Lawmakers call for further inquiry into Virginia prison that had hypothermia hospitalizations

Leading Virginia Democrats say recently uncovered hypothermia hospitalizations among inmates at a Virginia prison deserve further scrutiny

Sarah Rankin
Wednesday 22 May 2024 22:53 BST
Virginia Prison Hypothermia
Virginia Prison Hypothermia (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

A raft of hypothermia hospitalizations and other questionable conditions at a Virginia prison uncovered in a recent report deserve further scrutiny, leading Democratic state lawmakers said this week.

Lawmakers pledged to press Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's administration for answers and called for a newly created prisons watchdog to look into the findings of an Associated Press report, which found at least 13 hospitalizations for hypothermia over three years at the Marion Correctional Treatment Center.

The AP also obtained records that showed medical providers expressing concern about temperatures at the prison and another long-tenured employee indicating that he would not be surprised to learn of hypothermia complaints. Previously reported records have detailed allegations that conditions inside the facility were at times so cold, toilet water froze over.

The Virginia Department of Corrections has recently declined to answer questions from the AP about the prison, citing pending litigation over an inmate's death that has focused in part on allegations of poor conditions and intentional cold exposure. The DOC also did not acknowledge an AP request to interview an official with responsibility over the facility.

“I am deeply concerned about the recent reporting of conditions in our Virginia prison system,” Sen. L. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, the president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate, said in a written statement. “The Governor and the DOC owe us an explanation of how this happened and what they are doing to correct it."

Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell said in an interview that the report's findings were “disturbing." He was among the lawmakers who said he planned to personally seek answers from DOC leadership.

“The conditions described in the article sound more like a Soviet gulag, not a prison in America,” he said.

Surovell, of Fairfax County, and several other lawmakers suggested that the newly created but not yet staffed Office of the Department of Corrections Ombudsman should eventually look into the temperature- and hypothermia-related concerns.

Questions about conditions at the facility arose last year after NPR reported on a lawsuit over the death of inmate Charles Givens and detailed the findings of a special grand jury. Convened by a top local prosecutor after Givens' death in 2022, the panel concluded it lacked sufficient evidence to support an indictment, but said it found conditions at the prison to be “inhumane and deplorable.”

Mark Krudys, an attorney for Givens' sister Kym Hobbs, who filed the lawsuit, declined to comment on the Virginia lawmakers’ remarks, citing the pending litigation. The DOC did not respond to two emailed requests for comment.

Youngkin's press secretary, Christian Martinez called the AP report's findings “incredibly troubling" in a written statement, but also said the administration had confirmed with the DOC that no one has been treated for hypothermia at the Marion prison since 2021. Givens' final hospitalization for hypothermia was in December 2021.

"The Department will fully comply with any inquiry from the Corrections Ombudsman," Martinez said.

Lawmakers passed and Youngkin approved a measure earlier this year setting up the ombudsman's office. Proponents of the measure, which the DOC opposed as unnecessary, said it would bring overdue independent oversight of the agency.

The division will consist of six employees: an ombudsman and five specialists, said Maggie Sotos, a spokesperson for the inspector general's office.

Democratic Sen. Dave Marsden of Fairfax County, a sponsor of the ombudsman bill who spent much of his career working in corrections, including a stint as the head of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, said inmates and detainees often complain, and “exaggerate those complaints.” But he said the AP's findings “raise all kinds of concerns" and are “absolutely” of the type the ombudsman's office should consider.

Marsden also said he planned to send his own formal inquiry about the AP's findings to a top DOC official.

Del. Holly Seibold of Fairfax County, who has carved out a legislative focus on prison reform bills, said she was “outraged” by the AP's findings. She too said she planned to write to the head of the DOC to make a formal request for more information about the hypothermia cases and seek to question DOC officials in a legislative forum.

Two GOP lawmakers whose district includes the prison — Sen. Travis Hackworth and Del. Jed Arnold — did not respond to telephone messages seeking comment.

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.Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.

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