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ACLU, local attorney accuse VDOC of not complying with COVID-19 lawsuit settlement

The American Civil Liberties Union and a local attorney are claiming the Virginia Department of Corrections of failing to comply with a COVID-19 settlement.

Earlier this year, attorney Elliott Harding filed a lawsuit on behalf of 27 Virginia prisoners, arguing that the state is infringing on the constitutional rights of prisoners by failing to meet certain safety standards amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A settlement was reached in May.

However, according to a notice of noncompliance filed last week by the ACLU of Virginia, advocates have documented the following alleged failings of VDOC:

» Failure to provide documents about the handling of COVID-19 in VDOC facilities.

» Failure to review people for early release.

» Failure to accurately inform people of their eligibility for early release.

» Failure to provide any documents or information on conditional pardons.

» Failure to accommodate confidential legal phone calls.

“Since we initially filed suit, nine more people have died in Virginia’s prisons from coronavirus. We had an understanding that the Northam administration and VDOC were acting in good faith when they claimed to care about releasing people who are incarcerated to stop needless deaths. We have yet to see them show it,” said Harding in a written statement. “Our attempts to get confirmation that they’re living up to our agreement have been met with no sense of urgency. People who could have been released weeks ago are still sitting in their cell waiting for help as COVID-19 continues to spread.”

Thursday, the VDOC released a statement, detailing some of its safety efforts and taking issue with the ACLU’s accusations of noncompliance and that “If the Virginia ACLU wants the state’s prisons emptied, they must take that up with the legislature.”

“It’s unfortunate to see the Virginia branch of the ACLU struggle to remain relevant by attacking what by any objective measure has been amazing work,” the release reads. “As the Virginia ACLU knows, the DOC is under no legal obligation to release any certain number of people pursuant to the budget amendment passed by the General Assembly on April 22. “

According to the release, the VDOC has been able to provide testing for more than 20,000 inmates, representing approximately two-thirds of the inmate population.

In Central Virginia, VDOC currently is reporting a total of 10 cases at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women and 171 cases at the Buckingham Correctional Center.

Statewide, VDOC reports a total of 1,574 cases among inmates and staff members.

So far, 765 offenders have been reviewed for early release, according to the VDOC, and “a great deal of work has gone into this in order to do it responsibly.”

“Simply opening the doors and letting offenders out would be the easiest thing to do, but it would also fly in the face of our duty to safeguard the well-being of our offenders, and that of all Virginians,” the release reads. “For example, we’ve reviewed many offenders who have extensive violent offenses, including violent sex offense histories, and those offenders will not be released early.”

According to the department’s website, 301 people have been released under the program so far.

According to the ACLU, the attorney general’s office, which represents the defendants, has until Monday to respond to the court notice, and then an additional five calendar days to meet and confer to resolve these issues.


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