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ACLU of Virginia Settles With Governor, Department of Corrections In Prisoner Lawsuit

The ACLU of Virginia reached a settlement agreement with the Virginia Department of Corrections over the treatment of inmates in state prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As part of the settlement, VADOC agreed to make all reasonable efforts to review offenders who are eligible for early release during the governor’s state of emergency, prioritizing those who have serious health problems. The department has agreed to notify inmates within 48 hours if they’ve been denied early release and why. A list of the number of individuals released early will be posted daily on VADOC’s public website. Attorneys for the ACLU will also be provided with weekly updates on the number of inmates who have been tested and those who were reviewed for and granted release.  

Last month, the Virginia General Assembly voted to give VADOC  the authority to release some inmates who have one year or less left in their sentence. 

Claire Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia, says the court will enforce the settlement. 

“So any time we see a lack of sanitation, failure to provide protective equipment, similar things like that, we can go back to the judge and say, they’re not complying with your order and that’s huge,” Gastañaga said. 

The lawsuit, filed last month by the ACLU of Virginia and Charlottesville attorney Elliott Harding, against VADOC, Gov. Ralph Northam and other state officials alleged that the state violated the constitutional rights of inmates, by failing to release those who are medically vulnerable from state prisons. It also accused VADOC of not providing prisoners proper sanitation and personal protective equipment in some cases.  Many of the offenders included in the complaint, according to the lawsuit, suffer from high-risk health conditions that put them at risk of serious health complications if they were to contract COVID-19. 

“This settlement will not end our advocacy,” Gastañaga said. “We will join with other members of the Virginia COVID-19 Justice Coalition to continue to urge both VADOC and the governor to move as quickly as possible to review and approve early release or conditional pardons for all individuals who do not belong in prison, and who could be safer in their homes and communities.”

Lisa Kinney, a spokesperson for VADOC said in an email that the settlement requires the department to do little more than it was already doing. 

“We are pleased to see that after reviewing all that the DOC is doing regarding this pandemic, plaintiffs could find very little to ask for and the case will be dismissed,” she said. 

As of Tuesday night, VADOC reports nearly 450 people incarcerated in state correctional facilities have tested positive for COVID-19. Five inmates have also died after contracting the illness.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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