A panel of Virginia legislators today launched its first assault on the state's troubled corrections system amid partisan bickering in reaction to a series of recent breakouts and disturbances.
The meeting of a special joint committee of state senators and delegates provided a preview of what is expected to be one of the most politically volatile issues of the legislative session that opens next month.
Legislators grilled corrections officials as they waded through reports on serious flaws plaguing the state's prisons, then turned on each other in exchanges of political sniping. Some officials predict that the partisanship will escalate in a year of tightly contested races for state and legislative offices.
The committee received its first official report of mismanagement, security lapses and unqualified guards that state prison officials say allowed the escape of six death row inmates from Mecklenburg maximum security prison May 31. That breakout was followed by a riot at Mecklenburg and recent escapes from two other corrections facilities.
Some Republican officials accused the Democrat-led committee of waiting too long -- almost six months after the death row escape -- before reacting to the corrections department's problems.
Republican J. Marshall Coleman, a former state attorney general now running for lieutenant governor, testified to the committee and said it met only under pressure from Republicans. He charged that the administration of Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb "has not done its job."
"That's absolutely without basis," fumed committee chairman Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr., a Fairfax Democrat.
Now, the subject of prison problems is "Topic A in the political world," said Sen. Dudley J. Emick Jr., a Roanoke Valley Democrat.
Virtually every announced candidate for governor and lieutenant governor has pounced on the issue, vowing to funnel more money into the prison system.
"With every member of the House of Delegates running for election this year, it will be a major discussion in the General Assembly," said Emick.
Corrections officials today issued some of the strongest public indictments yet of the management of the state's prisons by top administrators and a shortage of qualified and properly-trained guards.
Members of the state Board of Correction, who presented their report to the legislative committee outlining prison problems, noted that in Virginia, officers who patrol bridges, tunnels and college campuses are subject to more stringent hiring requirements than a guard for a maximum security prison.
Despite their eagerness to address the issue, which been an embarrassment to the Robb administration, lawmakers say there will be no easy solution to the prison system's continuing problems.
Legislators said giving the corrections department more money won't necessarily improve the situation. The corrections department currently is unable to fill 119 corrections officers jobs already approved by the General Assembly, according to Gartlan. About 30 of those positions remain vacant at Mecklenburg, he said.
That has "created the potential for trouble at Mecklenburg" and other state prisons, said Allyn R. Sielaff, the newly-appointed chief of the state corrections system who took the job two weeks ago following the resignation of Robert M. Landon.
Sielaff said the isolated location of most state prisons and the difficulty of the jobs creates major problems in recruiting new guards.
"We're going to be reluctant to give money for more guards in instances where it's already been budgeted and hasn't been spent," said Sen. L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond, a member of the committee and a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.
George M. Stoddart, Robb's press secretary, said today that the governor would not disclose his plans for the corrections department until his State of the Commonwealth address next month. However, Stoddart said, "it is safe to assume that there will be more money for corrections."
Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles, an unannounced Democratic candidate for governor, already has suggested that part of the state's expected $150 million surplus be used to increase guards' salaries and for other corrections improvements.