Virginia budget could bring increased oversight of state prisons

Virginia prisons could come under greater scrutiny because of a plan tucked into the negotiated state budget agreement that’s up for a legislative vote Wednesday. The move marks a pivot after Republican lawmakers spiked more sweeping legislation earlier this year, and a win for advocates who’ve pressed for the office’s creation during the past three years.

The budget agreement between the GOP-led House of Delegates and Democratic majority in the state Senate sets aside $250,000 for the creation of a new Office of the Department of Corrections Ombudsman. The office would inform incarcerated people, their families and corrections officers of their rights, monitor conditions in facilities and “make recommendations that would support the safety and wellbeing of inmates and employees.”

It’s not clear if the office would include staff beyond the ombudsman. The office would be advised by a committee consisting of lawmakers, advocates, Virginia Departments of Corrections staff, medical and mental health workers, formerly incarcerated people and a family member of a currently incarcerated person.

The department has come under fire and faced lawsuits for alleged substandard living conditions, deaths of incarcerated people and lack of transparency. It’s also faced criticism from current and former employees who alleged uneven disciplinary standards and poor working conditions.

The department spent $1.8 million on outside counsel in lawsuits from Sept. 30, 2021, to Oct. 31, 2022, according to public records obtained by the ACLU and reviewed by VPM News.

Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Dave Marsden (D–Fairfax) earlier this year would have created an ombudsman’s office with up to 11 assistants, at a state-estimated cost of at least $1.9 million per year. The office would have also overseen local and regional jails — oversight that didn’t make it into the budget agreement.

The bill sailed through committees with universal, bipartisan support before GOP lawmakers on the House of Delegates Appropriations Committee killed it without debate.

Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for Gov. Glenn Youngkin, said earlier this year that the governor opposed Marsden’s bill. She declined to comment on specific questions related to the ombudsman Tuesday, but previously said the department was already sufficiently overseen by federal and state entities like the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as internal audits. Advocates for the new office argued those checks were often cursory and the department shouldn’t police itself.

A spokesperson for VADOC said the department doesn’t routinely comment on pending legislation or budget proposals. The department previously said it takes accusations of abuse and wrongdoing seriously and the ombudsman’s office was unnecessary because the department already has sufficient internal and external mechanisms for accountability.

The push for an ombudsman’s office received support from the ACLU of Virginia, Americans for Prosperity Virginia and National Coalition of Public Safety Officers, a group representing corrections officers.

Ben Knotts, AFP’s state legislative director, said the ombudsman’s office was the result of bipartisan collaboration

“It will save taxpayers money, but most importantly, it will make for a safer environment for correctional officers and incarcerated Virginians and build a greater public trust in this important institution,” Knotts said.

Knotts connected the budget language to a shakeup at VDOC. Last week, Youngkin appointed Virginia Parole Board Chairman Chadwick Dotson to replace longtime VDOC Director Harold Clarke — in Knotts’ view, “promising steps for Virginia.”

Shawn Weneta, a policy strategist at the ACLU of Virginia, said in a statement that VADOC’s large budget and control over tens of thousands of incarcerated people merited closer scrutiny than the department had so far been willing to provide.

“To create a truly unbiased office, it will be crucial to ensure independent appointment of the ombudsman and that legislation is passed providing the office with the resources it needs to be effective,” Waneta said.


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