Virginia prisoners settle lawsuit challenging confinement during pandemic

Central Virginia Correctional Unit 13, a women's prison in Chesterfield, had numerous reported COVID-19 cases among inmates and staff members. (Julia Rendleman/ For the Virginia Mercury)

A group of 27 inmates and the Virginia Department of Corrections agreed to settle a lawsuit accusing the state of cruel and unusual punishment for keeping medically vulnerable inmates in crowded facilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Announced Tuesday, the agreement falls far short of the lawsuit’s initial demands, which called for immediate steps to relieve crowding, including the release of some inmates to house arrest.

But the lawyers who negotiated it said it gives them the authority to make sure prison officials uphold policies they’ve put in place to protect inmates and staff — a point of concern for many prisoners, who have said policies promising steps such as increased sanitation haven’t been enforced or implemented.

“The DOC has a lot of policies in place that aren’t being executed on the ground,” said Elliott Harding, a Charlottesville attorney who filed the lawsuit, which was later joined by the ACLU of Virginia. “We now have the ability to reach in and get transparency and see what’s happening behind a wall that’s typically very, very obfuscated.”

The Department of Corrections also lauded the agreement, but for different reasons. “We are pleased to see that after reviewing all that the DOC is doing regarding this pandemic, plaintiffs could find very little to ask for and the case will be dismissed,” said spokeswoman Lisa Kinney.

The settlement was approved and will be enforced by Judge David Novak in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Virginia prison officials struck confident tone as COVID-19 spread. Now cases are soaring.

In addition to granting the inmates’ lawyers access to records documenting compliance with safety policies and procedures, it also provides limited oversight over the department’s administration of an early-release plan approved last month.

The department agreed to publish a daily report on the number of inmates granted early release and provide a weekly report on how many inmates were reviewed, approved and denied.

The agreement also requires the department to notify inmates who are denied early release and provide written documentation outlining why. The department also agreed to change a policy that plaintiffs say narrowed eligibility to those with six months or less to serve despite the fact that lawmakers set a 12-month threshold.

As part of the agreement, Northam’s administration also agreed to establish an expedited review process for pardon applications from inmates whose petitions reference health concerns.

“The choice whether to settle a case always requires a balancing of the terms of a negotiated agreement against the risks and extended time frame of continued litigation,” said ACLU of Virginia legal director Eden Heilman. “This settlement agreement will help advocates, people who are impacted by the criminal legal system, including our clients, and the public hold the state accountable for the way it treats people in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

 

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated Federal District Judge David Novak’s title.