The investigative arm of the General Assembly today issued the most blistering attack yet against Virginia's troubled prisons, saying a virtual lack of management has left them ripe for inmate escapes and uprisings.
Nearly every guard in the system is undertrained and wardens want more than nine times more new security positions than they really need, according to an unusually harsh study presented to legislators today by staff of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC).
Security lapses are so numerous that investigators themselves discovered and foiled an apparent escape scheme when they spotted a prisoner crouched behind a stairwell during a tour of the Buckingham Correctional Center in central Virginia.
The commission staff said its nearly two-year investigation was frequently hampered by blatant hostility from corrections officials.
One investigative team, hearing strange noises in a nearby wastebasket during an interview with a prison employe, discovered a hidden tape recorder that had been put there by the employe.
"That employe felt it was necessary to prove to someone that he had given us 'proper' answers," JLARC director Ray D. Pethtel told the commission today.
In another case, a warden shoved his finger in an assistant warden's face just before an interview with investigators and angrily warned, "These are the enemy, it's your job that's on the line."
Many of the findings are expected to fuel discussions of what has already become one of the most controversial issues of the legislative session: how to upgrade the state's trouble-plagued prisons in the aftermath of several serious escapes and disturbances in recent months.
The JLARC report was even harsher in its criticism of the corrections department than studies prepared several months ago by outside prison experts.
Commission investigators cited as one of their most damaging findings the lack of any written guidelines on many security issues, including how to determine the number of guards needed at each prison.
While wardens across the state have asked for a total of 405 new guard positions, the JLARC team said the wardens have no hiring guidelines on which to base those requests. The commission staff said the prisons need about 47 new guards at most.
Those findings seem to clash with the actions of newly appointed prisons chief Allyn R. Sielaff, who has ordered the Corrections Department to hire 132 new corrections officers.
"We do not believe the lack of staffing is the key problem," said Pethtel. "The problem is the gap in security policies."
The JLARC investigators said guards frequently are assigned to nonsecurity jobs such as working telephone switchboards, delivering mail and working in the prison canteen -- all jobs that they say could be handled by other prison personnel.
"We don't have to have highly trained people to be telephone operators," said Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond), chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee that will help determine how much money will be funneled into the corrections department this year.
The report also said that nearly all the 3,600 guards in the state are severely undertrained. The average guard lacks about 15 hours of the minimum 48 hours of training required by the department, according to the report.
At Mecklenburg Correctional Center in southern Virginia, where six death-row inmates escaped in May, sergeants -- who are responsible for most of the day-to-day supervision of prisoners -- receive the least amount of supervisory training, the report said.
Investigators also found rampant violations of corrections department rules barring prisoners from unsupervised access to tools, kitchen knives and medical supplies.
"The majority of institutions had tool-control practices in gross violation of Department of Corrections policy and, as a result, are rich sources for potential weapons and escape instruments," the report said, adding that inmates were in charge of tool rooms at eight prisons.
Authorities determined that the six death-row inmates who escaped from Mecklenburg last summer used tools they had obtained from the prison tool shop. At other prisons, investigators found inmates with access to sharp dental instruments and kitchen knives. At one prison, the report said an inmate was in charge of maintaining and repairing all locks on cell doors.
Investigators said they found dozens of other security lapses, including unlocked gates in internal areas, inmates who were routinely allowed to enter guard control booths and guard towers that had never been staffed at some new prisons.