Board Weighs Suing State Over Crowded Jails
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By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Fairfax County is considering a lawsuit against Virginia if the state goes through with plans to rent 1,000 prison beds to other states while leaving hundreds of its own inmates in crowded local jails at local expense.

Supervisors agreed yesterday to look into the possibility of joining with Virginia Beach, the state's second-largest jurisdiction, where Sheriff Paul J. Lanteigne has said he will sue if Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) does not act this week. Lanteigne confirmed yesterday that he would file the suit today.

"The state has always used our local jails as a way of avoiding the cost of putting state inmates in state prison, where they belong," said Fairfax Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully). "Now, to add insult, the state is going to take their excess prison capacity and rent it to other states. That's like kicking you when you're down."

At issue are state plans to raise millions of dollars by renting excess prison space to other states. The program would help Virginia's cash-strapped state government contend with a shortfall of more than $2 billion through 2010 by raising as much as $40 million.

But it also revives a long-standing practice of housing out-of-state inmates that has been criticized not only by local governments that bear the cost of keeping state prisoners in local jails but also by human rights advocates who say the practice turns prisons into warehouses that treat inmates as commodities.

Gene M. Johnson, director of Virginia's Department of Corrections, defended the decision, saying the budget environment probably would have forced him to lay off employees or close facilities if not for the out-of-state prisoners. Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey added that Kaine is standing by the department's decision and said legal action was not necessary.

"The Department of Corrections is working with the sheriff to try to satisfy him and settle this issue," Hickey said.

Frey and the other Fairfax supervisors instructed county officials yesterday to look into the possibility of joining Virginia Beach's legal action. Fairfax currently houses about 100 state inmates at a cost of $125 a day each. The state pays the county $14 a day for keeping each inmate.

Virginia charges other states $75 a day to house their inmates.

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 from housing the Wyoming inmates in prisons in southwest Virginia.

Neither Maryland nor the District leases space to out-of-state prisoners.

Virginia houses 33,500 inmates at 43 facilities. As of May 19, almost 1,700 inmates in 75 local and regional jails were waiting to be moved to a state prison.

Sheriffs have complained for at least three decades about the large number of state inmates in local jails, which are supposed to house defendants awaiting trial and those sentenced for minor crimes. They argue that more dangerous inmates are crowding their jails and that the jails provide less access to rehabilitative and educational services than do state prisons.

Many sheriffs, including those in Fairfax and Arlington counties, have sued the state to force officials to act. State law requires that felons sentenced to at least one year behind bars get transferred from local jails to state prisons within 60 days.

Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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