The Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation (VCBR), a shadow prison in Burkeville, Virginia operating under the guise of a treatment facility, is currently in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak; and many people locked within the facility are fearful for their health.
As of October 14th, twenty-two “residents” and six staff members at the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation have tested positive for the coronavirus. The National Guard was called in by the governor to provide tests after an outbreak of fifteen cases occurred in one of the facility’s living units. There are numerous firsthand accounts suggesting that the facility did not take proper precautions prior to the outbreak, and the few precautions the facility did take were poorly implemented. Sources inside the facility claim that the masks provided to people in the facility do not fit correctly and are poorly made, causing them to break apart after just one wash. Furthermore, those same people have complained of guards failing to wear their masks correctly or consistently. However, any mention to the guards of this fact will promptly be met with disciplinary action in the form of an “observation note,” a written note from the facilities staff noting an incarcerated person’s good or bad behavior. Essentially, if someone were to question a guard about their mask, they are liable to be written up for “bad behavior.”
The facility lacks sufficient medical supplies and a capable medical staff. VCBR only has one medical doctor on staff, and the doctor does not even work in the facility full-time. The medical staff consists almost entirely of licensed practical nurses, who are significantly less qualified than registered nurses, and their assistants; and they often fail to perform their jobs up to par. Temperatures taken by nurses have been recorded at as low as 93.3, low enough to be classified as hypothermic. However, nurses will not re-take a resident’s temperature unless questioned, which negates the effectiveness of temperature checks altogether. Similar negligence has been shown in the testing and quarantine of the people imprisoned at the facility. The facility groups people into “pods” to help slow the spread of the virus, but the manner in which they go about utilizing the pods to combat COVID is exceedingly irresponsible. After testing positive for the virus, the shadow prisoner is moved to the pod with the highest rate of infection. However, not everyone in that pod tested positive for the virus, thus the administration is deliberately putting those who are healthy within that pod at a greater risk of exposure. Furthermore, those who were tested and moved to the quarantine pod stayed within their pod for five days while awaiting their results, yet the facility opted not to re-test those who were in the same pod and exposed to the virus during that time span. Upon re-testing on the 21st, Dr.Brown, the facility’s one medical doctor, told nurses that if any pod had more than five to six positive tests to send those cases back to their pods, further mixing positive and negative cases. The facility does not have the space to implement adequate social distancing and quarantining standards, and they are knowingly endangering the lives of everyone inside.
The shadow prison has used the outbreak as an excuse to impose many injustices upon the facility’s “residents.” The facility confines people to their pods for obscene amounts of time, rarely allowing them to leave. They have also slowed the delivery of mail and ceased the delivery of packages to those detained within the facility, despite there being no evidence that the coronavirus is being spread through the mail system. Since people within the facility cannot receive packages from outside vendors, shadow prisoners have essentially no method of getting stamps to send out letters. Additionally, VCBR is no longer facilitating the transfer of funds into people’s phone accounts, meaning they have virtually no way of making outgoing phone calls. The facility is limiting people to one five minute phone call weekly, essentially their only contact with the outside world.
The degree of negligence shown by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Service (DBHDS) throughout this outbreak at their “not-a-prison” prison is mortifying. Not only is VCBR ill-equipped to handle an outbreak of this magnitude, they have also shown a blatant disregard for the health and safety of the human beings locked within the facility — many of whom are elderly, have underlying health conditions, and/or are African American; putting them at a higher risk of succumbing to the virus. Unless serious changes are made within the facility soon, a full-blown outbreak could be imminent, potentially leading to many lost lives.
Updates: Since the initial publishing of this article, the facility has begun providing people with surgical masks and stamps. Additionally, those within the facility can now transfer money to their phone accounts to make outgoing calls, and the staff now conducts rapid COVID testing (one grave concern among many of the residents continues to be the lack of transparency regarding where those people with positive results are taken within or outside of the facility). These changes all come on the heels of the Virginia Department of Health finally being made aware of the dire situation within the facility weeks after the initial outbreak. The facility scrambling to cover its tracks after the state health department had been made aware conveys the appalling lack of oversight under which VCBR typically operates. The facility is neither accredited as a prison nor a mental health institution, and as such, they are able to operate with a lower degree of regulation. The lack of regulation makes it hard to approximate the exact number of people locked within the facility, and there is a large discrepancy between the number of individuals VCBR claims to have locked up versus how many are actually within the facility.
Update #2: Another large scale outbreak occurred at the facility this past weekend. More than forty people detained within the facility have tested positive for COVID-19 during this past week. Despite their showing symptoms early on, staff did not isolate those with the virus until after their results came back. Positive cases are sent to “makeshift infirmaries,” which are just standard discipline pods with no medical equipment. A man with lupus, who was too weak to even move, was taken to one of these pods instead of a hospital, where he is still recovering from the virus. Those who tested positive and have shown symptoms are not getting proper treatment for their symptoms and are dehydrating rapidly. Gatorade is supposed to be offered to everyone in the facility, but thus far, staff have only offered it to a few people. People are also having a hard time procuring medication for their symptoms. People with severe symptoms did not receive cough medication or anti-diarrhea medication for thirty-six hours, and even when they did, they only received a single dose. With cases still on the rise, healthy residents have been told by nursing staff that positive cases will be returned to negative pods should the case count become too high for the facility to accommodate. Furthermore, sources within the facility report only receiving one surgical mask in the past week, despite protocol stating masks should be swapped out every other day.
The recent spike of cases within the facility can once again be attributed to a lack of oversight by health officials. A Virginia Department of Health representative, Dr. Rhonda Pruitt, claims to be working with Nurse Drew to maintain the facility’s protocols, but the department does not have oversight over the facility. No one has seen a doctor on-site during the outbreak. Just Future Project was informed by Dr. Pruitt that Wayne Solomon of the VA Department of Corrections performs health inspections at the facility, which not only shows the lack of actual health personnel overseeing the facility, but also shows how prison-like the facility really is. (Later the Virginia Department of Health recanted that claim reporting that the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, according to Virginia Code, was responsible for VCBR and VDH had no authority even in a pandemic.)
Although public officials are aware of the situation, they claim to be powerless in the face of the facility’s outbreak except for the power to pass legislation, as Just Future was told by Senator Frank Ruff’s office. Just Future also reached out to delegates Tommy Wright, who presides over Nottoway County where VCBR is located, and Vivian Watts, who was one of the original architects of the SVP law, for comment but received no reply.
If you are a Virginia state resident, it is paramount that you reach out to your locally elected officials and show your concern regarding VCBR’s lack of COVID safety measures. The outbreak at the facility will not only affect incarcerated citizens (who have already completed prison terms) but the greater community at large, as VCBR employs many people around the Commonwealth of Virginia.