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Law Prof Warns Prisons Will Become Viral Hot Spots

Washington & Lee

The number of COVID cases in Virginia prisons has been rising steadily, with 200 inmates and guards now infected and a 49-year-old prisoner dead.  Public health experts say jails and prisons are petri dishes for the virus, and some states have freed thousands of prisoners, but Virginia is moving slowly on that front.

Greg Walker went to prison more than 40 years ago for a murder he says he did not commit.  Law students at Washington and Lee agreed.

“They finally found my transcript, which was missing since ’84 in the commonwealths attorney’s office," Walker explains.  "They went over it with a fine-toothed comb and stated I shouldn’t even have been locked up.”

In February he was paroled, but it took a month to complete the paperwork, and by then infectious disease experts like Dr. Scott Hysell at UVA were warning that COVID-19 could spread rapidly through prisons and jails.

“These are populations that share eating and sleeping facilities," he says. "There’s overcrowding.  There are limitations to sanitation and disinfecting, and ultimately there is substandard medical care in many cases.”

Regional jails were freeing hundreds of people, and Greg Walker – whose relatives had died while he was locked up – couldn’t find a place to live.  He had funds in his prison account for a damage deposit and first month’s rent, but the state wouldn’t give him the money until he was released, and he couldn’t be released until he had a place to go.

Also hoping to be freed – about 16-hundred prisoners who are eligible for geriatric parole.  Many have medical problems that put them at increased risk for death if they catch COVID, but Governor Northam warned that without good preparation, inmates might end up back in prison after committing new crimes.

“Virginia is proud that for four years we have had the lowest recidivism rate in the country, and one of the reasons for that is because we do a lot of preparation – making sure they have a roof over their head, making sure that they have workforce training, making sure that they have access to adequate healthcare.”

At Washington and Lee’s law school, Professor David Bruck scoffed at that claim.  First, he said, the lack of returning prisoners at state correctional centers was not due to good training and placement programs.

“If you never release anybody, your recidivism rate would be zero.  Our system releases very few people and then brags about the fact that there’s a very low recidivism rate. These people are not a risk to anyone.  They have long since aged out of being violent offenders.”

And Bruck argues this is no time to delay.

“This is a matter of life and death, and these people were not sentenced to death. In a month or two the prisons are going to be like the nursing homes are now, where half the population is dying.”

The state’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, said it would be wrong to free some people in the midst of a pandemic.

“Services have been disrupted: mental health, substance abuse, housing as well as employment," he told reporters.  "We’re addressing this very humanely, very responsibly.”

But – again – Bruck was skeptical, noting many inmates would have the support of relatives.

“A lot of them have families who have been crusading and begging and pleading for them to be paroled so they could come home.”

And for those with no place to go, he suggests the state pay for short-term housing – saving lives and money.

“It costs $30,000 a year to keep someone in prison, and we’re not willing to spend a quarter of that or an eighth of that to make sure that they have a room to live in outside when they can be safely released.”

This week the legislature will vote on whether to free inmates early if their release date falls within the next year, but that still leaves people like Greg Walker waiting as public health experts warn of a coming epidemic behind bars – an outbreak that will come from and be spread further through the communities where prison staff live. 

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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