RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Lawmakers will vote on creating an independent office to oversee Virginia’s Department of Corrections (VADOC), a long-sought effort one advocate called a crucial first step to help shed light on what happens “behind closed doors” at state prisons.

Virginia’s budget deal includes a proposal to set aside $250,000 to fund an Office of the Department of Corrections Ombudsman and create a Corrections Oversight Committee made up of lawmakers, people formerly incarcerated in Virginia and other stakeholders to advise it.

If approved by state lawmakers during Wednesday’s special session — and eventually Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) — the ombudsman’s office would monitor prison conditions, check whether facilities follow the proper rules and make recommendations.

“VADOC has an annual budget of $1.5 billion and total control over the lives of approximately 25,000 Virginians, yet it doesn’t have to share almost any information with the people who fund it: taxpayers,” said ACLU of Virginia Policy and Advocacy Strategist Shawn Weneta in a statement Tuesday.

“Neither the public, the media, nor even elected officials really know what goes on behind prison walls,” Weneta added. “That’s why lawmakers’ first step towards creating meaningful oversight of VADOC is so significant.”

A similar Democrat-backed proposal for a prison ombudsman was rejected by a Republican-led Virginia House committee earlier this year, following concerns from VADOC that the bill from state Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) would create “another layer of government, in terms of having oversight of the department.”

The bill, which passed out of the Virginia Senate 39-0, would have created a prison ombudsman office and oversight committee similar to the ones proposed in the budget agreement that lawmakers will vote on during Wednesday’s special session. Marsden’s office did not respond to a request for an interview or comment Tuesday.

Kyle Gibson, a VADOC spokesperson, wrote in an email that the department “does not routinely comment on proposed or pending budget proposals or legislation.”

Prison reform advocates and groups have continued to push for more oversight of Virginia state prisons amid reports of staffing issues, overdoses, deaths and other issues that sparked heavy backlash, including when an 8-year-old girl was strip-searched in 2019 when trying to visit her father at Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn.

The 2022 death of an intellectually disabled man incarcerated at a Virginia prison has led the FBI to investigate, according to reporting from The Associated Press.

“Everyone’s safety – both prison staff and people who are incarcerated – depends on independent oversight,” Weneta continued. “It’s thanks to bipartisan support from legislators in both the House and the Senate that this budget, once signed, will finally give Virginians the first glimmer of access to what the largest agency in the Commonwealth does behind closed doors.”

Specifics on the proposed office, including how many staff members it would have, were not included in the budget language. Weneta said it would be vital to ensure that the ombudsman was independently appointed and had the needed resources “to create a truly unbiased office.”

Under the budget proposal, the prison ombudsman and their staff would have the same authority to access Virginia Department of Corrections facilities and records as the state inspector general’s office has when conducting inspections of licensed mental health treatment units in state prisons.

According to the budget, here are the other potential responsibilities for the ombudsman:

  • provide information to inmates, family members, Department of Corrections employees, and others regarding the rights of inmates and employees
  • monitor conditions of confinement, assess compliance with existing policies and best practices, and make recommendations to facilities
  • provide technical assistance to support inmate self-advocacy
  • establish procedures to gather stakeholder input into the Ombudsman’s activities
  • make recommendations that would support the safety and wellbeing of inmates and employees

The ombudsman’s office would develop short- and long-term strategic plans using information from its VADOC visits, at least two public meetings, the best practices from other states and input from stakeholders, the budget deal states.

The plans would include procedures on how to coordinate with the state inspector general’s staff and VADOC and have potential legislative and budget recommendations to support the ombudsman’s office’s goals.

The Corrections Oversight Committee, a panel with 13 voting members, would advise, assist and provide guidance to the ombudsman, the state budget agreement states.

The prison ombudsman would need to provide a report on its initial activities and strategic plan to the governor and the Virginia General Assembly by Nov. 15, 2024.