Several inmates who will be transferred next week from county lockups in six Virginia jurisdictions to the new Peumansend Creek Regional Jail here will find that their cells are carpeted and have a television and telephone--but don't have any locks.
The 336-bed jail, which officially opened today on the grounds of the Fort A.P. Hill military reservation, is part of an effort to put more emphasis on rehabilitation for inmates sentenced to county jails.
They'll be taught self-sufficiency and job skills, and their progress at the jail will be rewarded with additional privileges. Northern Virginia officials said yesterday that they hope Peumansend will become a model for county jails, a place where inmates "will be held responsible for past crimes and become responsible for their future lives."
The project was launched more than 10 years ago as a way for several Virginia jurisdictions to alleviate crowding in local jails, where many inmates serve sentences of less than a year but others remain longer. Peumansend was built by the cities of Alexandria and Richmond and by Arlington, Caroline, Loudoun and Prince William counties. Officials decided as they planned the jail that they wanted to do a better job of preparing inmates for release.
"We do a real disservice when we lock up an inmate . . . and then let them out and expect them to be able to take care of themselves," said Sandra Thacker, the new jail's superintendent. "We're trying to keep them out of jail and get them out of the criminal justice system by providing them with the everyday skills they will need.
"This is very, very different," Thacker said. "This is not your typical jail."
Peumansend looks more like a drug rehabilitation center or a military academy than a jail. It has large, open "day rooms," classrooms and a computer teaching center. Close to half the cells, for minimum-security inmates, do not have locks. There is a barbershop. Each inmate will have a key to his own mailbox, and inmates will be able to stroll down "the Boulevard," an open-air concrete walkway that connects the buildings in the compound.
Peumansend is the first jail of its kind in Virginia, which is known for its Spartan super-max state prisons. The jail was built for $18.4 million--with half the funding coming from the state and half from the six localities.
Prince William County Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) said she views the money spent more as an investment in the community than as a cost of housing criminals.
"It's an opportunity to see something new, such as the training, the rehabilitation that will take place here," Barg said. "The inmates will not sit idle, and when they are released they certainly will be taxpayers and not tax burdens."
Lawrence D. Hughes, city manager in Manassas, said the project is "unique to the state, but not a new idea." Jurisdictions across the country have been working with similar facilities, such as the jail in Las Vegas and jails across Texas, where job skills have been emphasized over punishment.
"Peumansend is somewhat contrary to the current trend of penalty-based institutions," Hughes said. "It will be a place to try out new ideas."
Arlington County Sheriff Thomas N. Faust said Peumansend also will act as a safety net for the six jurisdictions, a place that will be able to handle any overflow from their jails.
Thacker said the jail, which will accept only nonviolent offenders who have been sentenced, probably will reach capacity a few days after it begins accepting inmates, who will be able to earn their way into the nicer, minimum-security rooms if they succeed in the program.
"Typically, we want jail to be harsh and terrible, and we hope people don't want to go back," Thacker said. "But, of course, there is a fallacy in that, because those jails are filling up with people who keep returning."