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Va. to Rent Out Prison Beds Even as Inmates Wait for Space

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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

RICHMOND -- Virginia's cash-strapped government plans to rent 1,000 prison beds to other states to raise millions of dollars while it leaves hundreds of its own inmates in crowded local jails waiting to be moved.

The decision has angered some sheriffs, especially those from the populous areas of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads who already house hundreds of prisoners for the state for a fraction of the actual cost to local governments. At least one sheriff, in Virginia Beach, has threatened to sue the state if Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) does not take action this week.

"It's ludicrous," said Fairfax County Sheriff Stan G. Barry, who has 100 state inmates in his jail. "They are forcing me to house their prisoners. They clearly have the space. It's all a money-making proposition."

But a sluggish economy has left the state with a shortfall of more than $2 billion through 2010, translating to deep cuts for state agencies, local governments and schools.

The Department of Corrections, the largest agency in the state, with 13,000 employees, expects to make up for at least $40 million in cuts by renting out 1,000 beds.

Gene M. Johnson, director of the corrections department, defended the decision, saying he probably would have to lay off employees or close facilities if not for the out-of-state prisoners.

"It was simply a budget situation," he said. "Everybody is having budget difficulties, and we are having them as well. It was done to generate money."

So far, 296 male inmates from Wyoming are in the medium-security Pocahontas State Correctional Center in Tazewell County and the maximum-security Wallens Ridge State Prison in Wise County. The state expects to make between $14.5 million and $18.5 million each year to house the Wyoming inmates in prisons in southwest Virginia. Neither Maryland nor the District leases space to out-of-state prisoners.

Virginia began renting out prison beds a decade ago but largely abandoned the practice several years after two Connecticut inmates died and human rights groups lodged complaints of excessive force. Larry Frazier, 50, died after he was shocked repeatedly with a stun gun. David Tracy, 20, killed himself.

Virginia stopped housing out-of-state inmates in 2004, saying the space was needed for a growing inmate population.

Elizabeth Alexander, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, which filed a lawsuit in 2001 on behalf of the Connecticut inmates housed in Virginia, said she was "extraordinarily concerned" when she learned that Virginia planned to take out-of-state prisoners again.

"It's a recipe for disaster," she said. "Virginia runs among the worst, most brutal prisons in the country."

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