By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
As Middle River Regional Jail and its inmates continue navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, some inmates and people formerly incarcerated in the jail are speaking out about what they call unsanitary conditions and inadequate health care.
“My name is Anna Cubbage, and I want to share with you the story of my short time at the Middle River Regional Jail and why it was one of the worst experiences of my life,” Cubbage wrote in a statement she shared with the grassroots group Communities Against Middle River Jail Expansion. She was incarcerated at the jail for three days in January 2020 before being bailed out.
“In that short time I witnessed violations of human rights, deliberate indifference by staff towards inmates, and I saw numerous mentally ill members of our community struggle in concrete holding cells that were covered in urine and feces – sometimes not even their own – as the cleaning of these cells between inmates is virtually non-existent,” she wrote.
Cubbage, who agreed to a phone interview, is one of eight people – current and former inmates and their loved ones – who told The Citizen they have concerns about the physical and mental health conditions and services at Middle River Regional Jail. These complaints include how COVID-19 spread through the jail, delays in medical care for some injured and sick inmates and concerns about mental health services.
On Sunday, one inmate’s mother told The Citizen that another inmate at Middle River attempted to hang himself. She asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution against her daughter.
Maj. Eric Young, director of administration, said the inmate was “looking to, but he never attempted it.”
“The officer observed him acting strangely, and he acted on what the inmate was doing,” Young said.
Young said people showing suicidal ideation or intention are placed under a “suicide protocol,” which includes being monitored by a staff member.
“From there are referred to our mental health clinician who saw that individual the next day, which was Monday,” he said.
In the last two years, at least two inmates have died by suicide at the jail, as the Daily News-Record and Staunton News Leader have reported.
Middle River Regional Jail is jointly owned by the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro, as well as Rockingham and Augusta counties. Over the last few months, Jail Superintendent Jeffery Newton has presented leaders in each of the five localities with proposed plans to expand the jail – to mixed reception. According to the 2015 service agreement between the jurisdictions, at least four of the five governing bodies would need to vote in favor of the expansion for the project to move forward.
All five Harrisonburg city council members have expressed concerns about or outright opposition to the proposed expansion. In February, the Rockingham County supervisors indicated they’d be more receptive to the proposal. But The News Virginian reported in March that “three of five Waynesboro City Council members said … they’d be in favor of pausing” expansion discussions for at least a year.
Three Harrisonburg city council members are scheduled to tour the jail this Saturday, according to a notice distributed by city staff.
Young said leaders from other jurisdictions have also toured the jail recently, and “have seen how clean and how we run the facility.”
He said loved ones of inmates and other members of the public often have misconceptions about what happens in the facility.
“We try to work real hard, but you have 800 people that really don’t want to be here,” he said.
The pandemic has scared many of those incarcerated at Middle River Regional Jail and their loved ones. WMRA News reported in January that more than two-thirds of the 805 inmates at the jail had tested positive, and 75 staff members had tested positive.
Staunton resident Caiti Thomas said she contracted COVID-19 while incarcerated but received no treatment for the virus. She was released in January after serving two years there.
In February, Thomas told The Citizen that she still hadn’t regained her senses of smell or taste.
“Ibuprofen was the only thing that was widely available to people,” Thomas said. She did acknowledge the jail staff for preventing an outbreak until months after the virus had reached Virginia.
“So I feel like they did kind of OK, but when the outbreak happened, they put everybody negative in with the ones who tested positive,” she said.
Young said while the jail followed the Virginia Department of Health’s guidance, COVID-positive and -negative inmates were housed together during part of the outbreak “due to the fact that we don’t have any space to move them, and that was the recommendation that was made by the Department of Health.”
Since mid-January, he said, the jail has had a “very strict protocol” in place, in which COVID-positive inmates are quarantined for 14 days and tested twice before being moved into any general population area.
Other inmates, after learning about The Citizen’s reporting on Middle River Regional Jail, wrote letters outlining complaints about the jail’s handling of the outbreak.
“Inmates who test positive are placed in housing units to come into contact with inmates who have yet to test positive, while at the same time, books are not passed around and there is no recreation,” wrote one man who signed his name as Hector O. “It is my opinion that the jail’s liability risk comes above the health of individuals. Changes in routine are easier to implement than, for example, sanitizing areas of high contact, like the telephones, regularly.”
“The precautionary measures to stop or slow the spread of COVID were nonexistent at best,” wrote Bradley Ritchie. “No cleaning supplies for COVID. No hand sanitizer in pods. No jumpsuits issued daily.”
“No medical attention for COVID, Tylenol being the only measure of defense for COVID … living conditions in the housing units are unsanitary at best,” an anonymous inmate wrote.
“During COVID-19 they are supposed to give us a new change of clothes each day. They do not,” wrote another anonymous inmate. That inmate also wrote that inmates weren’t sufficiently protected, including from corrections staff members who weren’t wearing masks.
Young said the jail’s policy has never been to issue new jumpsuits every day. Linens, towels and clothing are changed out once a week, he said, unless an inmate somehow soils their jumpsuit and needs a new one immediately.
As for the staff, Young said they are “still wearing masks while in the facility, around inmates. If any staff member is tested positive, or [even] asymptomatic, then they’re required to stay home until tested or until their quarantine time is up. We’ve been very strict with that.”
He also said cleaning and sanitation is done regularly and was already a priority before COVID.
“Any time an inmate’s removed from a cell in intake or restricted housing, those cells are cleaned by a trustee, or an inmate worker. All that stuff is done daily, hourly, whatever is needed just due to COVID, but it’s a practice we’ve always done,” he said. As for Cubbage’s report of feces and urine in the intake area, Young said “if an inmate were to defecate or whatever in a cell, then the officers automatically pull those inmates out, transfer them to a clean cell, and that cell is immediately cleaned.”
Health care for inmates
Outside of the pandemic, the jail’s medical services have come under fire before.
In 2015, NBC 29 ran a three-part series titled “In Depth: Middle River Regional Jail Care Questioned,” in which they spoke with two inmates diagnosed with cancer. The series is no longer available on the station’s website, but the Staunton News Leader reported in 2017 that a former physician at Middle River Regional Jail who was named in the series sued a reporter and the Virginia Broadcasting Corporation for defamation.
Multiple current and former inmates told The Citizen they have been left waiting for basic medical care for weeks at a time.
“I had five boils/staph infections all at once,” wrote one inmate who signed the letter with just a first name, Caleb. “I put in for medical [treatment] several times. It took two weeks to see the nurse. I even complained to staff members. Once I received my medication, I started bleeding. They wouldn’t give me bandages until I had my mother call.”
Young said inmate’s medical needs are usually addressed within two or three days.
“When an inmate makes a request for medical, those requests are reviewed and answered within like a 12-hour, 24-hour period. And from that, it’s determined whether they need to be seen by a nurse, whether they need to be seen by a doctor … it may be that he has to wait a couple days. We have a doctor that’s in here once and twice a week,” he said.
Cubbage said she also has had to call the jail to help an inmate receive basic services. Her fiancé Thomas is currently at Rockingham Harrisonburg Regional Jail and was previously incarcerated at Middle River Regional Jail. While there, Cubbage said, he made multiple requests for physical therapy and a cane because his tibia had been fractured in three places in a previous injury.
“It took them six weeks to give him a cane, so he was hopping on one foot for six weeks,” Cubbage told The Citizen. She, Thomas’ mother, and his lawyer called the jail and had to “completely raise hell to get them to give it to him,” she said.
But not every inmate has that kind of advocate on the outside.
“It is a constant battle to get these people to do their jobs,” Cubbage said. “The majority of the inmates that they’re dealing with, they have no recourse. They can’t do anything to defend themselves.”
Young said he was not aware of any inmate who had been denied a cane for six weeks.
Mental health for inmates
In her brief time at the jail, Cubbage also saw inmates struggling with mental health issues.
“Mentally ill inmates who harm themselves during episodes of panic and frustration are not treated with care or concern, but rather punished by being yelled at, restrained and insulted by staff who have no training or compassion when dealing with the mentally ill,” she wrote in her statement.
The inmate’s mother who spoke with The Citizen on the condition of anonymity said she’s “begged” jail staff to provide more mental health services for her daughter, who has a history of meth use and trauma-related mental health challenges. The only treatments available to her daughter, she said, were the drug Seroquel and a weekly group counseling session.
“You’re putting all these drug people in there together. They’re finding new avenues and they’re not getting any help,” she said.
Psychiatric prescriptions for inmates are issued by a Western State Hospital psychiatrist, Dr. Timothy Jana, who spends about 12 hours a week at the jail, according to Tina Reed, the jail’s FOIA officer.
In a previous request for comment, Jana directed The Citizen to speak with jail staff with any questions about psychiatry services. Young said he did not know how and what psychiatric drugs were prescribed to inmates, and that Jana “takes care of all that.”
Robert Tucker, emergency services manager at the Valley Community Services Board (CSB), told The Citizen that Seroquel can be prescribed for a number of uses, including as a mood stabilizer, anti-psychotic, or sleep aid, but he and his team are not involved in prescribing medication to inmates.
He said the Valley CSB provides group counseling services to inmates in “special needs pods” through a Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services grant.
“It’s coping skills. What got you in? What’s going to keep you out when you get out?” Tucker said.
Valley CSB also employs a case manager who helps inmates who are about to be released to get enrolled in CSB services on the outside, as well as arrange housing for 30 days after getting out.
“There’s always room for more, but we’re doing pretty good,” he said.
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