“They weren’t sentenced to death,” families fear for loved ones in prison with COVID-19 outbreak

Virginia Politics

SOUTHAMPTON COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — The Coronavirus death toll is rising at a Virginia prison in Southampton putting relatives and inmates on edge.

Over the weekend, two more inmates died from COVID-19 at the Deerfield Correctional Center bringing the death toll there to 6.

Nearly 500 offenders of the 925 inmates have or have had the virus like Aerrie Sammon’s husband Richard Pontani. Pontani, who is doing time for a drug charge, also has COPD.

“It’s not just my husband. There’s peoples fathers and brothers, uncles, sons, friends and they don’t deserve this,” said Sammon. “Everyone is packed in there.”

Sammon added there is no social distancing happening inside the prison.

“You can’t just stack them in there like cattle,” Sammon said.

The state prison normally houses many of Virginia’s elderly or medically impaired inmates. Tyrone Matthews, who is serving time in the prison for drugs, is scared.

“The whole pod in here was positive,” he told 8News.

Matthews is 33-years-old and a diabetic. While he was tested for the virus, he was never told his results. Matthews said he is feeling okay now but he’s been living in a pod with 99 other COVID positive prisoners.

“I am worried about being able to get back home to my family,” he said.

Matthews and others added the medical response to those with the virus has been slow.

“One guy they brought back into to the pod, he’s incoherent, not able to, you know, sit up for count or anything like that,” said Matthews.

Sammon hears similar reports from her husband and others with loved ones inside.

“They are not keeping track of who is eating, who’s drinking who is not getting out of beds,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Corrections said Deerfield has an infirmary and doctors, nurses, and medical staff at the doc are working around the clock to test and provide care to offenders during this pandemic.

Yet, Sammon, Matthews and half a dozen others tell 8News Deerfield is short-staffed.  26 employees as of Monday were battling the virus. 

8News has been told even getting basic medication to relieve symptoms is a challenge.

“You have to be on the list to get the Tylenol,” Matthews said. “That can take probably, a couple days.”

Sammon says the men inside made a mistake but this isn’t right. 

“The inmates are doing their time and they weren’t sentenced to death,” she said.

8News reached out to VADOC to ask about delays in care and problems getting basic medication.

“We are offering incentives for DOC medical staff from other facilities to come to Deerfield to help with the outbreak,” said Lisa E. Kinney, a spokesperson with VADOC. “Armor Correctional Health Care is actively recruiting additional temp nurses for Deerfield.”

Read the full statement from VADOC below:

Regarding Deerfield, there were 337 active COVID-19 cases at the facility as of this morning and 20 COVID-positive offenders in the hospital. The active case numbers are coming in lower for tomorrow (because a number of offenders have recovered). I’ll send you updated numbers tomorrow, and they’ll be on the website at 5pm. 

Deerfield houses a population of older, sicker inmates, and has an infirmary and an assisted living unit.  All of our facilities follow CDC guidelines for corrections; the infirmary at Deerfield has also been following the CDC guidelines for nursing homes. Deerfield’s assisted living area follows VDH guidelines for long-term care.

The entire Deerfield offender population was tested recently, and many offenders have been re-tested.  We tested again today (Monday) in the infirmary, assisted living unit, and one pod. Since April, we have run 2415 offender COVID tests at Deerfield. 

Deerfield has converted the facility’s gym to a medical observation unit. We are offering incentives for DOC medical staff from other facilities to come to Deerfield to help with the outbreak. Armor Correctional Health Care is actively recruiting additional temp nurses for Deerfield. 
Offenders testing positive are placed in medical isolation so they don’t infect others.  Treatment follows the department’s COVID medical guidelines.  We treat symptoms as they arise, just as you would in any primary care setting.  We can provide many things, including oxygen, on-site.  If offenders require an inpatient level of care, they go to a hospital.    

All DOC facilities are following a pandemic sanitation plan, and offenders and staff are required to wear appropriate PPE at all times, including medical-grade PPE, such as N-95 masks, when appropriate. 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.  

The DOC has been able to test for the novel coronavirus on a scale that most congregate settings, from prisons to nursing homes, have been unable to do. Statewide, the majority of COVID-positive offenders have been asymptomatic, identified only because of that prevalence testing. We continue to work hand-in-hand with the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and our university hospital partners, and to follow corrections guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Lisa E. Kinney, Esq.
Director of Communications
Virginia Department of Corrections


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