FILE - Prison, jail, inmate, corrections

(The Center Square) – Virginia has tested 14.5 percent of the state's prison population for COVID-19, but the state’s goal is to eventually test every inmate and staff member.

The state has tested 4,235 of the 29,136 inmates in Virginia Department of Corrections’ facilities, Gregory Carter, the deputy director of communications for the department, told The Center Square. He said the state has conducted point prevalence testing at four facilities and is testing another this week. This type of testing involves testing people who do not yet have symptoms to find cases early on.

During a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Public Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Brian Moran said the state’s increased access to test kits and personal protective equipment made it easier to expand testing. 

“We’re going to test everyone, because we know this virus can be spread while someone is asymptomatic,” Moran said. “So early on in this, we were testing symptomatic inmates … [but] only through early detection will it enable the Department of Corrections personnel to enforce and take the measures in respect to quarantine and isolation that are necessary to ensure the safety and health of those we have in custody, in addition to the safety and health of our corrections officers.”

The states reports 580 inmates and 65 corrections staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

The facilities that already received point prevalence testing are Harrisonburg Community Corrections Alternative Program (CCAP), Haynesville Correctional Center, Deerfield Correctional Center and Dillwyn Correctional Center, Carter said.

Buckingham Correctional Center is receiving testing this week, but about 300 inmates will have to be retested after their tests were shipped to the wrong facility and now are too old to process.

The commonwealth has had problems keeping up with other states in overall per-capita testing. Although it has started to improve in recent weeks, the commonwealth consistently has ranked near the bottom when compared with other states, leading to criticism of Gov. Ralph Northam's administration, especially from legislative Republicans.

Northam released a substantial number of nonviolent prisoners and encouraged judges to consider alternatives to prison when possible as a way to combat the spread of COVID-19. The state reduced its total prison population by about 17 percent, and the state Legislature passed an amendment to the budget that allows the Department of Corrections to release nonviolent inmates who have one year or less remaining on their sentences.

Republican leadership has criticized the governor’s decision, asserting doing so makes communities less safe. Northam also has received criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which said the state hasn’t done enough to release prisoners.

“There’s no chance that Virginia has done enough to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in prisons,” Meredith Mason, a spokeswoman for ACLU of Virginia, told The Center Square. “Overcrowding in these facilities make social distancing impossible. People sleep only a few feet apart, and we’ve received dozens of reports about lack of soap, cleaning products and adequate testing and health care for those who develop symptoms. The governor could use his clemency power right now to safely release people. Every day he refuses to act puts more lives at risk.”

Virginia has 21,570 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 2,955 total hospitalizations and 769 deaths, according to the Department of Health’s most-recent report. The state said 136,558 tests have been conducted.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus. The disease has caused at least 76,421 deaths in the U.S., with more than 1.28 million confirmed cases in the country. COVID-19 symptoms appear within two to 14 days after exposure and include fever, cough, difficulty breathing, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and new loss of taste or smell. 

Staff Reporter

Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia and Tennessee for The Center Square. He previously worked for the Cause of Action Institute and has been published in Business Insider, USA TODAY College, National Review Online and the Washington Free Beacon.