COVID-19 Spreading Through Richmond Jail Once Again

by | Mar 11, 2021 | POLITICS

Inmates and advocates continue to report unsafe conditions in the Richmond Jail.

Reports from incarcerated people, activists, family members, and the Richmond Public Defender’s Office suggest that the Richmond City Justice Center (RCJC) may be experiencing its worst COVID-19 outbreak since 91 incarcerated people tested positive in September. 

“We’re kind of operating in the dark,” Richmond’s Head Public Defender, Tracy Paner, told RVA Mag. Though the Public Defender’s Office has received no official information on COVID cases from the Sheriff’s Officer, Paner said it is clear that multiple sections of the jail are currently under quarantine. Lauren Whitley, another lawyer with the Defender’s, told RVA Mag that — according to an RCJC deputy — 11 of 18 pods (or sections) of the jail are under quarantine, either because of exposure or active COVID cases.

RCJC inmate Chontel Coleman, who was recently exposed to COVID-19, says he fears becoming infected in the jail. On Tuesday, February 16th, Coleman says, RCJC employees tested everyone in his pod of the jail, 6E, for COVID-19. Three days later, the results were in. According to Coleman, around half the pod tested positive for COVID-19; fortunately, Coleman tested negative. A few hours later, he said, deputies moved COVID-positive individuals off the pod and told those remaining that their pod would be isolated for two weeks as a precaution. But just two days later, Coleman says, fifteen new people were moved on to the pod, to his dismay.

“We were all still exposed to those previous people who had tested positive,” he said. “We didn’t have a second test to verify that everybody’s still negative before they brought new people inside.”

Current research suggests that, during the four days of infection prior to symptom onset, the chance of false-negative on a PCR COVID test is high—ranging from 100 percent on day 1 to 67 percent on day 4. In other words, if Coleman or others in 6E had just recently been exposed to and contracted COVID, they were still likely to test negative. And, according to Coleman, there are ample opportunities in RCJC for COVID to spread through 6E.

“We don’t have anything to sterilize anything,” Coleman said. “We have four phones for all the people that are inside of this pod. We have nothing to wipe down the phones between phone calls. We have a kiosk that we use with a touch screen — nothing to wipe down or sterilize the kiosk.”

According to Coleman, this recent outbreak is not the first time since September that people on pod 6E have had COVID-like symptoms. Since January, he said, at least three sick individuals have been removed from the pod. Each time, no one remaining on the pod was tested. For this article, RVA Mag also spoke with other incarcerated individuals, some of whom believed they had COVID-19. Multiple incarcerated sources confirmed that many sections of the jail have been placed under COVID quarantine for various periods since late January.

“The main reason why I’m speaking out is because it seems almost like they’re just using us as guinea pigs and trying to test how easily, you know, how rapidly it can spread,” said Coleman. “And then they’re just keeping it all under wraps.”

When RVA Mag contacted the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office to ask about the number of COVID-positive cases, a press person replied with a statement listing recent mass testing and vaccination dates in the jail. The statement did not specify the current number of positive cases in the jail.

When RVA Mag asked Coleman’s mother, Caroline Coleman, about her son’s emotional well-being, she said incarceration has taken its toll on him. “He’s just fearful,” she said. “And I’m fearful for too, that one morning or one night I’ll get a call that he’s sick, he has COVID, or that he’s died as a result of COVID,” she said. “And there’s nothing that I could do about it. I just feel helpless.”

RVA MAG contacted RCJC for this article. Their press person had not replied to our press inquiry at the time this article was published.

Henry Clayton Wickham

Henry Clayton Wickham

Henry Clayton Wickham is a Richmond native and graduate of the Zell Writers Program. He is a recipient of a Hopwood Graduate Short Fiction Award and the Andrea Beauchamp Prize; he recently completed a Nicholas Delbanco Residency through the Fine Arts Work Center. He teaches writing at The University of Michigan.

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