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Opinion Virginia’s corrections system is a model for other states

Red Onion State Prison in Wise County., Va.
Red Onion State Prison in Wise County., Va. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via Associated Press)

Brian J. Moran is Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security.

Correctional systems are often targets of criticism and skepticism based on the nature of their work. But Virginia has maintained the lowest recidivism rate in the country for two years in a row because of the Virginia Department of Corrections’ world-renowned and nationally recognized correctional practices and offender reentry programs.

In 2011, under the leadership of Director Harold W. Clarke, the Virginia Department of Corrections initiated a multiyear transformation and has since undergone a wholesale culture change. The department consistently seeks opportunities to enhance existing practices. Now, other states and countries visitregularly to observe our practices and to understand how we have achieved success. The State Department has even partnered with the Virginia Department of Corrections to train other countries’ correctional leaders.

The culture change within the Virginia Department of Corrections began at Red Onion, Virginia’s ighest-security prison. The facility was built in the late 1990s as a maximum-security, lockdown facility. Offenders housed at Red Onion have murdered, raped and attacked others, including inmates. There was concern among staff when Clarke decided to transform Red Onion. At the time, 511 offenders were in long-term restrictive housing, separated from the general population. Staff feared that increased movement and access to programs would jeopardize safety.

Clarke created a new class of correctional officers, called treatment officers, trained to run various programs for offenders. Previously, offenders within Red Onion did not have access to programs, even though many were released to the community directly from restrictive housing. Clarke also created a step-down program that would incentivize good behavior and allow offenders to work their way back into the general prison population. He created a new security level between segregation and general population. He opened a school at Red Onion, offering various classes taught by certified teachers, and provided a well-stocked library.

With support from the governor and legislature, the Virginia Department of Corrections removed all seriously mentally ill offenders from restrictive housing. Offenders at Red Onion who have a mental illness are now able to engage in therapeutic activities, such as tending gardens.

Now, there are only 98 offenders in long-term restrictive housing, down 81 percent from 2011. In 2010, 67 offenders in long-term restrictive housing were released directly to our communities; in 2017, only one was.

Virginia was recognized by the Justice Department in 2016 for its ability to safely move inmates in its highest-security prisons out of long-term restrictive housing. Our step-down program was one of only five states’ programs lauded by the Justice Department. The step-down program also received the national State Transformation in Action Award from the Council of State Governments’ Southern Legislative Conference in 2013.

In addition to its work in high-security facilities, the Virginia Department of Corrections has implemented a plethora of programs and checks-and-balances systems at lower-security facilities to ensure that offenders placed in restrictive housing have increased out-of-cell time and spend as little time in restrictive housing as possible. Restrictive housing is not a punishment. It is used only after a due-process hearing and when the offender’s presence in the general population poses an unacceptable risk to self, other offenders or institutional staff.

Clarke has created a healing environment within the Virginia Department of Corrections by instilling a culture in staff and offenders alike that motivates them to create and foster positive and progressive changes. He operates from the principle that how we treat and engage offenders on the inside affects our communities on the outside; it affects the victims and their families, families of offenders and the men and women in our care, 92 percent of whom will one day be our neighbors.

I am proud to have the opportunity to work with the best director of corrections in the nation. I have the utmost confidence that his work, and the work of our dedicated corrections professionals, will continue to produce the best possible outcomes for our communities.

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