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Who's Policing Our Prisons? Lawmakers Call for Greater Oversight

Patrick Hope

Virginia’s Department of Corrections spends $1.5 million each year to defend itself against lawsuits filed by prisoners.  That doesn’t include the amount of money paid to settle some of those cases.  One lawmaker thinks there’s a better way to deal with inmate complaints.

For more than a decade, Delegate Patrick Hope has been working to improve prison conditions in Virginia.  His efforts may be linked to a 70% reduction in the number of inmates held in solitary confinement.  That’s why he hears from prisoners like Glen McBride.  He’s a relatively small man – five foot nine, 165 pounds, in for committing fraud.  McBride was locked up at the state’s only private prison where he claimed inmates were denied their medication, but Medicaid was billed for the drugs.  The management company denies that charge, calling it baseless, but McBride says the complaint led guards to punish him.

“They stripped me down completely to my boxers.  They threw me in the hole," he recalls. "They said, ‘We told you to keep your f-ing mouth shut.  We’re going to teach you what happens when you don’t shut up.”

McBride was transferred to a high security prison where he says a lietenant attacked him.

“He and a sergeant beat the living (expletive deleted) out of me, while I was handcuffed and shackled.  Another unit manager had to pull him off me, and then they took me to medical. They had to keep me overnight, because they didn’t know if I had a concussion, because my head was bleeding  badly, and then they put me in the hole, so  I went to the hole in  April 30th.”

The Department of Corrections won’t comment on the case, but it attracted the attention of a group of Dutch citizens – among them Charlotta Loof.

“These are terrible human rights violations!" she says.  "In America it just goes on, and everybody knows it.  Somebody has to do something.”

She’s been writing to the Department of Corrections and various wardens, begging them to provide medical care and protection for McBride.

“The standard answer is, " I will look into it,'  and then they can do what they want.  If they say, ‘He assaulted a guard or he wasn’t obeying a guard,’ they can do whatever they want.”

McBride has shared pictures of his injuries – cuts, bruises, a broken finger and blindness in one eye.  Delegate Hope says he doesn’t know what to make of such complaints.

“I can’t tell from what is fact and what is fiction," he explains. "We frequently find out when things are a problem when a civil rights lawsuit is filed.”

When he’s toured prisons, he says, wardens roll out the red carpet, but he knows there are problems and says Virginia is the only state that has no independent oversight of its correctional centers.

“Of all the different states, we have no oversight – independent or otherwise.  It could be an ombudsman.  It could be an inspector general. It could be just a board.  We don’t have any of that. We need to do something here to take a look at what’s going on inside the prisons and can make recommendations.”

He proposed creation of an office to investigate – modeling his suggestion after a program that costs Washington State about $1.5 million.  Lawmakers supported the idea, but Hope says the Department of Corrections estimated it would cost Virginia $11 million.

“What happens is we have a Department of Planning and Budget, and they do this for any bill that they believe will have a fiscal impact.  They go to the agency that will be impacted, and so they relied on the Department of Corrections.”

Faced with the prospect of an expensive program for prisoners, legislative committees killed Hope’s proposal and a similar measure from Senator Dave Marsden.

Lawmakers agreed, however, to sit down with the Department of Corrections and figure out what oversight would really cost, and Hope says he will be back with another proposal in 2022.  

Editor's note:  After our story aired, Virginia transferred McBride to a prison in Rhode Island where officials told Loof they would assure McBride's safety.