State Lawmakers Hold Prison Reform Town Hall

Is the Virginia prison system failing those with mental illnesses? Does the state need to reform its re-entry program? Those were among the topics of discussion Thursday night at a town hall meeting on prison reform, held by local Arlington delegates Adam Ebbin and Patrick Hope.

Helen Trainer of the Legal Aid Justice Center pointed to a story of an inmate who wasn’t allowed to self-medicate in his prison cell. Told to wait in the daily line at the clinic, he ultimately suffered numerous seizures and left the prison as a quadriplegic. Trainer believes the story is not an isolated incident and is indicative of the reform needed throughout the nation’s criminal justice system.

Trainer said prison employees, more often than not, falsely believe that inmates’ behavior stems from a lack of control, rather than from mental health problems. Identifying individuals with mental health issues from the point of intake and diverting them to mental health facilities could help alleviate many of the outbreaks that occur in prisons, she explained.

Scott Richeson of the Virginia Department of Corrections spoke about the department’s new emphasis on prisoner re-entry programs. He said that 13,500 people are released from Virginia’s prisons annually, but only 600-800 are paroled, making Virginia one of the country’s lowest parole-granting states. And of the 13,500 prisoners released, 28.5 percent are incarcerated again within three years.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has also taken an interest in re-entry policy. He has appointed a “Virginia Prisoner and Juvenile Offender Re-entry Council” to help improve public safety by promoting successful re-entry strategies and thus reducing the re-incarceration rate.

Bill Richardson of Virginia C.U.R.E. (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants) said he is hopeful that the Department of Corrections and the Virginia Parole Board will start working together to create a plan from the first day of sentencing for inmates deemed parole-eligible.

The meeting at the Walter Reed Community Center was held at a time when Virginia Sen. Jim Webb is working to get his National Criminal Justice Commission Act passed. If enacted, a commission would conduct an 18-month top-to-bottom review of the nation’s criminal justice system.

Doug Ierley, of Sen. Webb’s office, said he hopes the act will come before a Senate vote before their August recess.

About 50 people attended the meeting. Successful alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, ways to handle an aging prison population and incentives for good behavior were also brought up during the course of the discussion.

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