The Commonwealth of Virginia has a responsibility to protect all Virginians, and that includes the thousands of men, women and children being held in Virginia’s prisons, jails and correctional facilities. The COVID-19 pandemic poses an immediate, potentially deadly threat to vulnerable individuals in overcrowded facilities that lack proper sanitation, hygiene and access to health care.
State and local custodial facilities (like other congregate living situations) are petri dishes for viral diseases like COVID-19 to grow and spread, leaving the thousands of Virginians in custody exposed to serious illness and death without the means to protect themselves. We cannot allow inaction by state and local officials to be a possible death sentence for everyone in custody for any reason.
The Supreme Court of Virginia is the only body, other than the Governor, with authority to ensure a uniform response to this pandemic across the criminal legal system.
So far, Gov. Ralph Northam has refused to take effective action to ensure a uniform, statewide response that will prevent this harm. Similarly, although we asked the Court to do so, the Supreme Court of Virginia has yet to impose order on the lower courts, judges and magistrates that would address this situation. That’s why the ACLU of Virginia filed a legal action this week asking the Supreme Court of Virginia to order the lower courts, governor and other officials in the criminal legal system to live up to their constitutional duty to protect those in their custody. The Supreme Court of Virginia is the only body, other than the Governor, with authority to ensure a uniform response to this pandemic across the criminal legal system.
If the Court grants our request, it will help the tens of thousands of Virginians (including juveniles) who are in custody in state or local facilities across Virginia. That includes people who are being held pretrial and haven’t been convicted of a crime, people who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 whose sentences would end soon, people who are incarcerated for technical violation of parole, elderly people who are eligible for geriatric parole, people who are pregnant, and others (including youth) who don’t pose a threat to public safety and deserve to be free and sheltered in a safe place.
In addition to seeking the release from custody of people who are not a danger to commit harm to others, we have also asked the Supreme Court of Virginia to require the governor and state and local correctional officials to have a plan for each detainment facility to provide adequate measures for the prevention of the spread of COVID-19, screening and treatment of people showing symptoms, and medical personnel and equipment for the provision of care.
A COVID-19 outbreak within overcrowded facilities will place tens of thousands of people in Virginia’s prisons and jails at risk of serious illness or death, and endanger the lives and well-being of staff and service providers who work in the facilities, their families, and members of the community at large.
State and local officials have the obligation to provide proper care to people who are in their custody by taking steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, jails and other custodial facilities. When fighting a pandemic like COVID-19, everyday counts. It’s imperative that immediate action is taken to release people who do not pose a threat to injure others or haven’t been convicted of a crime and are held in custody simply because they cannot pay excessive bail fees. The governor, parole board and state and local officials have the power to exercise their existing authority and discretion to make appropriate releases, and it’s time they stop dragging their feet.
The measures we’ve requested will keep all of us safe – not just those who are in custody and the staff who work with them. You can also do your part in helping the most vulnerable: Email Gov. Northam and urge him to sign and issue an Executive Guidance and prevent more illness and death from COVID-19.