Masks behind bars? Local jail has avoided COVID-19, but some raise concerns about mask use

By Sky Wilson, contributor, with additional reporting by Assistant Editor Randi B. Hagi and Eric Gorton, contributor

The Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail has reported no cases of COVID-19 among inmates or staff as of Thursday because Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said the jail has taken measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We’ve been fortunate. We’ve been trying our best, trying to be diligent,” said Hutcheson.

But some say these efforts are not enough. Anna Cubbage, whose fiancé is incarcerated at the jail for a non-violent crime, told The Citizen she had concerns about health and safety in the prison, especially regarding masking among prison staff.

“Most of the time everybody is not wearing a mask,” she said.

Virginia Executive Order 63 “Order Of Public Health Emergency Five: Requirement To Wear Face Covering While Inside Buildings” went into effect May 26. The order requires anyone 10 or older to cover their mouth and nose with a face covering while inside any building with close proximity to others, including local government facilities. Those with health conditions which prevent them from safely wearing a mask are not required to do so.

Hutcheson told The Citizen that masks and other PPE are not required at all times but are recommended. Some jail staff report medical reasons they can not remain masked. Masks are required when social distancing is not possible for both jail employees and inmates.

Other precautions include quarantining new inmates, sanitizing more frequently, spreading out public visitation times to limit the number of people in the facility at once, and lowering the number of overall inmates through strategic placement and movement of the jail’s population. The jail also has health screening for new inmates and temperature checks for employees. 

Female inmates were removed from the jail for HVAC repairs about two years ago. Those projects were completed just as the pandemic started, but the jail chose to not house women again.

H. Eugene Oliver, III, local criminal defense lawyer, said he has seen inconsistent mask usage by the jail’s staff and inmates, as well as attorneys and others, although he said it is more consistent in public areas. Oliver’s clients inside the facilities are also reporting issues regarding mask use and cleaning supplies.

“It is very frustrating at times and to see lives being put at risk due to either indifference or partisanship on mask wearing,” Oliver said. 

Hutcheson said the choice to wear a mask is up to the individual staff member.

Cubbage said she knows of at least one jail employee who felt bullied and harassed for her choice to wear a mask at work, saying she is one of the only jailers consistently wearing PPE. That employee declined to comment.

“There is no mask mandate. That’s all they need to do to stop this happening…but they don’t care about their own employees even,” Cubbage said. 

Hutcheson said he knows some people don’t agree with how the jail is handling the pandemic, but he said he believes the jail is being responsible. 

Other jails have suffered

While the Rockingham-Harrisonburg jail has avoided any COVID-19 cases, a transportation officer at Middle River Regional Jail in Verona tested positive for coronavirus on October 26. The officer’s last transport was from Harrisonburg-Rockingham to Middle River on October 22. All inmates and officers in the vehicle wore a mask, according to the Middle River Regional Jail.

“Absolutely nobody tested positive as a result of [the Middle River officer] picking up inmates here, nor did we have anyone experience any symptoms whatsoever,” Hutcheson said.

In April, the state-run jail Community Corrections Alternative Program in Linville had a COVID-19 outbreak. At least 25 inmates became infected. This was the second major outbreak in the Harrisonburg area following the wave at Accordius Health, but the Rockingham-Harrisburg jail reported no cases at this time. The Virginia Department of Health investigated the flare-up at Community Corrections.

As of Nov. 8, the Virginia Department of Corrections reported 4,142 total positive cases of COVID-19 among inmates. Of those, 239 of these are active, on-site cases. Statewide, 79 corrections staff members are currently sick with COVID-19. This does not include positive cases in local or regional jails. 

Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail is overseen by the Virginia Board of Local and Regional Jails. The board’s role is to establish standards and guidelines for local and regional jails that are designed to guarantee the health, safety, and welfare of staff and offenders under its jurisdiction.

Laura Lee Wight, Population Health Community Coordinator for the Central Shenandoah Health District, said her department has a “pro-active” relationship with local and regional jails.

“We are working with our locally managed jails and correctional facilities before the pandemic. We routinely work with these facilities. The COVID efforts taking place right now are happening within the parameters of a pre-existing public health relationship,” she said.

The Virginia Department of Health’s Central Shenandoah Health District is on call to investigate and care for COVID-19 in congregate settings, such as inside a jail. The agency recognizes the potential for rapid and widespread transmission in such facilities, so any positive case would set off alarms so officials to prevent a potential outbreak. 

“If there is a single case of COVID-19 identified in a corrections setting, the health department would respond by working with the facilities and recommending actions to slow the outbreak,” Wight said. 

Guarding against outbreaks

The Central Shenandoah Health District will respond to any positive case of COVID-19 in correctional facilities or detention centers as they would with a case in any other setting, Wight said. This response includes providing testing, limiting contact with infected persons and quarantining staff and inmates.

Health District staff also will conduct case investigations, perform contact tracing and provide education about the current public health guidance as needed. However, the Central Shenandoah Health District doesn’t have regulatory authority over correctional facilities and detention centers. So any enforcement must come from the Virginia Board of Local and Regional Jails.

The Rockingham-Harrisonburg jail employees have their temperatures taken each morning before entering the jail’s secure area and have been told by supervisors to not come to work if they even feel remotely ill.

Almost all outbreaks in correctional facilities across the country have been among inmate populations. At the Rockingham-Harrisonburg jail, new inmates have their temperature taken upon arrival and are placed in the quarantine area for 15 days before they are put in the general population.

“You’re not coming off the street and going into the general population,” Hutcheson said.

This summer, an inmate was scheduled to be transferred to the jail but tested positive before entry, so he was never admitted to the jail. He was isolated and then released hours later. Hutcheson said that was the closest someone with a positive test got to the jail. 

But Cubbage, whose fiance is currently in the jail, said quarantining inmates is useless when most of the jail staff do not wear PPE. She says guards interact directly with inmates after they have dealt with other staff members, visitors, delivery people and others while mask-less.

“[The inmates] can’t get up and leave,” Cubbage said. “When your personal choice affects other people’s life and well-being, that’s when it becomes an issue.”


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