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Virginia Jail Death Review Board Has Not Yet Undertaken Any Investigations

In late May of 2017, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed legislation (SB 1063) introduced by Representative Creigh Deeds aimed at reducing the number of deaths in Virginia jails and prisons. The bill has a two-pronged approach. First, it sets requirements that the State Board of Corrections (a nine-member panel) must have individuals with expertise in areas such as mental health, correctional facility management, and health care. Second, SB 1063 authorizes the Board of Corrections to review inmate deaths at Virginia’s local and regional jails. The law took effect July 1, 2017. Previously, the Commonwealth’s 60 regional and local jails were allowed to simply “police themselves” unless it was patently obvious that a crime had been committed. There was no distinct agency responsible for looking into jail deaths in Virginia.

The review board is tasked with determining which deaths to investigate, based upon the facts and circumstances surrounding the initial incident report. For example, if it is clear that a death was due to natural causes, an investigation would not be necessary. Without an investigator the board feels they are unequipped to carry out their duties. Board vice chairman Bobby Vassar told the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “We need to be in a position that is at least reflecting that we’re looking at the issue. We at least need to be able to say that we’re aware.”

Despite going into effect in July, as of October 20, 2017 (109 days later), the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that the Board of Corrections (now legally responsible for the oversight of investigations into jail deaths in the Commonwealth) has failed to begin even a single investigation under the new law. In 2015, 36 people died in local and regional jail facilities across the Commonwealth. That number rose to 42 people in 2016. Though six weeks remain in 2017, at least 33 inmates have died in custody in Virginia jails, with 16 of those deaths occurring since the new law took effect on July 1, 2017.

Standing in the way is the fact that the Commonwealth has not yet an investigator. Lawmakers pushed for multiple full-time investigator positions, however the final approval and funding was for a single, part-time investigator, which the Department of Corrections has not hired. Former Stafford County Sheriff Charles Jett, a new board member, said of the issue “We’re ready to work (but) we need the information.”

Board member Vernie W. Francis, Jr. echoed Sheriff Jett’s sentiments at the most recent board meeting, telling other members “We ought to at least know where we are on it if nothing else; I think it’s critical that we get somebody on board.” According to Board of Corrections Chairwoman Phyllis Randall, the board will be putting their thoughts on these issues in writing to not only the Department of Corrections, but also the Attorney General’s office, deputy secretary of public safety and homeland security for Virginia, and members of the board.

Questioned about the vacant position and the failure of the board to be able to begin their work, Virginia Department of Corrections spokesperson Lisa Kinney indicated that they have received 165 applications for the part-time investigative position. She did not say whether a second part-time position would be added in order to handle the board’s administrative functions. She did not indicate whether or not Harold Clarke, head of the DOC, had any comment regarding when the board would begin their work.

A smaller group of board members took it upon themselves to set a November 15th meeting, wherein they intend to begin their critical work, regardless of whether or not an investigator has been hired. “At this point, we don’t have a staff person so we’ve got to kind of get it figured out among ourselves,” said Francis.

The personal injury and civil rights attorneys at the Halperin Law Center are committed to ensuring inmates throughout the Commonwealth are afforded all of the rights provided for in the Constitution. We have successfully litigated wrongful death actions on behalf of the families of inmates who died while incarcerated, and have negotiated settlements on behalf of inmates injured while in Virginia jails. If you or a family member have been denied your Constitutional rights, denied medical care, or have otherwise been injured while incarcerated, contact the personal injury and civil rights attorneys at the Halperin Law Center for a no-cost, no-obligation case evaluation.

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