Families Baffled by Prison Release Dates

Aug 12, 2016

Virginia does not offer parole to people in its prisons, but it does have something called “good time,” -- a certain number of days subtracted from a sentence for each 30 days of good behavior behind bars.  That may sound simple, but every day people call to complain that their calculations don’t match those of the Virginia Department of Corrections.  Sandy Hausman reports:

Having a relative in prison is heart-breaking, but in most cases there is comfort in knowing they will get out.  Here in Virginia, however, that comfort has given way to confusion as families struggle to find out when their loved one will be coming home.

This man, who asked that we not use his name, says his son is in for five years, but he’s been a model prisoner, eligible for 2.25 days of good time for each 30 days he spent in a local jail and 4.5 days of good time for each 30 in state prison.

“This is basically simple math.  That’s all it is -- simple math, and we use their procedural guidelines from  the DOC website and from the Virginia code.”      

But when he and his wife crunched the numbers, they concluded their son should be released 40 days earlier than the state had said.  The prisoner asked a lawyer to contact the Department of Corrections.  He did so in July of last year, but got no response.  In March, the prisoner’s parents complained, and a letter was sent to their son informing him that state calculations were correct. The inmate’s father was perplexed.

“It doesn’t make sense to us, and when we asked for explanation from people in the DOC of how you came up with that figure, we were told it’s too complicated for you to understand.”

This woman, who also requested anonymity, heard a similar line when she pointed out a 30-day discrepancy in when her son, a former Richmond resident, should be freed.

“I spoke to Court and Legal a couple of times, and they told me that the system was very difficult, and I probably couldn’t understand it.  I said, ‘Okay, will you look at his computations and look at your system and tell me where the difference lies?’ and they never would do that.”

Deeply frustrated, the first parent, who lives in Hampton Roads, decided to visit Richmond and provide the department with key documents, but when he arrived at Court and Legal Services – the department that deals with calculating release dates -- he was told he could not see someone without calling first.  He took his cell phone to the parking lot.

Credit Creative Commons

“I called three, four, five times and got an answering machine, and then finally I did get an answer, and I explained what we were there for.  We brought documentation -- letters back and forth.”

He was told the documents could not be dropped off – that they must be mailed to Correspondent  Services.  The other parent kept calling and finally got a promise from the Director of Offender Management -- Jim Parks -- to investigate.

“And he made arrangements to call me back on January 6 at 9 a.m.  He never did call me back, and I’ve never been able to speak to him since.”

In response to our questions, the Department of Corrections sent a copy of its policy on good time – a document that is 14 pages long. Wendy Brown, who heads Court and Legal Services, expressed full confidence in her calculations but admits there’s a good deal of public confusion.

"How often have you received a letter of phone call from a family saying we think your calculation is wrong?  Every day.  No one believes their release date is correct.  No one believes it. Is that a problem?  Not for me."

But it could be a problem for the state, which is spending more than a billion dollars a year on corrections.  In our next report, we ask one of Virginia’s top mathematicians to look at the numbers and tell us if the state’s calculations make sense.  

Part Two

To encourage good behavior in its prisons, Virginia will reduce a model inmate’s sentence by 4.5 days for every thirty days they serve.  That sounds simple, but many people contend the Department of Corrections is miscalculating – holding prisoners longer than it should.  In part two of our report, Sandy Hausman pinpoints the source of confusion.

Every day, families call or write to the Department of Corrections, complaining that the release date for a loved one is incorrect.  They’ve done the math and are convinced their friend or family member should be out weeks or months sooner.  But with about 30,000 people behind bars in Virginia, the Director of Offender Management, Jim Parks, says there’s no time to talk with relatives who think the Department of Corrections has made a mistake.

“Sitting down for lengthy periods to explain an individual’s time calculation is not something we’re able to do.”

Nor will they meet with people who come to headquarters in Richmond, hoping to plead their case. Wendy Brown heads Court and Legal Services – the department responsible for calculating release dates.

“You don’t know what I’m doing that day, what I have planned, what meetings I must attend, and just  to think that I should drop everything and do that, that’s not fair.  It’s not fair to the people who have not gotten their dates computed.”

She notes people usually begin serving their sentence in a local jail, and jails calculate good time differently.  She supposes inmates may not tell their families when they break prison rules and lose good time.  But the most likely explanation is that good time is tallied against time actually served, rather than the original sentence.

After we spoke with Brown and Parks at the Department of Corrections, a letter went out to one of our sources, explaining that, and we took the information to Tom Kriete – professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Virginia.

“This person was sentenced to five years in prison, which they calculated to be 1,826.25 days, because it’s a five year sentence, and leap year comes every four years, so it’s like a quarter of a leap year every year.”

Armed with a couple of sharp number two pencils, he happily accepted our challenge – to figure out how the Department of Corrections was reaching its conclusions. 

Tom Kriete, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of Virginia
Credit University of Virginia Department of Mathematics

Subtracting 63 days our prisoner served in jail plus 4.725 days of good time earned there, he came up with just over 1,758 days left in our prisoner’s sentence.  We don’t know how many days he will actually serve – so Kriete called that “X.” 

Now if our guy behaves well during a 30-day period, the state will subtract 30 days plus 4.5 good time days from his remaining sentence.  That comes out to 1.15 days credit for every 24 hours served. 

“So you want to figure out how many days does he actually have to serve getting that much credit -- 1.15 so that that total of credit adds up to the remaining sentence in prison.”

The equation, for those who remember Algebra One from high school is X times 1.15 equals 1,758.525 days.  And working through that equation, you come up with about 1,530 days behind bars – just what the Department of Corrections calculated in the first place.

This process could be explained on the DOC website.  It is not.  Instead, families call, write and visit the department in vain – losing respect for state government and our system of justice.

“You cannot get an answer, and believe me I have tried every way I can.  I cannot even speak to anybody.  All we want is clarity.  We’re not angry with the DOC.  We’re just very frustrated. It’s a system that answers to no one.”

We asked the governor’s office to comment but received no response.