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Proposed legislation would establish an ombudsman for Virginia prisons

Lawmakers are about to consider creating new oversight at prisons across Virginia.

Virginia is one of the few states in the country that does not have independent oversight over its prisons. Now, critics say maybe that's why Virginia prisons are hit with so many lawsuits about mistreatment or shoddy medical care.

Lawmakers are about to consider creating a new ombudsman to provide accountability and transparency. Vishal Agraharkar is senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Virginia.

"It would have the power to inspect its facilities," Agraharkar says. "The ability to hear directly and confidentially from incarcerated people or correctional officers who have concerns about the conditions inside those facilities and then to investigate those concerns and the responsibility to help resolve those concerns, recommend improvements and provide transparency about the state of our prisons."

The Department of Corrections says it already has oversight from the American Correctional Association and the Office of Inspector General. But advocates for the bill say none of that is independent oversight.

David Smith is chairman of the Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement.

"There's no actual official agency or official person looking to make sure what's happening behind these closed doors, what's happening behind these walls, is actually what they say is happening," says Smith.

Setting up a new office will cost money, and staffing it will be a recurring cost. But advocates for the bill say it'll probably end up saving money in the end by preventing settlements in cases that cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.