From Del. Patrick Hope:
Delegate Patrick A. Hope Joins Prison Reform Advocates on Need for Independent Oversight of Virginia’s Prisons
Richmond, VA – Delegate Patrick A. Hope (D-47) held a press conference today regarding HB 655 which would create the Office of the Department of Corrections Ombudsman and a Corrections Oversight Committee. HB 655 authorizes the ombudsman to monitor conditions of confinement and assess compliance with applicable federal, state, and local rules, regulations, policies, and best practices as related to the health, safety, welfare, and rehabilitation of inmates under the custody of the DOC. The Corrections Oversight Committee will be responsible for selecting the Department of Corrections Ombudsman.
Delegate Hope joined Molly Gill of FAMM, Vishal Agraharkar of the ACLU of Virginia, and Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass of the Interfaith Action for Human Rights in support for this bill.
“The Ombudsman’s primary purpose is to ensure the DOC is maintaining a high-quality, best practices prison system and to eliminate problems through corrective measures before they develop into costly litigation,” said Delegate Hope when discussing the main components of HB 655.
Molly Gill, FAMM’s Vice President of Policy, praised the bill saying, “Virginia’s prisons are black holes. Loved ones go in, and so little information gets back out. Having an independent office to inspect facilities, investigate complaints, and share the results with the public will make prisons better, and safer places for people to live and work. It is simply astonishing that the Department of Corrections, with its $1.5 billion dollar annual budget and tens of thousands of Virginians in its care, does not already have this kind of transparency and accountability.”
Vishal Agraharkar, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Virginia, applauded the bill saying, “The Department of Corrections is in desperate need of meaningful, independent oversight. H.B. 655 is critical, common-sense legislation that will not only result in more humane and safe prisons for the tens of thousands of Virginians who live or work there, but will establish transparency, accountability, and better stewardship of the $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds used to run the agency.”
Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, Senior Advisor Criminal Justice at Interfaith Action for Human Rights, also praised the bill saying, “This office will serve as the key accountability center for taxpayers, the incarcerated, and impacted families. The long history of abusive practices in Virginia prisons is well documented but without governmental oversight and accountability to the public, it is a practice that continues to live in the shadows. The creation of this department will ensure transparency in the use of taxpayer funds, living and working conditions in detention facilities, and provide a vehicle to investigate claims of mismanagement and abuse.”
Gin Carter, Co-Founder of the Humanization Project, who was not present also said “Through our work humanizing people behind bars, we have heard stories, time and time again, that show us the real need for oversight for Virginia’s department of corrections. We have heard of so many issues that we have lost count, but some stick in your mind as they are so extreme like saran-wrapping people into their cells during covid in almost 100 degree heat with no water. To have an entity in charge of the health, wellbeing, and lives of thousands of people with no external oversight is simply unacceptable.”
In speaking on the necessities of HB 655 Delegate Hope concluded, “In Virginia, we have talked for too long about bringing transparency and accountability into government. The DOC is the only place in all of the government without independent oversight and it is time that has changed. Every agency in Virginia must be transparent and accountable to the public in which they serve. Passage of this law will give all Virginia taxpayers and families with loved ones in prison that assurance.”
This legislation would have start-up costs of $3.4 million with an annual budget of $1.6 million. The proposed DOC operating budget for FY 2023 is 1.5 billion. HB 655 would represent less than .01 percent of DOC’s budget for oversight.
Patrick A. Hope is a member of the Virginia General Assembly as the Delegate from the 47th District representing part of Arlington County. He serves on the House Health, Welfare and Institutions, Courts of Justice, and Public Safety committees.