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Few Prisoners Get Early Release Promised by the State

Glenda Desper

To reduce the risk of coronavirus in prisons, the legislature said wardens should consider release of anyone due to get out within the next year.  Officials estimated 2,000 people might be eligible, but so far less than 200 have been freed.  The governor has also pledged to speed up review of pardon requests if prisoners have certain medical conditions, but the state won’t say how many clemency requests it has cleared. 

If ou’re stuck in a crowded state prison, suffering from a medical condition that puts you at increased risk for death if you catch COVID, that’s cruel and unusual punishment.  So said the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections.  To avoid a long and expensive trial, the state agreed to a settlement, and Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran declared victory.

“The settlement agreement I’m very pleased with," he told reporters. "It essentially memorializes much of what DOC is already doing – all the hygiene, the soap, the personal protective equipment they;’re distributing they’ve been distributing.  They’ve gone to extraordinary steps following CDC guidelines, and the court agreed.”

Not so said the ACLU’s Claire Gastanaga.  She told RadioIQ the federal court never made any determination about how well the department of corrections was doing, and the court has imposed many requirements on the state – including speedy consideration of pardon requests from people who are especially vulnerable to coronavirus.  

Keith Hill is one of those.  He’s in prison for conspiracy to steal a shipment of cigarettes worth $12,000 from a warehouse in Roanoke.  At the time, he was working two jobs, seven days a week, and was lured by the promise of easy money. 

“I didn’t really need to do it," he recalls. "It was just something stupid. Do I regret it?  Absolutely.”

Instead, he was sentenced to more than 60 years behind bars.

“Larceny in Virginia carries 1-20 years," he explains. "Conspiracy carried 1-20, and then the burglary of a business carried 20 years.”

Now, Hill fears he could be facing the death penalty.  As an African-American male, 64, with high blood pressure, he’s at increased risk for a deadly case of COVID.

“If I get sick in here it may be disastrous for me,” he says.

Eddie DeHart is locked up for a series of burglaries in Christiansburg.  Fortunately, no one got hurt,

“I’ve never committed a crime of violence against anybody,” he told RadioIQ.

But he was sentenced to 25 years and is now fighting stage four lung cancer, making it hard to work or even walk.

Also in the pile of pleas for clemency – Andre Daniels, convicted of carjacking and fighting a deadly case of blood cancer. 

“I had tumors in my body," Daniels says. "I could feel them – especially one the size of a potato.”

His best hope for a cure is a stem cell transplant he can only get if released from prison.  His worst fear, dying of COVID while waiting for an answer from Ralph Northam.

Of course if the governor takes time to review clemency requests from people concerned about COVID, it could further delay cases like that of Jamie Desper – doing time for having sex with his 18-year-old girlfriend.

“I met her thru a friend that worked with her at the Home Depot," he remembers. "We had texted back and forth.  We’d talked on the phone and stuff like that, and we were actually in a relationship when I decided to go pick her up.”

He claims she was unhappy living with her parents, so he decided to help her find another place to live.  The local women’s shelter was full, so they went to a motel.  Desper’s girlfriend told police they were in love and wanted to get married, but because she had an intellectual disability, the law says she can’t give consent for sex.  What the court didn’t know, says Jamie’s mother Glenda Desper, is that he is also intellectually disabled.

"He’s just like she was, and I don’t see where it states anywhere in te law that two people with disability can’t have a relationship if they’re both of age," she argues.

Now in the Augusta Correctional Center for rape, Jamie Desper has been waiting more than five years for a response to his plea for clemency.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief