As the coronavirus pandemic raged over the past year, Virginia prison officials released more than 2,100 inmates early to try to control the spread of the virus by reducing the prison population. That practice will end on July 1, the Department of Corrections announced Wednesday.
In April 2020, state lawmakers approved a proposed budget amendment from Gov. Ralph Northam giving the director of the Department of Corrections authority to consider early release for inmates with less than one year left to serve on their sentences. Inmates convicted of a Class 1 felony or a sexually violent offense were not eligible.
A total of 2,114 state inmates were released early — 1,326 from state DOC facilities and 788 from local jails. The authorization for the early release plan expires on July 1, the same day Virginia's COVID-19 State of Emergency is scheduled to end. The average daily inmate population at the end of April was 23,897.
“The early release plan was an innovative way to ensure the safety and security of our incarcerated population as well as the public," Brian Moran, Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, said in a news release.
Prison officials considered multiple factors when deciding who was eligible for early release, including the offense type and history, medical conditions, a documented and approved home plan, good time earning level and recidivism risk.
Some inmate advocates said the program did not reduce the prison population as significantly as they had hoped. Maisie Osteen, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center's Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program, said the program's strict eligibility guidelines limited the number of inmates who were considered for early release.
“The scope was just far too narrow and really didn't offer the relief we were hoping for and a lot of other advocates were hoping for,” Osteen said. “We should acknowledge that there was some small relief offered from this program. It just wasn't as far-reaching as we'd hoped.”
Department of Corrections Director Harold Clarke said that about 70% of the inmate population has now been vaccinated against COVID-19, and there are no current cases among the population. A total of 56 inmates and five staff members who tested positive for COVID-19 have died during the pandemic.
The DOC said it is planning a phased-in approach to allow visitors back into prisons while continuing to follow federal guidelines for congregate settings. Face masks continue to be required in congregate settings, including correctional facilities.
Last month, the state eased all distancing and capacity restrictions, with Northam citing increased vaccination rates in the state's population, and declining COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and the statewide test positivity rate.
“Governor Northam will continue to work with our public safety and public health officials to monitor infection and vaccination rates in Virginia and consider mitigation measures as necessary," said Alena Yarmosky, Northam's spokeswoman.
This story has been corrected to note that Virginia’s COVID-19 State of Emergency and the authorization for the early release of inmates both end on July 1.