RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Inmates and family members who spoke anonymously to 8News say an early release plan proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam gave them false hope. As conditions behind bars are criticized during the COVID-19 pandemic, some say additional criteria set by the Virginia Department of Corrections is making it “impossible” for many eligible inmates to actually get out of prison.
Less than a week ago, the General Assembly approved a budget amendment giving VADOC unprecedented authority to release inmates with less than a year left to serve. The goal was to free up space in tightly packed facilities where social distancing is a challenge.
On Monday, Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran told 8News that 62 inmates have been approved so far. Moran originally said this amendment would apply to about 2,000 people. When asked if all of them would realistically be released, he said that was a preliminary estimate that people should expect to fluctuate.
“We’ve had two deaths and so we’re trying to take some extraordinary measures but, at the same time, there’s always some risk and we’re trying to reduce that risk to a level that’s reasonable,” Moran said.
- The inmate’s release date must be calculated and verified for April 2021 or before
- The inmate’s medical condition will be considered
- Early release does not apply to inmates convicted of a Class 1 felony or sexually violent offense
- Inmates with non-violent offenses will be prioritized
- After that, consideration will be based on the seriousness of the current offense in descending order as follows: felony weapons offenses, involuntary manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter, robbery, felony assault, abduction, murder and sex offense
- An inmate has to have exhibited good behavior while behind bars
- Inmates must have no active detainer
- Inmates must have a medium or low risk of reoffending as identified by the COMPAS instrument
“We’re trying to balance the best we can public safety and the health of correctional officers and our inmates who are in our custody,” Moran said. “I do think this is the responsible approach as opposed to a sweeping release which many have called for.”
“We’re just not going to do that. That frankly could be a dangerous and irresponsible approach,” Moran continued.
When the budget amendment passed in Virginia’s House of Delegates, House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert’s office issued a statement criticizing the plan.
“Today House Democrats authorized Governor Northam to grant early release from prison to hundreds of murderers, armed robbers and burglars. Over a third are deemed by the state to be at a high risk to reoffend. Flinging open the prison doors might make these criminals safer, but the put our communities at risk at the worst possible time.”House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert
“You can list violent crimes but they’re about to get out within a year regardless of the offense,” Moran said in response. “We’ve asked DOC to prioritize non-violent offenses.”
Moran acknowledged that expediting a process that normally takes months and in some cases years is risky, especially at a time when community resources are strained.
“For anyone being released at any time it can be difficult. There’s mental health issues, substance abuse issues, housing, employment and of course all of that has been disrupted,” Moran said.
Moran said they’re pre-screening inmates to make sure they have a viable home plan in place and access to health care in their communities.
Some who contacted 8News accused VADOC of refusing to help inmates through the process. “Inmates are being told that prison officials won’t help them get documents,” said one email from the wife of an inmate at Coffeewood Correctional Center.
Moran said Medicaid and DMV services normally provided by VADOC in preparation for release have been disrupted. He said a variety of state agencies have temporarily stopped providing assistance to inmates as they try to protect their own employees amid the pandemic.
“That’s of no fault to DOC,” Moran said.
Moran said inmates that are denied can appeal the decision but there is a deadline approaching. VADOC has until the end of the governor’s “State of Emergency” to approve people. The order is currently set to expire on June 10 but Moran said that date could change depending on the timeline to reopen the economy.
The concerns over early release come as Virginia’s Corrections Officers’ Union is calling on the governor to start widespread testing in state prisons for all officers, staff, offenders and juvenile justice residents. After a second inmate passed away this weekend from COVID-19, the union said officers are scared but afraid to speak out.
Moran called testing to this point a “success story,” citing his collaboration with the Virginia Department of Health to increase “point prevalence” testing at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center. He said they also tested every inmate and officer at Deerfield Correctional Center, a facility with a high number of elderly offenders with underlying health conditions.
When asked if there will come a time when all inmates can be tested, Moran said, “We’d like to but with the current testing capacity we’re just not there yet. Our goal is to continue to increase testing in correctional facilities.”
Moran said VADOC has more than 30,000 inmates and about 13,000 employees.
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