Bill would create an independent ombudsman for Virginia prisons

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A bill that would lead to oversight of the Virginia Department Of Corrections advances in the General Assembly. The bill would allow the state to hire an independent ombudsman to investigate conditions and complaints inside our state’s prisons.

“Virginia is one of the few states that doesn’t have any oversight, independent oversight over the Department Of Corrections. It is really a blind spot for us,” said Del. Patrick Hope, the sponsor of the House bill.

Del. Hope said an ombudsman can recommend and monitor improvements to prison conditions and facilities.

“It can point out when there’s a violation maybe a civil rights violation,” he said.

The measure is prompted by dozens of complaints about DOC in recent years. Last year, 8News heard COVID-19 concerns and reports of a lack of PPE from both prison staff and relatives of inmates.

I worked in that red zone for a few days without a proper mask,” a corrections officer told 8News in September.

Aerrie Sammon whose husband is doing time in Deerfield Correctional where 19 inmates died from the Coronavirus spoke about the conditions at the prison.

“They are not keeping track of who is eating, who’s drinking, who is not getting out of beds,” Sammon said in September.

In 2019, DOC made national news for reports of humiliating and invasive strip searches of women and children. For several years, 8News has been covering low-staffing, security threats and allegations of discrimination within the department.

“It can get to these issues before they manifest themselves into what could become a lawsuit or injury,” Hold said.

The legislation had a lot of support in the House Public Safety Committee passing 7 to 1.
The spouses of several inmates as well as some corrections officers said something like is long overdue.

DOC has not taken a formal position on the bill. However, Del. Hope tells saids he fears the Department’s leaders are trying to quash it by suggesting the move will cost $11 million dollars to establish. Hope says he’s modeled his bill after a program in Washington state that costs $1.5 Million.

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