Sep 13, 2023 - News

Youngkin set to approve new oversight measure for state prisons

Illustration of a hand resting on a jail fence.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Virginia lawmakers took a step toward restoring independent oversight of state prisons last week.

What's happening: The budget lawmakers sent to Gov. Glenn Youngkin includes a provision to establish a state prison ombudsman within the state inspector general's office.

  • The new office would receive complaints from prisoners and their families, be empowered to investigate and monitor conditions and issue recommendations for improvement.

Why it matters: Advocates have long complained that the Department of Corrections lacks accountability. The decision comes amid an array of ongoing investigations and complaints, including a potential FBI inquiry into allegations that guards beat a disabled prisoner to death.

Of note: The move came the same week Youngkin replaced the department's longtime head, Herold Clarke, with Chadwick Dotson, a retired state judge who has been leading the state parole board under the governor.

  • Though formally neutral on oversight proposals, Clarke's administration had been accused in the past of trying to block new initiatives.

Context: The Department of Corrections has faced dozens of lawsuits from inmates in recent years alleging abuse and inadequate medical care.

  • A group of lawmakers and advocates have been unsuccessfully pushing oversight initiatives for years, arguing that they would ultimately save the state money by addressing complaints and problems directly without the need for litigation.

Details: The budget passed by lawmakers last week sets aside $250,000 for the new ombudsman office and establishes a Corrections Oversight Committee, which would include formerly incarcerated Virginians.

What they're saying: "VADOC has an annual budget of $1.5 billion and total control over the lives of approximately 25,000 Virginians, yet it doesn't have to share almost any information with the people who fund it: taxpayers," said ACLU of Virginia policy and advocacy strategist Shawn Weneta in a statement, per WRIC.

What's next: The budget is now on the governor's desk awaiting action.

  • Youngkins' office said Tuesday he intends to sign the document Thursday during a ceremony on the Capitol steps, signaling he is not planning any changes or amendments.
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