Gov. Gerald L. Baliles ordered a "no read, no release" parole policy for Virginia prison inmates today as part of a sweeping plan to combat recidivism.
"Education must be given a far higher priority in prisons," Baliles said in an announcement. He also said that Deputy Corrections Director Edward W. Murray will move up to become the state's fifth corrections director in as many years.
"I believe we should tie prison privileges to education in prison," the governor said. "I think parole should be linked to education, too. I have asked the Department of Corrections to work with the parole board to adopt a policy, in addition to all the other critieria considered, that reflects a 'no read, no release' parole standard."
Baliles offered no specifics on how the program might work or what standards would be required.
Chris Bridge, the governor's press secretary, in answer to whether a literacy test for parole would be legal, said: "Obviously it can't be a hard-and-fast rule. There are a number of factors governing parole." But she said Baliles "wants to tie program results to literacy to reduce recidivism."
Alvin Bronstein, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project in Washington, said two or three states, including Arkansas, have similar programs. "It's a reasonable requirement, and I have no problem with it so long as you make available programs to help them read, which Virginia hasn't done yet," Bronstein said.
Baliles said he had added almost $1 million to the budget for prison education programs. He said he also would announce plans soon for reading clubs, volunteer teacher programs and instructional techniques and testing in the prison system.
Baliles said that "far too many prisoners are also prisoners of illiteracy. When released, many can't function in a complex, fast-moving society. Many cannot read and write well enough to fill out job application forms or balance a checkbook. They return to what they know too well: crime and prisons. The recidivism rate reflects it. We must stop it."
Murray said the edict, which does not require legislative approval, is "what we should be doing, tying programs to tangible results. We've got a lot of time -- 10 years for many prisoners -- if they have the aptitude or ability."
Baliles said he also has ordered Murray to:
*Review security policies, including the possibility of suing architects and consultants "for designing facilities with built-in security problems." The state's Mecklenburg Correctional Center, opened in 1977 as a maximum security prison, was the scene last year of the largest escape of death-row inmates in U.S. prison history.
*Conduct more frequent checks for drugs and weapons, "with strong sanctions imposed" on inmates caught with contraband.
*Find significant jobs for all inmates. "Sweeping the chapel . . . " the governor said, "is not enough."
Murray, who has been acting director since December, replaces Allyn R. Sielaff in the $67,580-a-year post. Sielaff, who was the fourth corrections boss under then-Gov. Charles S. Robb, took a job with the juvenile court in Cleveland.
Baliles said he and Murray conducted unannounced inspections at three prisons on Sunday "to look at housing, educational and vocational operations."
The governor settled on Murray, rather than looking outside the system, after a four-hour briefing by Murray and his top aides.
Murray and Transportation and Public Safety Secretary Vivian Watts have lobbied legislative committees in recent weeks for a revised prison construction program.
Today, Baliles said, the House and Senate budget subcommittees agreed to a plan that will bring 450 new beds into use two years sooner than originally planned, at $3.4 million less than projected.
Murray, who has a bachelor's degree in social science from Norfolk State University, joined the Corrections Department in 1967 as a supervisor at a juvenile detention home in Norfolk. He subsequently directed a community youth home, was assistant and acting superintendent of the penitentiary, warden of correctional centers at Staunton and Deep Meadow, and a deputy director since 1982.
Baliles also named John W. McCluskey, the current deputy for administration, to serve in addition as chief of staff for the department. McCluskey came to Virginia from Florida in 1972, and served as dean of two community colleges before joining the executive branch in 1978.