Calls for additional investigation into Virginia prison where inmates suffered from hypothermia

A recent report has brought to light a number of hypothermia hospitalizations and other concerning conditions at a Virginia prison. This has led Democratic state lawmakers to emphasize the need for further investigation into these issues.

Lawmakers have vowed to hold Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration accountable and have urged a newly established prisons watchdog to investigate the revelations brought to light by an Associated Press report. The report uncovered a troubling pattern of at least 13 cases of hypothermia-related hospitalizations over a span of three years at the Marion Correctional Treatment Center.

Medical providers at the prison expressed concern about the temperatures, and a long-tenured employee mentioned that he wouldn’t be surprised if there were complaints of hypothermia. Previous records have already revealed allegations of extremely cold conditions, with instances of toilet water freezing over.

The Virginia Department of Corrections has refused to respond to inquiries from the AP regarding the prison. They cited ongoing litigation related to an inmate’s death, which includes allegations of substandard conditions and deliberate exposure to cold temperatures. Additionally, the DOC did not acknowledge the AP’s request to interview a responsible official at the facility.

“I have grave concerns regarding the current state of our Virginia prison system,” expressed Sen. L. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, who serves as the president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate, in a written statement. “The Governor and the Department of Corrections need to clarify how this situation arose and outline the measures they are taking to rectify it.”

In an interview, Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell expressed his deep concern regarding the findings of the report. Alongside other lawmakers, he intends to personally approach the leadership of the Department of Corrections to seek further clarification and answers.

“The conditions outlined in the article resemble a Soviet gulag rather than an American prison,” he remarked.

Surovell, a representative from Fairfax County, along with other lawmakers, proposed that the recently established Office of the Department of Corrections Ombudsman, which is currently understaffed, should investigate the concerns regarding temperature and hypothermia.

Last year, concerns about the facility’s conditions surfaced following a lawsuit surrounding the tragic death of inmate Charles Givens. NPR shed light on the incident and shared the discoveries made by a special grand jury. This panel, assembled by a prominent local prosecutor in response to Givens’ passing in 2022, determined that there was insufficient evidence to pursue an indictment. Nonetheless, the grand jury unequivocally described the state of the prison as “inhumane and deplorable.”

Mark Krudys, the attorney representing Kym Hobbs, the sister of Givens who filed the lawsuit, refrained from commenting on the statements made by Virginia lawmakers. He cited the ongoing litigation as the reason for his silence. The Department of Corrections (DOC) did not provide any response to the two emailed requests for comment.

In a written statement, Christian Martinez, Youngkin’s press secretary, expressed deep concern over the findings of the AP report. However, Martinez also confirmed that the Department of Corrections (DOC) had verified that no cases of hypothermia had been treated at Marion prison since 2021. It is important to note that Givens’ last hospitalization for hypothermia occurred in December 2021.

Martinez stated that the Department would fully cooperate with any inquiry from the Corrections Ombudsman.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed and Youngkin approved a measure that established the ombudsman’s office. Advocates of the measure, despite the DOC’s opposition, argued that it would provide much-needed independent oversight of the agency.

According to Maggie Sotos, a spokesperson for the inspector general’s office, the division will be composed of six employees, including an ombudsman and five specialists.

Democratic Senator Dave Marsden, who has had extensive experience working in corrections and was the former head of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, expressed his support for the ombudsman bill as a sponsor. He acknowledged that inmates and detainees often complain and sometimes exaggerate their grievances. However, he emphasized that the findings reported by the AP are deeply concerning and should be thoroughly examined by the ombudsman’s office.

Marsden expressed his intention to personally send a formal inquiry regarding the AP’s findings to a high-ranking official at the DOC.

Del. Holly Seibold, a legislator from Fairfax County, expressed her strong disapproval upon learning about the AP’s findings. She was outraged and intends to take action. Seibold plans to write a formal request to the head of the DOC, seeking more information about the hypothermia cases. Additionally, she aims to question DOC officials in a legislative forum.

Sen. Travis Hackworth and Del. Jed Arnold, two GOP lawmakers representing the district that encompasses the prison, did not provide any comment despite multiple attempts to reach them via telephone.

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