Virginia sheriffs, warning of overcrowding and increased security risks in their jails, today accused the state Department of Corrections of refusing to transfer hundreds of state prisoners to the prison system.
"We find this situation deplorable," the Virginia State Sheriffs' Association said in a formal statement during its annual meeting here.
Fairfax County Sheriff Wayne Huggins, a spokesman for the group, said many jails, including his own, are overcrowded and have had to make room for prisoners in classrooms, hallways, chapels and other areas within the jails.
"We have nothing else left," said Huggins, who said about 70 of his 367 inmates should be transferred to state facilities.
State officials acknowledged the problem, but quickly rejected suggestions that the state purposely had refused to transfer prisoners to either hold down its own costs or avoid new political problems in its troubled system.
"It's just wrong and inaccurate," said corrections spokesman Wayne Farrar, who disputed statistics cited by the sheriffs in a battle over numbers that continued through much of the day.
Both sides agreed that the increasing problem of overcrowding in jails and prisons is part of a nationwide trend affecting nearly all of the states.
The District is under a court order to reduce its jail population and Huggins said suburban Washington jurisdictions in Maryland also are facing overcrowded cells.
Under Virginia law, prisoners generally are supposed to be transferred to state facilities after their convictions, but can be kept in local jails if their sentences are of short duration or for other administrative reasons.
The Virginia sheriffs, who have been meeting with state officials since February, contended today that there are as many as 900 prisoners in their jails who should be transferred.
Farrar countered that the state has taken in about 1,600 prisoners since February, raising the state inmate total to 10,294 at the end of July, or 677 more than the official capacity.
The sheriffs today called on Gov. Charles S. Robb and the legislature to enact legislation that would require the state to take its prisoners from jails within 30 days of sentencing or provide "a reasonable fee" to care for the prisoners. Under current law, the state pays from $7.50 to $12.50 per day for each inmate in a local jail. Huggins said his costs are close to $48 per day.
Andrew Fogarty, Robb's secretary of public safety, said, "the sheriffs are right about overcrowding . We have had more of an influx than anyone contemplated."
But Fogarty said the state is moving as quickly as it can to absorb the prisoners and that long-range solutions may have to await an ongoing study by the legislature due later this year.
Farrar said the state has put off plans to close a deteriorated section of the State Penitentiary in Richmond. He said the department would reject suggestions by the sheriffs that general population inmates be placed in beds reserved for special use, such as those areas used for isolation of disruptive prisoners, mental wards or sick bays. "We just won't do that."
Huggins told reporters that "a bed is a bed and it's better than the floor." He said current counts showed 368 prisoners sleeping on jail floors in the state.