the Deerfield Correctional Center in Capron, is demanding answers about her brother’s alleged neglect by the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Askia Asmar is one of 18 inmates at the facility who have died from the virus.

Maudie Howell not only lost her older brother but told 8News she also lost her best friend. Both raised by a single mother, Howell described her brother as fun-loving.

“It’s like they ripped my arm of my chest. It feels like they cut my arm off,” Howell said of her brother, who was serving a six year sentence at the Southampton-area correctional center.

Maudie Howell holds a t-shirt made in honor of her brother, Askia Asmar, who was one of 18 COVID-stricken inmates who have died at Deerfield Correctional Center.

According to Howell, Asmar was afraid he was going to die.

The 67-year-old was suffering from a long list of health issues like cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure. He was suffering from headaches, muscle aches and diarrhea, Howell added. He was even placed in a housing unit with COVID-19 positive inmates.

Howell told 8News that Asmar was eligible for parole in December and was set to be released in 2021. According to Lisa Kinney, the Director of Communications at the Department of Corrections, Asmar was reviewed for early release and didn’t meet the criteria.

“He would call me every day to keep me informed on how he was doing because that’s the only way I would know if he was still living or when he was dead,” Howell said. She last spoke with him on Tuesday, Sept. 22.

“He said ‘Maudie I don’t want to die up in here. I do not want to die in here. Just get me home. I don’t want to die in here,'” Howell said.

Maudie Howell pictured with her older brother Askia Asmar.

A few days later, Asmar was gone. Howell was told that he died on Sunday, Sept. 27.

“I almost ripped my house apart,” Howell said. “I haven’t slept.”

Due to his condition, Howell believes he should have been released and is blaming the state of Virginia for her brother’s death. Howell wrote letters to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, the Department of Corrections, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (ACLU). Her brother had reached out to the ACLU prior to his death.

In recent days, the ACLU filed a second notice of non-compliance on behalf of prisoners which includes a report from Asmar.

The notice alleges the Department of Corrections isn’t living up to the terms of a settlement agreement that was enacted in May to resolve inmate complaints of inadequate care.

“Askia Asmar needed help from the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC). He was left in an area that housed people who had tested positive for COVID-19. Predictably, he tested positive after not being able to distance himself from the infected people in his unit. In a sworn statement, he said, “I can only pray. That is all I have.” Sadly, Mr. Asmar has died as a direct result of VDOC’s neglect, with months left on his sentence. His death was a preventable tragedy, just like the 30 people who died from COVID-19 in VDOC custody before him. Mr. Asmar – and everyone in VDOC’s care – deserve more than having to rely on prayer alone. They have a right to medical treatment, proper food, access to sanitation and hygiene products, and a basic level of care.”

Meredith Mason, the Senior Communications Manager at the ACLU of Virginia

According to the ACLU, Asmar filled out 15 medical requests that yielded no results. He also asked for information on early release due to the pandemic and was denied. Worse, Asmar wasn’t transported to an important medical appointment for his cancer treatments.

“Mr. Asmar had a loving family who advocated for his release and was willing to care for him after his release. There is absolutely no good reason why he wasn’t given a diagnosis, but was shuffled in with COVID-positive people and left to die,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia.

Howell believes her brother died in vain.

A photo of Askia Asmar.

“What could he do?” she asked. “He was a non-violent offender. He couldn’t have hurt anybody. He was 67-years-old. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would you keep him in there to let him die?”

According to a statement from the VDOC, the department has been unable to completely eradicate COVID-19 within its facilities but this does not lessen the significance of their efforts, adding that the department is working ‘tirelessly’ to curb the spread of the virus.

In a letter addressed to Heilman, from the Commonwealth of Virginia Office of the Attorney General, the Virginia Department of Corrections responded to the second notice of non-compliance:

“The Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) continues to work tirelessly to curb the spread of COVID-19 within its facilities. Unfortunately, as individuals in the greater community continue to sicken (and sometimes die), so, too, do individuals within VDOC custody. The grim reality of this disease is that it is pervasive, contagious, difficult to detect, and difficult to control. That VDOC has been unable to completely eradicate COVID-19 within its facilities does not lessen the significance of these efforts, nor does it mean the Department has eliminated, ignored, or otherwise reduced its preventative strategies. Certainly, VDOC entered into a settlement agreement with these Plaintiffs, but in full recognition of the fact that—had the Department substantively litigated the Plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment claims—VDOC would almost certainly have prevailed. Which is why, in that settlement, VDOC affirmatively recognized that it would continue with the preventative measures it had already adopted prior to the initiation of this litigation. And it has.”

Statement from Virginia Department of Corrections

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