Virginia must hire more than 200 new guards and spend several million dollars for new equipment and "urgent renovations" to improve the security of its troubled prisons, according to an internal memo written by the state's corrections director, whose resignation was accepted last week.
The memo was released today by former state Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman of McLean, a likely Republican candidate for governor next year, who said at a news conference that the May 31 escape of six death-row inmates from Virginia's Mecklenburg prison had made the state "the laughingstock of the nation."
Coleman has been a leading critic of the handling of prison escapes and inmate disturbances by Gov. Charles S. Robb, who defeated Coleman in the 1981 governor's race. The prisons issue has been a perpetually nagging problem in Robb's three years in office, an issue for which his administration has drawn criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike.
"Today . . . the problems of June remain the problems of November," Coleman said. "The Robb administration appears no further along in taking the necessary steps to correct the problems that are inherent in its correctional system."
Robb announced the resignation of state corrections director Robert M. Landon on Friday, one day after the escape of five prisoners from the Nottoway Correctional Center about 45 miles southwest of Richmond. All five have since been captured.
Landon, who wrote the memo, originally submitted his resignation on Nov. 16, while Robb was on a European trade mission.
However, Landon's resignation was not enough to satisfy Coleman. "The governor has all the authority needed to take action," said Coleman, who suggested Robb should fund the security improvements from part of the state's budget surplus, now estimated by some officials at more than $150 million.
Included in Landon's Oct. 5 memo are numerous requests for razor-sharp wiring around some prisons, $684,800 in mandatory renovations, several closed-circuit monitoring systems and the reassignment of uniformed officers who now do administrative paperwork that could be done by clerk typists.
An internal Board of Corrections report released Nov. 8 had faulted Landon and his department for "complacency" that led to the Mecklenburg escape and other problems, including an Aug. 4 inmate hostage situation that ended peaceably. The board also said it wanted more administrative control over the department.
Coleman today repeated his call for an independent panel of Virginians to review the state's prison problems and report to the legislature in January.
Robb, as he has all year, today turned aside questions about Coleman's statements, though an aide to Robb was present and taped Coleman's remarks.
Allyn R. Sielaff, deputy secretary of transportation and public safety, who was named by Robb to replace Landon, said the memo was written in response to security needs recommended by wardens and regional corrections officials after a July 1 meeting with Landon. He stressed that some of the recommendations already have been acted on, including the purchase of cameras at Mecklenburg.
Sielaff said that in some instances the governor's budget steering committee told the department recently to modify its requests because of inconsistent requests from similar-sized prisons and to report back in early December.
Coleman, citing "the danger to the public," said Robb should act now, before further reports, even if those later reports should say the state overreacted and hired too many guards. "The pressure ought to be on him to take that chance," Coleman said.
According to the memo, the Mecklenburg maximum-security prison itself needs almost $1 million worth of equipment and new guards, including two new captains who would oversee a more secure command center that would be constructed outside the prison's gates.
Landon said some guards at Mecklenburg do prisoners' laundry when inmates are restricted to their cells during tight security, such as after the death row escape.