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Vigil Planned For Corrections Officers, Staff Who Died During Pandemic

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This Wednesday April 1, 2020 file photo shows The Correctional Center for Women where several women have tested positive for COVID-19 at the facility in Goochland, Va. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Prisons and jails have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. At least 2,500 people who are incarcerated throughout the country have died. The virus also killed 218 corrections officers and 41 non-custody employees, according to One Voice United, a Michigan-based advocacy group for correctional officers and staff. The organization is hosting a virtual vigil Friday, where they will read the names of officers and staff who died.

Andrew Potter is the founder of One Voice United and also executive director of the corrections labor union in Michigan. 

“The system was not ready for this --was not prepared for this,” Potter said. “And I still think there’s a lot of work that can be done today to help ensure the safety of those men and women that go inside of those prisons on any given day.”

Potter warns the pandemic isn’t over and there are plenty of other communicable diseases that spread easily in prisons and jails. 

“If there’s anything positive that comes out of what we’re dealing with in this pandemic, is that it pulls the covers off of what really needs to take place inside those prisons and the conditions inside those prisons for those who work there and those who live there,” Potter said. 

The impact COVID-19 has had on people in prison has been a concern for community members and activists because they’re confined spaces, where physical distancing is difficult. 

In April 2020, VPM spoke to an employee at Virginia Correctional Center for Women who had contracted COVID-19. 

The employee spoke to VPM on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation for speaking to the media. VPM independently confirmed their identity.

The employee said during a followup interview on Thursday that corrections officers were initially instructed not to wear masks or gloves. 

“There was debate whether or not they were effective. Who should wear them? We had officers being disciplined that wanted to wear them,” the employee said. They said administrators worried they’d scare the residents.

Those policies changed shortly after, but much of the damage had already been done. 

“I think there were a lot of correctional officers who were much sicker than I ever got with it, but I used to run 4-6 miles a day and now it’s difficult,” the employee said. “I’m up to two miles and even then I hear myself wheezing. It attacked my lungs pretty hard, but I’m doing much better.” 

According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, just over 9,000 people imprisoned in state-run facilities have tested positive, and 35 have died. Five corrections staff members have died. 

The vast majority of Virginia’s 25,000 prisoners, as well as thousands of correctional officers and staff, have now been vaccinated.