Spread of COVID-19 at Richmond jail leads to protests inside, outside facility

The Richmond City Justice Center reported 91 positive COVID-19 cases among people in the facility on September 2. Photo by Megan Lee

Sagal Ahmed, Contributing Writer 

Shontrese Otey’s 20-year-old son is sitting in the Richmond City Justice Center waiting for his court date. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect incarcerated people across the country, Otey said she is nervous for her son and other people in the facility. 

“I was in tears because I knew this was going to happen,” Otey said.

The fears of Otey and other community organizers spiked when a rumor circulated on Aug. 21 that an incarcerated person at the Richmond jail died from COVID-19 complications.

For days, Otey said she did not hear from her son. When she finally heard from him again, he said he couldn’t call because someone in his pod tested positive for COVID-19 and caused the area to go on lockdown.

“He said they weren’t able to take showers, he couldn’t get his food and stuff that he ordered,” Otey said. “They were on lockdown for four straight days.”

Multiple social justice orgs called for improved jail conditions. Photo by Megan Lee

Allegations that the facility had not taken proper precautions to ensure inmate safety led to protests demanding justice for incarcerated people. On Sept. 2, the jail reported 91 positive COVID-19 cases in the facility.

Matthew Perry, co-director of Richmond City Bail Fund, said the jail had a limited amount of testing equipment several months into the pandemic.

“The jail was in no way set up to keep people safe inside, and that’s on a technical level in terms of the number of test kits that were available,” Perry said.

Richmond City Bail Fund and other community organizations –– such as Southerners on New Ground VA, Legal Aid Justice Center and the Richmond Public Defender’s Office –– asked Richmond Sheriff Antionette Irving and Commonwealth’s Attorney Collette McEachin to improve jail conditions and keep those inside less susceptible to the virus. Perry said that “didn’t happen.”

Infographic by Andy Caress

The Richmond City Bail Fund has been calling for the release of all inmates in the jail. Perry said that even with proper testing, protective equipment and regular cleaning, it is still difficult to comply with social distancing guidelines in the facility. 

Perry said when news broke about the pandemic, Richmond City Bail Fund and other social justice organizations called for a mass release of people in the jail.

“It was very obvious once the virus spread, it was going to be unable to be stopped.” — Matthew Perry, co-director of Richmond City Bail Fund

Perry said people who had stayed in the jail for more than a night reported that staff and officers were not wearing face coverings and shared surfaces were not being cleaned between each use.

Taylor Maloney, VCU senior and Student Government Association president-elect, said she attended two sit-ins after hearing that people in the jail were cleaning cells with “a water and Clorox mixture” and old t-shirts. 

“At the first sit-in, the incarcerated people saw us from their windows sitting outside the jail and started tapping on their window,” Maloney said. “They had signs and were trying to communicate but in general showing a lot of support and appreciation.”

Maloney said protesters left the first sit-in with their questions unanswered. After the sit-in, she said people in the jail demanded medical treatment by refusing to enter the cells. Maloney said they were “gassed, pepper sprayed and threatened with guns.”

There was another sit-in the next day. 

“We really wanted to make it so that they did take notice that we know what is happening, that they are being watched, that we care about our incarcerated folks and we won’t let them be put on lockdown and be suppressed in this manner, especially during a pandemic.” — Taylor Maloney, SGA president-elect

VCU senior and former student government senator Jed Baul said those who run the Richmond jail are “putting their own interests at the front.”

“We see a complete disparity between us and those who are in prison,” Baul said.

While Otey awaits her son’s court date, she said he and other non-violent offenders should be released in the meantime. 

“If you really feel like they are a flight risk, put them on a house monitor,” Otey said. “You would still be able to know their whereabouts, where they are at all times.”

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