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Facing COVID-19 Risk, Governor Expedites Prison Reentry

Man behind podium next to ASL interpreter
Gov. Ralph Northam appointed Dr. Laurie Forlano to head a new task force assisting nursing homes through the coronavirus outbreak. (Screenshot from live stream provided by VPM)

Today, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a proposal to expedite prison reentry for anyone with a year or less left on their sentence, in order to protect a vulnerable population. “They must have demonstrated good behavior and not be a threat to public safety,” Northam said, adding that the Department of Corrections would have total discretion in who is released.

He announced the proposal at his Friday briefing, which requires approval from the General Assembly when it reconvenes on April 22. The Department of Corrections will start planning for re-entry immediately. “Reentry planning typically happens over the course of months. We’re asking our DOC to do that in a matter of weeks,” Northam said, listing challenges to reentry like a lack of stable housing, income, and medical care.

Even when reentry happens on a slower timetable, community organizations fill in substantial gaps. He called on those groups to continue their work: “That role is even more critical now and I ask that they continue to offer all services possible to help people who are released.” 

Northam also announced a new task force to protect residents at long-term care facilities in Virginia today. The measure comes as Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Henrico County reports 39 deaths, one of the largest concentrations of deaths in a U.S. long-term care facility.

“Our nursing homes and long-term care facilities are facing the same challenges as every part of the country. They need testing and PPE and the staff are overworked,” Northam said, referring to shortages of protective medical equipment. In addition, “The people who live in long term care facilities are already vulnerable to sickness.”

Dr. Laurie Forlano, deputy commissioner for public health at the Virginia Department of Health, will head the new task force. She’s being tasked to ensure nursing homes have adequate resources and staffing, and will manage communications around long-term care facilities.

Northam also gave an update on historic unemployment numbers. “Last week we had 147,369 initial unemployment claims. That means we’ve had 306,143 initial unemployment claims in the past three weeks,” he said.

The state has issued 191,000 payments totaling more than $57 million. He also announced the launch of the federal pandemic unemployment assistance program next week, increasing payments by $600 and expanding eligibility. “This program allows us to provide unemployment assistance to people who didn’t previously qualify such as gig workers, temporary workers and self employed people,” Northam said.

Workers must still apply, he noted, but the state will be reaching out to “some 75,000 Virginia workers who were previously denied unemployment assistance, many of whom held the types of jobs that do qualify under this federal program.”

With the record number of claims, telephone wait times have been long, and people trying to file online have experienced problems. Northam said they were continuing to hire more staff and increase their capacity to handle the increasing need.

*VPM News Director Craig Carper contributed to this report.