Public Comments for 02/09/2023 Public Safety - Public Safety
SB994 - Corrections Ombudsman, Office of the Department of; created, report.
Last Name: Schuster Organization: State of New Jersey Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson Locality: Trenton, NJ

Comments Document

My name is Terry Schuster. I’m the Ombudsman for New Jersey’s prison system. I’m writing to support the legislation creating a similar office in Virginia (SB 994), and to share my thoughts on the value of such an office for the public, lawmakers, and the Department of Corrections. My office’s annual budget is $2.1 million, which is about 0.2% of the Department of Corrections budget in my state. What that investment buys is sufficient staffing (21 FTE) to have people on-site in nine prisons, inspecting facilities, surveying incarcerated people, answering hotline calls, gathering data, and holding community meetings. An Ombudsman is not a prosecutor looking to hold individuals accountable for wrongdoing. The office is not gathering evidence for lawsuits against the Department of Corrections. Success for an Ombudsman office doesn’t look like corrections staff being fired or headlines slamming the Department of Corrections for abuse and neglect. Success looks like incarcerated people in the state feeling hopeful about their futures, staff feeling proud of the impact they had on the lives of those in their custody, and the public feeling confident that people coming back home from prison are better prepared to be good neighbors. My Ombudsman office includes several staff members who come from the Department of Corrections. They believe in the value of Corrections to turn people’s lives around. They’ve seen the system’s shortcomings from the inside and came to the Ombudsman office hoping to make the Department of Corrections better. The Ombudsman office is a thought-partner for solving difficult system-wide problems. Incarcerated people are much more forthcoming with the Ombudsman office than they are with correctional officers and administration. Our access to the people held in custody allows us to give quick and thorough feedback to facility and agency leaders. We are a key player helping the DOC enforce its own policies with staff, because we have eyes and ears on the prisons, and prison staff act differently when they’re being monitored. Because we are an independent office, we can also authoritatively give credit to the Department for things they are doing right, correct the record when misinformation is spread about prison conditions, and defend decisions of the Department that may be unpopular or misunderstood by skeptical members of the public. Sometimes when something is going wrong in prison, it was merely overlooked in the hustle and bustle of running a secure facility. Sometimes it comes about because of systemic problems like under-staffing or lack of communication between siloed offices. Importantly, there are also times when the issue reflects an abuse of power. An independent Ombudsman office can help the Department catch small things that fall through the cracks, draw attention to systemic issues that impact everyone behind bars, and also access people held in even the most isolated parts of state prisons to ensure they are not being harmed or treated unfairly. Oversight allows for access and understanding among people who might otherwise feel suspicious, angry, and in the dark about what’s happening in our state prisons. By creating transparency, it builds credibility and public trust for this large and powerful arena of state government. I encourage you to support SB 994 to establish a similar office in Virginia. Please feel free to contact me if I can help in any way.

Last Name: Gill Organization: FAMM Locality: Washington, DC

Comments Document

FAMM, a national nonpartisan sentencing and corrections reform organization, supports SB 994 and urges the committee to pass the bill. The independent prison oversight envisioned in SB 994 will provide the transparency and accountability that lawmakers, taxpayers, corrections staff, incarcerated people, and their families need and require. Oversight can operate at minimal cost. In 2021, a study determined that a fully independent Ombudsman Office similar to those operating in other states could be established for $3.4 million in the first year, with an operating budget of about $1.6 million per year after that. A $1.6 million budget is the equivalent of approximately one-tenth of one percent of the annual VADOC budget. Americans of all political persuasions intuitively understand the value of increased transparency and accountability in prisons: in a recent national poll, 82 percent of Americans agreed that every prison system should have independent oversight. Independent oversight is long overdue for VADOC, an agency with a $1.4 billion annual budget, 23,000 incarcerated people in its care, and more than 11,000 state employees on its payroll.

Last Name: Gaines Locality: Norfolk

As a registered voter, resident of Virginia, and a concerned citizen, I SUPPORT, and think you should also support and vote yes for SB 994.

Last Name: Gill Organization: FAMM Locality: Washington, DC

Comments Document

FAMM supports SB 994, a bill to create independent oversight of Virginia's prison system. 82 percent of American support independent oversight of our prison systems. Oversight makes corrections staff, incarcerated people, and the public safer by making prisons safer, more rehabilitative places.

Last Name: James Organization: Sistas in Prison Reform Locality: Prince William County

I urge this committee to support SB994. Independent oversight of prisons and jails is by no means a panacea that will ensure the safe and humane treatment of people in custody. But what oversight can do is provide a window into these dark places and deny elected officials the option of remaining purposefully unaware about correctional conditions. The frequent presence in the prisons and jails can act as a form of informal social control over the actions of staff, helping to restrain staff misconduct.; break down some imagined barrier between the inside and outside worlds, and question the way things “have always been done.” Having prison oversight can identify troubling practices early and bring these concerns to administrators’ attention for remediation before the problems turn into scandals, lawsuits, or deaths. We know during COVID, the number of deaths increased in the state. Oversight can share best practices and strategies that have worked in other facilities to encourage a culture of improvement. It will assess unmeasurable facets of corrections in a holistic way, such as whether people are being treated with dignity and respect, whether they are being held safely, and whether they are being prepared adequately for release. Prison oversight will help humanize everyone connected to incarceration, including both people in custody and the staff who supervise them. Our extraordinarily punitive prisons and jails are this way because we have allowed them to become so; it is time for us to feel shame about that — and to take the urgent and necessary steps to prevent future harm. I strongly urge this committee passing SB994.

Last Name: Roberts Locality: Chester,Va

My Husband has been at Sussex 1 for nearing 7 years . Last year after I started emailing the Warden and Richmond they finally did a physical he never had one when he arrived . He puts in emergency grievances for major dental issues and now a really bad allergic rash all over his arms from chemicals he works with in the kitchen at his job and he keeps getting them knocked back down nothing they will do for him. He seen a dentist a year ago was told the tooth that’s broken into the gums needs to come out. To this day he still has that tooth no progress . The allergic reactions on his arms they are not even looking at it . Diabetics may get there meds once a day if they are lucky . Never a set schedule . I am a medical provider and this is disgraceful ! The importance of dental issues can be deadly . The allergic reaction my husband has can get into his blood stream if over looked. The diabetics not getting meds properly can die. Staff does not take care of them as should be. Heck I watched a guard a couple times get drugs and money from a family member and carry it in . He never went through the body scan or be searched. No wonder so many men are overdosing and some die .

Last Name: Smith Locality: Hanover

It is already hard out here. Help families heal. Help communities heal. Show love and compassion, so that when they come home they can want to do better. But we have to show them love and support now while they are in there to give them something to look forward to. How sad is it when a kid can't hear his dad say happy birthday, or good job in school bc the family can't afford the calls. Reduce violence by allowing them the comfort of home. Giving them a release. They are already missing out on moments. Once mom or dad are gone, there's no getting those memories back. Love heals all wounds. Show love please.

Last Name: Chamblee Organization: Virginia Justice Coalition Locality: Weyers Cave, VA

I urge you to vote yes on SB887 and SB994. The use of solitary confinement for extended periods is unjust. It damages people's mental health, making it harder for them to reenter society when their sentences are served. We need an obudsman to provide civilian oversight of the DOC. The DOC is doing things on behalf of citizens. We should know what they are and have a say in them.

Last Name: Turner Organization: Valley Justice Coalition Locality: Harrisonburg

Good Morning; I am a registered voter in Virginia and member of the Valley Justice Coalition. We strongly support SB994 Virginia Department of Corrections Independent Ombudsman Bill. The Department of Corrections is the largest state agency with a $1.4 billion budget and NO independent oversight. The creation of the Ombudsman would provide an independent source where grievances from both personnel and those behind bars could be heard and mediated. Each year the DOC has to settle over $2 million in lawsuits brought against it. Would you vote for an independent agency that would save the taxpayers millions of dollars each year? This bill garnered unanimous bipartisan support in the Senate as well as Public Safety Sub Comm #2. Please VOTE YES for SB994 VADOC Independent Ombudsman Thank You.

Last Name: Gardner Organization: Interfaith Action for Human Rights Locality: Springfield

I am a Virginia resident and a volunteer with Interfaith Action for Human Rights, an organization that advocates for humane treatment of incarcerated people in Virginia. I urge you to support SB 994, which would create an independent ombudsman's office for the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC). Please ask yourselves whether it makes sense for an executive branch agency with an annual budget of over $1.3 billion to be exempt from effective oversight. If you believe this is reasonable, please explain this to the taxpayers who fund the DOC’s budget. In fact, the DOC has been allowed to operate with a lack of transparency and accountability for years. It's common for inquiries from families and even legislators about the safety and wellbeing of people in prison to go unanswered by the DOC. Family members are left in the dark about their loved ones and fear retaliation if they raise concerns about prison conditions and their loved ones' safety and health. I believe incarcerated people, their families, the staff who work in DOC facilities, and taxpayers deserve better. We should all be able to trust that our prison system is safe, humane, and rehabilitative. As an advocate, I am frequently in touch with DOC officials as we try to resolve disputes between the Department and individuals in its custody. When we bring them detailed allegations of abusive treatment or neglect, the response nearly always is that the allegations are unfounded. There is no entity with the resources, the clear mandate, or the independence that is needed to get to the bottom of these allegations and arrive at the truth. There is a grievance procedure prisoners can use, but it is widely regarded by them as a farce, and we receive countless examples of interference with individuals’ access to the procedure and its lack of fairness and impartiality. Employees of the Department also need and deserve an effective and truly independent entity that will seriously investigate facially credible allegations of unfair treatment. That is why SB 994 has been endorsed by the Virginia Police Benevolent Association and the National Association of Public Safety Officers, who represent corrections officers in Virginia prisons. We need an independent oversight body that can enter and inspect prison facilities, speak with prisoners and staff confidentially, investigate complaints, help resolve problems flagged by families and incarcerated people, and recommend improvements to the DOC. Why should the DOC fear this? If everything the Department tells the public about what happens in its facilities is accurate, the DOC should be a vigorous proponent of independent oversight, because it would vindicate them and quiet their critics. Before I began my current work with IAHR, I spent more than 30 years as a civil servant. I spent many hours of my work life responding to Congressional oversight committees. It sometimes felt burdensome, and my colleagues and I didn’t always think our overseers were asking the right questions, but we did our best to be responsive. We accepted the legitimacy of their role in ensuring that taxpayers’ money was being spent wisely. We accepted independent oversight as an essential part of a functioning democracy. I simply ask you, as the people’s representatives, to demand no less from the Virginia Department of Corrections. (Ms.) Gay Gardner Senior Advisor for Virginia Interfaith Action for Human Rights Springfield, VA

Last Name: Turner Organization: Valley Justice Coalition Locality: Harrisonburg

Hello, Delegates; I am a registered voter in Virginia. I am also a member of the Valley Justice Coalition and we support SB994 Virginia Department of Corrections Independent Ombudsman Bill. The Department of Corrections is the largest Virginia department with a $1.4 billion budget and NO independent oversight. The creation of the Ombudsman would provide an independent source where grievances from both personnel and those behind bars could be heard and mediated. This would help to prevent the millions of dollars spent yearly by the DOC to settle lawsuits brought against it. Would you vote for an independent agency that would save the taxpayers millions of dollars? This bill garnered unanimous bipartisan support in the Senate, please VOTE YES for SB994 VADOC Independent Ombudsman Thank You. Valley Justice Coalition

Last Name: Gustitus Organization: Interfaith Action for Human Rights Locality: Washington

I volunteer with IAHR to correspond with Virginia inmates who have issues with prison management -- anything from not getting the health care they need to being put in RHU (solitary confinement) without a hearing or evidence. I have over 120 letters from prisoners from the past year, and I can think of nothing more important to the efficient and effective management of VADOC than SB994 . VADOC spends over $1 billion/year and that alone would compel the need for independent oversight. But in addition, the lives of thousands of individuals -- young and old, men and women, short term prisoners and long term prisoners, are in the hands of VADOC. Independent oversight by an ombudsman's office would help ensure that the power and control that VADOC has over these lives -- and the lives of the prison officials as well -- is being exercised in the way the Virginia legislature and the citizens of Virginia expect. Based on the letters I have received at IAHR, I do not believe that is what is happening now. I thought it might be helpful to see a copy of a recent letter I sent to VADOC about one prisoner who had written to us. It is indicative of the types of letters we receive regularly and is strong evidence of the need for SB 994. Individual names have been redacted to protect against retaliation. 11/22 --Dear Warden *** — We have received a very disturbing letter from *** who is currently in segregation. He is African-American, and he recounts numerous instances of racial animus — including false charges, name calling, and direct threats. In one instance CO *** threatened *** by saying he would make his time in ** pod “a living hell.” *** says *** told him “to go back to Africa where” he “belonged.” *** says *** told him he grew up KKK and “hates” n——.” He writes that Lieutenant *** calls him “all sorts of racist names he can think or of come up with under the sun when I am locked behind this metal door." We repeatedly get complaints about racist comments and actions by guards. Such conduct is not only morally wrong, it is counterproductive to maintaining order in the institution. We urge you to sanction such behavior and, where it continues, to remove such individuals from their positions. *** also says he has been subject to false charges that keep him in RHU. He says he is “locked down 24/7 behind a metal steel door.” He says he is not let out of his cell to take showers and that he is refused outside recreation. He says he has not been allowed to have any complaint forms to write up the racist instances since he’s been in RHU. *** is so disturbed by his treatment that he is convinced he will be killed by the guards while he is in RHU. He writes: “I just needed someone to know if I be killed by [these guards] at *** Prison you will know my death was not an accident.”

Last Name: Lindsey Organization: Interfaith Action for Human Rights Locality: Arlington

To the Members of the Public Safety Subcommittee, On behalf of Interfaith Action for Human Rights, I write to speak in favor of SB994. Truly independent oversight of our carceral system in Virginia will save lives and money. Oversight saves lives by ensuring that the Department of Corrections is run in accordance with legal and ethical standards. Every year, we at IAHR receive hundreds of letters from incarcerated persons outlining accusations of abuse, neglect, human rights violations, and harm of various kinds in Virginia prisons. While we are grateful to the leadership at the Department of Corrections for meeting with us to review these claims, the answers we receive from the Department of Corrections cannot be independently verified under current law. As a result, incarcerated persons are left to wonder if their concerns really are being heard and addressed, and their families are left worrying for the safety and wellbeing of their incarcerated loved ones. Beyond the impact on lives, though, an independent Ombudsman would save taxpayer dollars. Conditions in our carceral system (including frustrations with the current grievance system) all too often lead to lawsuits initiated by the incarcerated against the Department of Corrections and the Commonwealth itself. Such lawsuits leave Virginia in a position to have to either pay extensive legal fees to go to trial, or to make significant payouts to settle a case instead of going to trial. In either case, such money comes from state government coffers, meaning that taxpayers in the Commonwealth are footing the bill. A truly independent ombudsman would create greater confidence in the grievance system among the incarcerated while decreasing the number of incidents leading to grievances that already cost the Commonwealth significant expenses. As an ordained Christian minister, I believe that all people are possessed of inherent worth and dignity endowed by their Creator and therefore deserve to be treated with decency and respect. Human nature, though, means that all of us sometimes fail to live up to that standard of decency and respect. In the words of one of my colleagues, "People don't do what's ex-pected; they do what's in-spected." Truly independent oversight of the Department of Corrections would lead to such inspection, ensuring that the incarcerated are treated with decency and respect while boosting the Department's credibility through independent review. As a Virginian, I therefore urge you to vote in favor of creating this Office of the Ombudsman and to robustly fund its work. Sincerely, Rev. Dr. David B. Lindsey Executive Director, Interfaith Action for Human Rights Resident of Arlington, Virginia

Last Name: Bailey Organization: Ignite Justice Locality: Virginia

Hello. I am an educator, and an active volunteer for Ignite Justice, a non profit organization that focuses on incarcerated individuals and their families. My loved one is currently incarcerated in the state of VA. Public Oversight is critical to ensure safe and ethical practices in the VDOC. Incarcerated individuals are living in deplorable and abusive conditions daily. I will now share first hand accounts from incarcerated individuals that I gathered from the Behind Prison Walls report by the Virginia Coalition of Solitary Confinement: 2021: “I'm in solitary confinement now with no mattress, no blanket, no pillow & sheet, also no toilet paper, no hand soap as [I am] supposed to by policy. I'm shivering with cold, it's been 12 hours now, I couldn't sleep the whole night and cannot do many movements because it's SO cold, I'm crying, what these guys are doing to me!?!. They're retaliating against me. The room they put me in, the toilet doesn't work and already had a dump of someone before me. (It smells so bad). I cannot even flush and eat anything because of the smell. It's COVID time and a serious issue, they didn't give me any hygiene items/kit.” 2020: He was in the RHU and reportedly had gone 3 weeks without a mattress, and his seizure medications for epilepsy were withheld for at least 2 weeks. Also, Anwar Phillips who died by strangulation in ROSP in a supermax solitary confinement single cell by another incarcerated individual who was also in a single cell in solitary confinement. These are in no way a comprehensive list of abuses that are happening daily in VA prisons. Despite pleas for help, the DOC has created a system that allows for the abuse and mistreatment of individuals. Prisons that lack transparency and accountability are inhumane, lead to expensive lawsuits, limit rehabilitation for people in prison, and endanger incarcerated individuals and corrections staff alike. Prisons should be safer and more productive for the people who reside and work in them, and more accountable and transparent to taxpayers. Please support SB 994. Thank you for your time.

Last Name: Gill Organization: FAMM Locality: Washington, DC

Comments Document

FAMM, a nonpartisan, nonprofit sentencing and prison reform organization, SUPPORTS SB 994 and asks the subcommittee to advance the bill without amendment on behalf of our Virginia members. In a recent national poll conducted by a conservative pollster, 82 percent of Americans said they support independent prison oversight. That support was high regardless of political party because Americans intuitively understand that good government requires transparency and accountability. Independent prison oversight is not about blaming or shaming; it is about making prisons safer for everyone. Prison safety is public safety. The prison ombudsman envisioned in SB 994 can identify problems and help the Department of Corrections and the legislature fix them before they turn into scandals and lawsuits. The ombudsman can be the eyes and ears of the legislature 365 days a year, reporting back on how prisons are really operating and how money is really being spent. The ombudsman can monitor the use of solitary confinement; understaffing; whether rehabilitative programming is available and people have access to it; and whether prisons are safe and healthy places for people to live and work. Other forms of oversight are not sufficient because they are sporadic or conducted by the VADOC itself, and prisons operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Lawmakers need objective, consistent feedback and insight into a large, expensive agency that can often be opaque and unresponsive. We hope the legislature will adopt SB 994 this year to begin making the state’s prisons more transparent and accountable. Thank you for considering our views.

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