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October 1, 2020

A photo of Askia Asmar, who died in custody from COVID-19 at Deerfield Correctional Center, as a direct result of VDOC's neglect. (Family photo)

Askia Asmar needed help from the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC). He filled out 15 medical requests that yielded no results. He was denied early release despite his serious health condition and upcoming release date. He wasn't transported to an important medical appointment for his cancer treatments. He was left in an area that housed people who had tested positive for COVID-19. Predictably, he tested positive after not being able to distance himself from the infected people in his unit. In a sworn statement, he said, “I can only pray. That is all I have.”

Sadly, Mr. Asmar has died as a direct result of VDOC’s neglect, with months left on his sentence. His death was a preventable tragedy, just like the 30 people who died from COVID-19 in VDOC custody before him.

While Mr. Asmar’s death is a tragedy, the greater tragedy is that he’s not alone. There are currently 3,651 people in the VDOC prison system who have tested positive. Out of the 32 people who have died from COVID-19, 18 of them have happened at Deerfield Correctional Center, including Mr. Asmar.

Mr. Asmar – and everyone in VDOC’s care – deserve more than having to rely on prayer alone. They have a right to medical treatment, proper food, access to sanitation and hygiene products, and a basic level of care. Instead, they are needlessly exposed to COVID-19, and according to a recent report from Virginia Mercury, those who test positive for the virus are treated with allergy medicine and uncooked hot dogs for dinner.

Mr. Asmar reached out to the ACLU of Virginia after getting no help from the staff at Deerfield Correctional Center, where he was being housed until his parole date in December or mandatory release date in August 2021. A sworn statement from Mr. Asmar was attached to a notice of substantial noncompliance and sent to counsel for VDOC and Gov. Ralph Northam. The notice outlined violations of a court-approved settlement agreement that resulted from a lawsuit on behalf of 27 people who are incarcerated in VDOC facilities. A similar notice of noncompliance was also sent in June regarding the slow release of eligible people.

“Mr. Asmar had a loving family who advocated for his release and was willing to care for him after his release. There is absolutely no good reason why he wasn't given a diagnosis, but was shuffled in with COVID-positive people and left to die,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “VDOC continues to keep people in unsafe conditions who can safely go home. It violates our settlement agreement, but more than that, it’s immoral. And it’s not how we should treat people in our society, no matter what they’ve done in the past.”