The Virginia Department of Corrections has cleared 230 inmates for early release in the two weeks since the General Assembly approved an emergency proposal by Gov. Ralph Northam aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons.
Of those, 130 have been released from custody as of Thursday, according to Northam’s administration.
Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said he’s satisfied with both the pace of review and the department’s ongoing efforts to contain the virus, which at last report had infected 580 prisoners and killed three.
“We’re managing it as best we can,” he said.
Lawmakers approved the early release program on April 22 when they met to consider legislative amendments put forward by Northam. It passed largely along party lines, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing.
The program gives the DOC the power to release inmates who have a year or less to serve and a record of good behavior, a category into which about 2,000 of the state’s roughly 30,000 prisoners fall, according to Northam’s administration.
It excludes anyone convicted of a Class 1 felony or a violent sex offense. Guidelines put out by prison officials say they’re considering inmates’ medical conditions when making decisions and prioritizing people convicted of non-violent offenses, felony weapons offenses, involuntary manslaughter and voluntary manslaughter.
They said inmates convicted of robbery, felony assault, abduction, murder and sex offenses would be considered last.
Lawsuits challenging confinement proceed slowly
Inmates, their family members and advocates have criticized the approach as too slow and too restrictive, arguing there are many more at-risk prisoners who are good candidates for release.
Northam, however, has resisted their calls to use his extensive pardon power to take more immediate action in more cases. And a flurry of legal actions filed on behalf of incarcerated people have moved slowly through the state and federal court system.
A group of 27 inmates filed the first of several lawsuits against Northam and DOC leaders on April 8 in federal district court. They argued that the state hadn’t done enough to protect them from the virus and that their continued confinement in crowded conditions violated their constitutional rights.
On the 20th, Judge Henry Hudson referred the case to mediation, which is still ongoing. Elliott Harding, the Charlottesville lawyer representing the prisoners, said in an email that “it’s apparent they don’t want to change any substantive policies to assist this population.”
In state court, the ACLU of Virginia asked justices on the Supreme Court of Virginia to order state and local authorities to address overcrowding that makes social distancing impossible.
“We’ve been warning the governor and other state and local officials with responsibility for custodial facilities that COVID-19 will spread like wildfire in these facilities, and, unfortunately, we’ve been proven right,” said the civil rights group’s legal director, Eden Heilman, in a statement. “People are dying and need immediate help.”
But the April 22 filing was not accepted by the clerk of the court, who cited technical problems with the way defendants are named and how they were served — issues Heilman says the ACLU is working to resolve.
Prisoners describe bleak conditions
In the interim, prisoners say they remain crowded into cramped dormitories, unable to follow social-distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
“Our building has 90 people in it — one room, we share eight sinks,” said Lawrence Church Jr., a 53-year-old inmate at Deerfield Correctional Center, where 76 inmates have tested positive and one has died. “The bunks are three feet apart exactly. … It’s kind of hard to get away from people.”
With a year-and-a-half left to serve on charges he broke into two convenience stores, he just missed the cut-off for the early release program and is instead requesting a conditional pardon from Northam in hopes that the he might be allowed to serve the remainder of his sentence on house arrest.
In his petition, he lays out the array of health ailments that make him especially vulnerable to the virus: emphysema, hypertension, cirrhosis of the liver and diabetes. He said even if he manages to avoid becoming infected with COVID-19, his diabetes has become nearly impossible to manage since the facility has gone on lockdown, creating unpredictable gaps between when meals are delivered and when he is allowed his insulin shots. He said that the meals that are delivered are often inappropriate for a diabetic — for instance, pancakes with syrup already applied.
“I don’t think my chances are very high in here because I don’t think this is going to end anytime soon,” Church said in a phone interview. “I don’t want my charges to be dismissed or forgiven – I would just like to finish my sentence in a safe place.”
Church’s lawyer, Joe Herbert, who aided him in filing the pardon petition, called it a last resort in a dire situation. “The General Assembly and the governor, they took some action and that was great, but ultimately, there are a number of vulnerable individuals who slipped through the cracks,” he said.
Moran, Northam’s secretary of public safety, said the administration discussed various cut-offs for time remaining to be served.
“We thought one year was the appropriate time,” he said. “Remember this is about trying to create space and box in the virus at our facilities. We thought this would be enough to reach our goal of insuring public safety.”