Mecklenburg went from orange to red over the weekend, according to the risk scale developed by the Harvard Global Health Institute, after 60 new cases of the virus were confirmed by the state health department between Friday and Sunday.
Another 12 cases were reported through Tuesday, bringing the total caseload in Mecklenburg since the pandemic struck to 807 people. Another patient has died in recent days, bringing the county’s death toll to 34 people.
It is unknown if any of the additional cases reported in the past few days involve inmates or employees at Baskerville Correctional Center.
As of Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Corrections reported 87 offenders who have contracted COVID-19 are being housed at the Baskerville prison. Four employees there also have been infected. One employee — 66-year-old prison warden Earl Barksdale — has died of the disease.
One offender at the multi-custody facility is currently hospitalized, but the other 86 infected inmates are housed either at the prison visitor center, or inside another pod designated as a quarantine area for those with the virus.
John Johnson, an offender at Baskerville who goes by the name Khashe’ Abdul Maalik, notified his family by email on Thursday that he had contracted the virus. He was never told this officially, Johnson wrote, but he learned of his positive test result when his residence area was cordoned off as a quarantine site — and he was left inside.
“I just found out that I tested positive for CORONA virus, no staff or medical personel [sic] informed me and 50 other men of the news, they just moved eight guys out and five guys into the dorm and slapped the red zone stick [sic] on the wall,” Johnson wrote to family members, who shared the contents of the email with The Sun.
Johnson also shared his concerns for what he called the “oppressive” treatment that he and other offenders at the prison are experiencing during the pandemic. “I’m still fighting to get allot [sic] of the oppressive treatment corrected, especially having to shower outside in a mobile trailor [sic], no medical grade PPE, and food trays not being served in a hot box, but on an open cart wrapped in trash bags and siran [sic] wrap.”
Johnson’s concerns are being echoed by other Baskerville inmates. One is Methane Satterwhite, who says he has been waiting for months to be released from the facility under the Department of Correction’s Early Release Programs. Satterwhite said he received a form signed by Warden Barksdale on May 5 acknowledging that he met DOC’s criteria for early release.
Satterwhite’s June 4 follow-up letter to VADOC’s Director of Offender Management Services, James Parks, has gone unanswered for more than four months, his family told The Sun. They say he simply wants to know why he is still at the prison if he has been approved for early release.
One of DOC’s stated reasons for the early release program is to relieve overcrowding at the prisons, which would allow for more social distancing and hopefully stem the spread of the virus. Satterwhite wrote in a prior letter, shared with The Sun, that “I can assure you that no social distancing is happening in any of the three housing units here within the prison. I am confined in unit 3B with 87 other offenders and we are never more than 3 feet apart.”
Virginia Department of Corrections records through September 30, obtained by The Sun under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, show how quickly the virus can spread in close quarters. As of Sept. 30, DOC reported 41 active cases among the offender population at Baskerville Correctional Center, with no hospitalizations. In less than five days, that number jumped to 87 with one hospitalization.
The Sun first reported issues involving conditions at the prison in August as the number of active cases among the offender population swelled from seven to over 100 in a few short days. Prisoners complained then of lack of access to PPE, lack of access to shower facilities, clean change of clothes and personal items.
Baskerville inmate CJ Hylton, who said he was experiencing respiratory issues after contracting COVID-19, said he was not receiving medical treatment for his symptoms.
His claims were refuted by a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections. Satterwhite, in a letter dated Sept. 8, said, “as for the news articles — yes all is true.” He continued, “but to be living in these conditions is much more than what you can really put in writing.”
More recently, Johnson described conditions inside the prison in a letter to his mother. “These people have not come in to decontaminate the dorm yet. They haven’t sprayed, so the virus continues to spread,” Johnson wrote in his letter. “Up until yesterday 9/27 at least one person a day had been removed for elevated temperature or other symptoms of the virus since last Monday.
“I’ve asked to be tested again since it has been nearly a week with continued exposure to the virus, but the nurse said the administration hasn’t scheduled any additional testing. Of equal concern are the cool fall like temperatures outside, and guys who have tested positive and placed in the visitation room under quarantine must walk over 100 yards to shower units made inside of a semi-trailer. This can elevate their susceptibility to develop pneumonia or other respiratory ailments.”
Johnson, through his sister Melissa Johnson of Vinton, began raising alarms about the treatment of offenders at Baskerville with Department of Corrections officials back in March.
An email from Johnson directed to VADOC Director Harold Clark, his assistant and Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran called for all DOC employees to have their temperatures and symptoms checked before being allowed to enter the prison facilities since social distancing was not possible. His sister Melissa Johnson later wrote in a separate email, “in a sad attempt to comply with [the Governor’s] Executive Orders, prison guards rather than trained medical staff administer temperature checks to colleagues before they enter the prison.”
Melissa Johnson also noted that Baskerville Correctional Center is not in position to comply with a suggestion by Secretary Moran to house infected offenders in isolation cells because “following a gang fight on April 5 … all six (6) isolation cells are occupied.”
Family members of Baskerville inmates sat they are still waiting for a response from Virginia DOC officials.