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What it's like to have a family member behind bars during a COVID-19 outbreak
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What it's like to have a family member behind bars during a COVID-19 outbreak

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Michelle Dempsey began emailing the Virginia Department of Corrections about her father, Louis, in October. “My father is 62 years old with serious health issues,” she wrote on Oct. 26, in the first of 25 emails to the VDOC.

“Do you know if the DOC is going to be doing early release for those individuals who have health concerns and are not in there for a violent crime? I am very concerned with the numbers going up daily, that my father may not make it out of his sentence alive.”

Michelle Dempsey’s concerns are similar to those felt by many family members of inmates as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. And a surge in cases that prompted a lockdown of the facility have only added to their fears.

Louis Dempsey is a VDOC-responsible inmate who began serving a five-year sentence with four years suspended for drug-related charges at Rappahannock Regional Jail on Aug. 4, 2020.

According to Michelle Dempsey, her father has severe emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD—which is on the CDC’s list of conditions that put people at risk of severe illness from the virus that causes COVID-19.

Records from Mary Washington Hospital show that Dempsey received a cardiac catheterization on Aug. 19 and was hospitalized for two weeks. He went into the hospital again in November for six days, where he was treated for chronic bronchitis, low blood potassium and elevated blood sugar.

Dempsey meets many of the criteria for consideration for early release under the inmate early release plan approved by the Virginia General Assembly in April 2020. He was not sentenced for a class 1 felony or sexually violent crime and was serving time for a nonviolent offense.

According to the plan, “the state-responsible inmate’s medical condition will be considered.”

However, the VDOC official who answered Michelle Dempsey’s emails told her that her father was not eligible for consideration because he “[did] not have a calculated and confirmed release date.”

“This is a lengthy process and no additional staff were provided to account for the increased work load caused by the early release process,” the official said.

As the fall moved into winter and COVID-19 cases in the local health district began to climb, Michelle Dempsey became more worried about her father’s health.

She contacted her father’s lawyer, asking him to try to get her father released on house arrest, but said the lawyer told her the prosecutor would not sign off on it because her father’s medical condition was “not life threatening.”

On Jan. 18, Rappahannock Regional Jail Superintendent Kevin Hudson informed the jail authority board that the facility was being placed on lockdown after eight inmates and 14 staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

On a Thursday in late January, Louis Dempsey passed out.

“From what I gathered, I blacked out and hit my head on the brick walls,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “It took them two and a half hours to revive me.”

The following Saturday, he blacked out again. He was kept in a cell in the jail’s medical unit until a doctor could see him the following Monday, Jan. 25.

“He came in examined me and had them take me to the hospital,” Dempsey said.

At Mary Washington, he was treated for a concussion and placed on a heart monitor. He also tested positive for COVID-19.

Michelle Dempsey called Hudson, begging them to allow her father to be released under house arrest.

“I felt this was going to happen,” she said of her father’s illness. “This is what I was scared of.”

Louis Dempsey was released from Mary Washington Hospital on Jan. 27, outfitted with an ankle bracelet and taken to a local hotel, where he said he planned to stay until mid-February to recover from COVID-19 and prevent spreading it to the rest of his family.

“My wife ain’t going to let me come home until I get two more negative tests,” he said. “I really can’t afford this place, but I can’t go home, either. I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

Locked up during an outbreak

More than 1,300 inmates are still behind bars at the Rappahannock Regional Jail.

The Virginia National Guard assisted with an effort to test all inmates and staff members in early February.

As of Feb. 12, 495 inmates and 19 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19, according to Hudson.

Hudson said there was another round of testing planned. He said the jail is attempting to contain the outbreak by housing inmates according to their test results—positive with positive and negative with negative, “where feasible.”

He said 99 percent of those who tested positive are asymptomatic. Those who are presenting with symptoms are medically isolated “as much as possible.”

Meanwhile, the jail continues to be “on modified lockdown status to minimize movement as much as possible.”

Regional jail inmates who have contacted the Free Lance–Star say the lockdown means they are receiving all meals in their cells, getting almost no recreational time or time to shower, and being denied access to toilet paper, cleaning supplies and other personal hygiene products.

They report long waiting lists to receive medical or mental health treatment.

In-person visitations at the jail have been halted, as have in-person court appearances, outside meal service, commissary, care packages and even video visitation, family members of those incarcerated told the Free Lance–Star.

“It’s driving me crazy,” said Marie Fields, whose son is serving a sentence at the jail. “The tablets they’re supposed to be able to use are cut off, so we can’t have that visit.”

Fields, who lives in Florida, said her son, who is 31, tested positive for COVID-19 and is experiencing symptoms.

“He used to sometimes call me two times a day, every day, but now that he’s sick, I don’t hear from him,” she said. “I didn’t hear from him for two days and I was going crazy calling everybody possible.”

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Fields said her son works in the jail’s kitchen and was still working there despite feeling sick.

“He said he would come back from his shift and fall asleep for hours,” she said. “He’s received no treatment [for COVID-19]. Nothing.”

Fields said this isn’t the first time her son has been incarcerated, but she has never before worried about his health.

“It has never been as stressful an experience,” she said. “I’ve gotten used to the jail part. Worrying that your kid is going to get COVID and die in jail is another whole level.”

Fields said just being able to see her son’s face would relieve her stress.

“We all know they’re in there for a reason,” she continued. “That doesn’t mean they need to be 25 people sitting in a dorm and they are never heard from or looked at again.”

‘He’s not being treated like a human being’

Susie Phelps, of King George County, said that since the lockdown started, her son has been calling her in tears, telling her, “Mom, I can’t take it. I’m going to lose it.”

Her son, Charles Ayers, has been in the jail since March, when he was arrested on charges of possession of a firearm by a nonviolent felon and eluding police. He has not yet been sentenced. According to Spotsylvania Circuit Court records, his sentencing hearing, originally scheduled for Jan. 25, has been rescheduled twice, most recently to April 15.

Phelps said her son is a heroin addict who was on his way to kill himself when he was arrested in March.

“He’s not there because committed a crime,” she said. “He’s there because of addiction. He was an addict and he wanted to die. He ran from the cops because he didn’t care.”

Phelps said the lockdown has exacerbated her son’s depression and anxiety.

The jail suspended all alcohol and substance abuse support groups and chaplain services when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and had not reinstated them as of December.

Inmates have also reported lack of access to the law library and, even before the January lockdown, were reporting being given few opportunities for recreational time. Often, they said they were told it was for security reasons, because there were not enough correctional officers on staff to supervise.

“My thing is having them shut down away from the world, locked in a box,” Phelps said. “You’re trying to tell me that’s not going to hurt someone who already has mental disabilities?”

Phelps said that lately, Ayers has been calling to tell her he’s hungry.

She said he reports receiving four pieces of bread and packets of peanut butter and jelly for dinner.

“How do you expect them to live on peanut butter sandwiches?” Phelps said.

Phelps said she has been talking to other mothers with children in the facility and that “every mother that I have spoken with has the exact same horror stories.”

“I know [my son is] not innocent. I understand that,” she said. “I’m not fighting because of that, I’m fighting because he is human and he’s not getting treated like a human being.”

‘This is going beyond’

Tommy Linkous has been the sole primary caregiver for his children—including a six-month old baby—since his wife went into the jail in December.

He said she was sentenced to 12 months for nonpayment of child support.

“[She] ain’t never been in trouble with the law,” he said. “The only thing she’s locked up for is child support.”

Linkous said his wife suffered from post-partum depression and while pregnant was diagnosed with iron deficiency and high blood pressure.

He said that at one point early in the lockdown, she went to the medical unit where she was told her blood pressure was at “stroke level.”

“[My wife] and her cellmate have been begging and pleading for toilet paper and pads when they are on their periods,” he said. “They get cereal and milk for breakfast and that’s been served late. They get lukewarm lunch at like 3 or 4 o’clock and dinner is peanut butter and jelly.

“This has been going on during the whole lockdown,” Linkous said. “They don’t even get the chance to come out for an hour of rec.”

Minimum standards set by the Virginia Board of Corrections state that inmates of local and regional jails such as Rappahannock Regional Jail must have access to regular physical exercise and recreation activities—as well as access to reading materials, religious services and educational services—according to a 2010 report by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

“These females barely come out,” Linkous said. “This is going beyond.”

‘Afraid we won’t make it home’The Code of Virginia discusses the treatment of prisoners with contagious diseases in the state’s local and regional jails. It states:

“Upon application of the person in charge of a local correctional facility, if that application is affirmed by the physician serving such facility, a judge of a circuit court is authorized to have removed from any correctional facility within his jurisdiction any person confined therein who has contracted any contagious or infectious disease dangerous to the public health.

“Such persons shall be removed to some other place designated by the judge. When any person is so removed, he shall be safely kept and receive proper care and attention including medical treatment. As soon as he recovers his health, he shall be returned to the correctional facility from which he was moved, unless the term of his imprisonment has expired, in which event he shall be discharged, but not until all danger of his spreading contagion has passed. Expenses incurred under and by reason of this section shall be paid as provided by law.”

On Feb. 12, Hudson said that no inmates have been removed from the facility due to a positive diagnosis.

Patrick Small, a DOC inmate serving a sentence at the jail for larceny, said in a message to Phelps that he feels there is no escape from the virus.

“Everyday I wake up, I’m afraid that the jail is going to put someone in my cell that has COVID,” he said. “I feel like my only option would be to isolate myself and go to a special housing unit, but the virus is everywhere, so running from pod to pod or trying to hide from it is meaningless because it is being spoon fed to us.

“Ninety-five percent of the [jail] population is afraid that we won’t even make it home,” he added.

Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973


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