By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008
RICHMOND, June 18 -- Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has ordered the Department of Corrections to halt plans to rent prison beds to other states to house their inmates after sheriffs across Virginia lodged complaints about the moneymaking venture.
The decision to accept out-of-state inmates had angered sheriffs, especially those from the populous areas of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, whose crowded local jails hold hundreds of inmates awaiting beds at state-run prisons.
David Fathi, director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, who has monitored the Virginia prison system, called the decision "good for everyone concerned" including "Virginia prisoners who won't be packed in local jails" not equipped to hold them long-term.
Kaine (D) had stood by the policy in recent weeks but reversed course after The Washington Post reported that some sheriffs and human rights advocates had safety and other concerns.
Fairfax County Sheriff Stan G. Barry had considered joining a lawsuit filed by the Virginia Beach sheriff over the state's policy but said all 80 state inmates were removed from his jail days after his complaint was made public.
"The governor did not realize the magnitude of the problem," Barry said.
Kaine wrote a letter Tuesday to the Virginia Sheriffs' Association and Virginia Association of Regional Jails to tell them the state would no longer seek out-of-state inmates to offset millions of dollars in budget cuts.
Virginia will keep the 300 inmates from Wyoming who are at the Pocahontas State Correctional Center and the Wallens Ridge State Prison, both in the southwest part of the state. The number of inmates from Wyoming might increase, but no additional inmates from other states will be accepted.
"I am sensitive to and will attempt to remedy the concerns that I have received from some jails," Kaine wrote.
That decision leaves the Department of Corrections with no plan to make up $24 million in budgets cuts caused by a sluggish economy that affects all state agencies.
Gene M. Johnson, director of the corrections department, said he might lay off employees or close facilities. Already, the opening of an 800-bed wing at St. Brides Correctional Center in Chesapeake is on hold.
The Department of Corrections, the state's largest agency, with 13,000 employees, had expected to make up for at least $38 million in cuts by renting out 1,000 beds. It still expects to receive about $14 million from Wyoming in two years.
Kaine was out of the state Wednesday and could not be reached. Barry Green, deputy secretary of public safety, told the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that the administration began hearing complaints from sheriffs in the past two weeks.
"A number of sheriffs are saying the jails are dangerous to operate," he said.
Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said he was "a little upset" to learn the administration is changing its plan after the General Assembly already had approved the state budget that relied on renting prison beds for extra revenue for the Corrections Department.
"That's the plan you went with," he said. "I don't get what's changed."
Virginia houses about 33,500 inmates at 43 facilities. Currently, 1,842 inmates in 75 local and regional jails are 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 the more dangerous inmates further crowd their jails and that jails provide less access to rehabilitative and educational services.
State law requires that felons sentenced to at least one year behind bars get transferred from local jails to state prisons within 60 days.
Virginia pays sheriffs $14 a day to house state inmates (although the actual cost can be as high as $125) while collecting about $75 a day from other states to house their prisoners.
Del. Harvey B. Morgan (R-Gloucester) repeatedly asked prison officials why they would agree to take any out-of-state prisoners if state inmates need to be moved from local jails.
"What is the reason for that?" he said. "It doesn't make much sense to me."
Virginia began housing inmates from other states in 1998 after the state built and expanded a dozen prisons following the abolishment of parole and the enactment of longer sentences for some crimes.
But the inmate population did not grow as much as expected, and the state took in inmates from a half-dozen states and the District.