Suffering from cancer and diabetes, a Virginia inmate died of covid-19 just months before his release date

Last month, Asmar was left in a unit with a coronavirus outbreak, before contracting the…

Last month, Asmar was left in a unit with a coronavirus outbreak, before contracting the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, , he previously said in a statement. His sister said he succumbed to the illness on Sunday.

Asmar is among 18 inmates at the Deerfield Corrections Center to die of covid-19 in what is the largest outbreak in Virginia’s prison system. Officials said 733 inmates have tested positive for the novel coronavirus at the southeastern Virginia facility, which is home to many of the state’s geriatric prisoners.

Asmar’s family and advocates for prisoners say the case shows the state has moved too slowly to release the most vulnerable prisoners to stem the spread of covid-19 and failed to safeguard those that remain inside. Corrections officials contend they have worked rigorously to do both.

Maudie Howell, Asmar’s sister, said she wrote five letters on his behalf seeking early release, state Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond) pressed for it and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia recently highlighted Asmar’s plight — all to no avail.

“It almost feels like they took my heart and cut it out,” Howell said. “It’s just unbelievable for somebody to allow people to just die in a prison. I don’t understand that.”

A VADOC spokesman declined to comment Thursday on Asmar’s death or elaborate on the decision to deny early release for the inmate. The department has written in a letter that it worked diligently to provide health care for Asmar and stop the spread of covid-19 in its facilities. VADOC spokeswoman Lisa Kinney said in a statement last week officials had “worked overtime” to release as many eligible prisoners as possible. To date, that includes more than 800.

Under a plan approved by the General Assembly earlier this year, VADOC has the power to release inmates who have less than a year on their sentence and meet certain criteria.

“A great deal of work goes into the review process,” Kinney’s statement read. “For example, the offenders’ files must be audited to ensure no offender is released when he has additional time pending in a Virginia court, and offenders’ home plans must be approved.”

Asmar was serving a 5½ -year term for identity theft and violating probation on an earlier drug conviction. Howell said he had been in and out of prison for years because of issues related to a heroin addiction. Asmar was scheduled to be released in August 2021.

Howell said her final conversation with Asmar was last week. He told her he had tested positive for the coronavirus. He said he had headaches, muscle pain and the ice in the water he drank tasted like metal. Problems with taste and smell are a common symptom of covid-19. Howell said he told her he was receiving little treatment.

In the months leading up to his own illness, Asmar was terrified of covid-19, as he watched inmates around him die of the coronavirus or be rushed to the hospital, Howell said.

“He was scared,” Howell said. “This was a grown man, 67 years old. He said, ‘Maudie, I’m afraid.’ ”

Before Asmar’s death, the ACLU 0f Virginia pointed to his case as an example of how it contended the VADOC was failing to meet the terms of a settlement of a lawsuit by 27 Virginia prisoners that called for stronger protections against the coronavirus and quicker releases for the medically compromised and others. It was the second time the ACLU had complained the VADOC wasn’t living up to the terms of the deal. The VADOC disputed that characterization in a response.

In a statement to the ACLU, Asmar said he was mistakenly left in a unit with prisoners who had tested positive for the coronavirus, before he himself was diagnosed. He also said he filed roughly 15 medical requests, saying he wasn’t receiving proper medical care for his other health problems. The VADOC said he was given proper care.

“I can only pray,” Asmar said in his statement. “That is all I have.”

The ACLU said in a statement that Asmar’s death should not have happened.

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

Nearly 80 percent of the inmates at Deerfield have tested positive for the coronavirus and the facility is responsible for more than half of the covid-19 deaths in the state’s prison system. VADOC said it has done mass testing, increased health staffing and instituted extra cleaning to try to combat the outbreak.

Howell said she began writing letters to VADOC, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and other officials in June trying to get Asmar released early. The same month, Morrissey sent a letter to the warden of Deerfield requesting Asmar’s early release, saying the pandemic “could be fatal” for him.

Morrissey, who said he has sent about 30 letters on behalf of medically compromised inmates in Virginia’s prison system seeking early release, said he’s not seen much action on any of them.

“It shows a complete and utter lack of compassion and mercy to keep these individuals who have a rather early release date . . . incarcerated,” Morrissey said. “It’s a death penalty.”

Howell said she’ll miss Asmar, who was her only sibling. He leaves behind an adult son and three grandchildren, who referred to him as “Papa Teddy Bear.” She said he was a sharp dresser and had worked in photography and construction. She described him as warm and caring.

“I just wish they had let him come home and die with some dignity,” Howell said.