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Group Calls For More Prison, Jail Releases Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

A coalition focused on the welfare of jail and prison inmates says Virginia officials are not doing enough to protect people who are incarcerated from contracting the coronavirus disease. 

The group, including the ACLU of Virginia, Legal Aid Justice Center and some commonwealth’s attorneys is calling for the release of inmates who are not an immediate threat to the public. 

Jayln Midgette’s father is an inmate at Buckingham Correctional Center.  She said he’s one of about 300 state prisoners who could soon be eligible for parole, because of a bill the General Assembly passed this year that the governor has yet to sign. 

“It would serve no justice if he were to die and never be home with us again, Midgette said. “He wasn’t sentenced to die.”

Governor Ralph Northam told reporters Monday he does not plan to use executive power to speed up the parole process or grant pardons during the pandemic. 

As of Thursday the Virginia Department of Corrections reported nearly 50 cases of coronavirus in state-run facilities, among inmates and staff

But the group is also concerned that local jails and courts are responding to the crisis inconsistently. Local prosecutors, like Buta Biberaj in Loudoun County, are asking the state to create a statewide standard legal response to the pandemic, so everyone is on the same page. 

“I know everybody has been calling the jails and the prisons Petri dishes. And it’s accurate,” she said. 

Biberaj said she’s working closely with the local sheriff’s office and local courts, including the general district, juvenile and domestic relations courts, to do their part in reducing the inmate population. 

“For those cases that are in the circuit court, that is not as easily done,” she said. So that’s been a very slow process and we feel that that is something that is actually contrary to the best interest of our community.”

Joseph Platania, Commonwealth’s Attorney for the City of Charlottesville, said local officials there have released 113 people from custody in the last month, bringing the jail population there from 421 to 308. 

“We are seeing the benefits of keeping jail staff, medical professionals and inmates safe and healthy while not compromising public safety,” he said.