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As state draws down inmate count, Halifax follows suit

South Boston News / April 20, 2020
With jails and prisons at high risk of exposure to the coronavirus, state officials have drawn down Virginia’s inmate population by 17 percent through steps that range from home electronic monitoring to reduced incarceration of low-risk offenders.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Friday that Virginia’s inmate population fell to 24,000 on April 7, down 17 percent from March. Commitments for misdemeanor offenses have dropped by 67 percent in that same period, the governor said.

The Halifax County Adult Detention Center, a satellite facility of the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority, has winnowed its population in step with the state drawdown.

According to Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Quackenbush Martin, the head count at the jail on March 20 was 177 inmates. As of Friday, April 17, that number had fallen to 154. The jail holds up to 220 inmates.

Martin said prosecutors and the local court system have worked to identify those who can safely be kept out of jail, such as indigent offenders who pose little risk to the public but are unable to secure their release even under low-dollar bond amounts. Some offenders also been granted furloughs, but they will be required to report back to jail to serve out their sentences once the threat of the virus passes.

“We have not agreed to release anybody who is violent,” said Martin. “We’re talking about people who have a bond but haven’t been able to afford to pay the bond, or people who have been convicted of non-violent crimes who have been furloughed to serve their sentence later.”

About 10 people serving time for non-violent crimes have received furloughs, said Martin, with most of those within 30 to 90 days of completing their sentences. Releases are ordered by the court, usually at the request of prosecutors.

On March 17, Circuit Judge Kim S. White issued an order pertaining to all individuals who are serving time on work release or on weekends, or who have been approved for delayed reporting to the jail. White’s order defers their jail time until May 1. Martin said the order covered 14 persons who have been convicted and sentenced by the court.

A third category of persons admitted to the jail is also considered for release: those with health issues that would render them especially vulnerable to the disease, Martin said.

“If they have a particular medical condition that would make them more susceptible, we would consider that in determining whether they should be held on bond,” she said.

While Martin said she is wary of using the term “low-level” to describe criminal offenders — observing that property crimes may be non-violent yet also serious — she acknowledged that the threat of the pandemic has forced officials to rethink how inmate admissions should be handled.

“When the risk of infection to the jail is no issue, we would not consider the releases of certain people who we have to [consider] right now,” she said.

Tim Trent, administrator of the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority, said he is acutely aware of the dangers involved with inmates and staff confined to a closed facility, often in close proximity to one another.

Aside from the health of inmates, “I’ve got to protect the staff and their families, too,” said Trent, who works at the regional jail office in Lynchburg. “It’s just a nightmare for us.

“There’s not a lot you can do to enforce social distancing when you’ve got jails and cells and lots of common spaces.” One step the Blue Ridge Jail Authority has taken is to temporarily ban outside visitation, hoping to keep the virus outside the walls.

Employees are screened for signs of COVID-19 before they begin their day and as they leave work, said Trent. Should an inmate show signs of illness, the inmate will be moved to an isolated part of the facility, he said.

“Nothing’s perfect. We’re just doing the best we can,” Trent said.

The Blue Ridge administrator, who serves as president of the Virginia Association of Regional Jails, has been part of ongoing high-level discussions among law enforcement, criminal justice and state public safety officials on how to prepare correctional facilities for the pandemic. Early in those discussions, Trent said, he pressed for a heightened presence by the Virginia Department of Health inside jails and prisons.

“When they started, they considered inmate populations at low risk and I argued and argued that we’re high risk,” said Trent. “We did get that changed.”

Dr. Scott Spillmann, director of the Southside Health District, said via email that health department epidemiologists “have been and continue to be in contact with the local jails, detention centers, and prisons as needed — for advice, education and to help with cases and contacts investigations. The Department of Corrections is handling the primary tactics for hygiene and social distancing in those facilities.”

The Virginia Department of Health is advising all jail employees and inmates to wear cloth facemasks, as feasible, and the VDH further recommends that all new intakes be placed in quarantine for 14 days.

The Southside Health District has not reported any outbreaks at jail facilities in its coverage area of Halifax, Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties, but in nearby Butner, N.C., located in the southern part of Granville County, dozens of inmates and staff at the town’s federal penitentiary have been sickened by the virus. Five people in Granville County have died.

Discussing the policy of her office on drawing down the inmate population of the Halifax jail, Martin said “[o]ur approach is on a case-by-case basis,” but she noted the risk of an outbreak does factor into the process.

“I understand the jail has a number of contingency plans in the event of an outbreak there,” said Martin. “In the meantime, we will do our part to assist the jail in keeping our community safe. The best help the jail can get is for people to remain law-abiding.”

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