by Brandon Jarvis
“No-one was sentenced to die, and everyone deserves basic healthcare and attention during this pandemic.”
Today, the ACLU of Virginia – along with coalition partners such as Legal Aid Justice Center, RISE for Youth, the Humanization Project, Southerners On New Ground – held a press conference where they demanded more accountability and data transparency in Virginia’s jails and prisons.
The coalition of groups called for the swift release of any person who is “in custody and does not pose a demonstrable, imminent threat of bodily harm to others.” The groups are also calling for accountability and data transparency from state and local officials regarding COVID-19 infections and measures being taken to keep people safe within custodial facilities.”
“We urgently need statewide action now,” said Ashna Khanna, legislative director for the ACLU of Virginia. “The actions so far from the governor and his administration do not go nearly far enough in addressing this pandemic within Virginia prisons, jails and custodial facilities.”
Additional steps discussed during the conference included making sure that misdemeanors only result in summons and the subsequent release of the offender, ensuring that releases from custodial facilities happen as quickly as possible and requiring every facility to report daily the information including the number of people tested, and how many are positive so that facilities can be held accountable.
The coalition also called for conditional pardons to be issued immediately for those with one year or less left of time to be served.
Jaylin Midgette, 18, whose father is behind bars at Buckingham correctional facility, spoke through tears about the conditions she and her family are experiencing while her father is incarcerated. “I haven’t seen him since December because our family and I cannot visit because of the virus. He is unable to social distance in prison.” she said. “What if he dies and I never see him again? He loves all of us and wants to take care of us but he can’t. There is a possibility he can come home soon, but not soon enough. He wasn’t sentenced to die.”
Cynthia Scott, an inmate at the Fluvanna Correctional Facility for Women for the last 21 years, wrote a statement that was read by her daughter during the press conference. Scott is a 58-year-old veteran with several pre-existing conditions and she said it is impossible for her and the other residents at the facility to keep themselves away from each other. Scott says she is in kidney failure and will have to begin dialysis soon.
Scott says she has lost sleep over her fears of catching the virus. She wrote that she has never needed medical attention while in the facility, but she is now on antidepressants due to the current situation.
Joseph Platania, the Commonwealth Attorney from Charlottesville, said his office has been looking at felony charges that could be reduced to misdemeanors and pleading out to time served. He stated that the police department has been working hard to only produce summons and responding to priority 1 calls.
“Prosecutors in the City of Charlottesville and the County of Albemarle, along with judges, court clerks, defense attorneys, law enforcement partners, and the superintendent of the local jail, have undertaken aggressive and proactive measures to release 113 individuals from custody, reducing our jail population from 421 to 308 in under four weeks,” Platania said. “We are seeing the benefits of keeping jail staff, medical professionals and inmates safe and healthy while not compromising public safety.”
Platania stated that his office has only had one individual return to court since beginning this process in recent weeks after being released, and that person returned to court for only a nonviolent offense.
Steve Descano, the prosecutor for the largest jurisdiction in Virginia, Fairfax County, says his office is working with the sheriff and other local officials on similar actions, but emphasizes that without a uniform statewide approach, local measures are not sufficient to address the health crisis. “I demand that our state officials show the leadership necessary to standardize Virginia’s legal response to COVID-19,” Descano said. “Now is the time. Because much like our community, our system must not only survive these troubling times, it must come out stronger in the end.”
Descano placed a heavy emphasis on the need for a statewide mandate on the approach to keeping people in these facilities safe. He acknowledged that the legal system often slips from adversarial to confrontational, and pleaded to get the message across that this is not the time for that. His office is looking to find more inmates who are eligible for early release. “But even if Virginia’s largest county does these things, it does very little if other localities fall short.”
Valerie Slater from Rise for Youth says that juveniles currently locked up in facilities are at extreme risk during this crisis due to their congregated nature in facilities. She says two juveniles in facilities across Virginia have already been diagnosed with Covid-19. Slater spoke emphatically about protecting the youth across Virginia, stating that “In this time of crisis, we must not forget about our children.”
While leaders and organizations were addressing different subsets of issues within the criminal justice system in order to save lives, they all crossed paths with the same single message: state leadership needs to do more.
Jarvisrva@gmail.com — Twitter: (@)jaaavis