The inmate population in the Halifax County Adult Detention Center has decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tim Trent, administrator for the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority, says he supports efforts to reduce the inmate population in his jails and would like to see those numbers even further reduced.
The Halifax County Adult Detention Center, one of the jails under the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority, currently has 150 inmates, compared to 184 inmates in December, according to Trent.
The jail administrator attributed the reduction in the number of inmates in the Authority’s jails to the court system’s efforts.
“We’re not receiving as many (commitments) from the courts right now. The courts are also getting requests to review individuals to release,” Trent said. “Until I get that court order, then I cannot release anybody. I fully support anything the courts do.”
Trent said none of the inmates in the Authority’s six jails — Halifax, Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, Campbell and Lynchburg — have tested positive for the coronavirus.
“I don’t have this virus in any of my jails. We have been very proactive in following CDC guidelines,” Trent said.
He added that he knows the lower the inmate population in the jails, the less likely an outbreak of COVID-19 will occur.
Trent added that the Halifax jail has the capacity to house 200 inmates and since the jail is not currently at its capacity, it has the space to quarantine sick inmates if necessary. However, he said it is difficult to “social distance” in a jail with 45 inmates in a unit.
Tracy Q. Martin, commonwealth’s attorney for Halifax County, shared that the court system has taken a number of steps to preserve the safety and health of the inmates in the Halifax County Adult Detention Center during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 19, Gov. Ralph Northam and the Secretary of Public Safety issued a joint statement listing a number of recommendations to criminal justice officials. At that time, Martin said she began consulting with the jail captain to discuss the status of inmates.
“As a result of working together, my office agreed to a temporary furlough of approximately ten individuals serving sentences on non-violent offenses. Most of these individuals were within 30 to 90 days of completing their sentence,” Martin said. “The purpose in all these orders was to assist the jail in creating appropriate social distancing within the jail population for the safety of the staff, corrections officers and inmates. The individuals deferred or furloughed have not been excused from serving their sentences. They must return to complete their time as ordered by the court.”
Martin added that Halifax County’s circuit court judge, following the governor’s March 12 declaration of a public health emergency in Virginia, ordered that all individuals serving time on work release and weekends, or those who had been approved for delayed reporting, would be deferred until May 1. That order deferred the sentences of 14 people, keeping them out of jail temporarily.
The commonwealth attorney’s office also has developed a system with the jail for expedient review of the magistrate’s bond determinations on new detainees.
“The jail has an intake area to evaluate the health of new detainees during the first few days after arrest. We are working with the jail to review any new detainees of concern so that the jail can avoid placing them in the general population of the jail unnecessarily,” Martin said. “For instance, if my office determines that the community will be safe by using house arrest and pre-trial monitoring for an individual charged with a non-violent crime, we do so early in the process.”
Martin added that her office’s approach to bond decisions is on a “case-by-case basis.
“Our chief considerations for any bond decision include the severity of the offense, the criminal history of the offender, the risk of flight and, in the era of COVID-19, the health status of the offender and the risk of the health of the rest of the jail population,” Martin said. “Of course, violent offenders should not be on bond. Those who are significant flight risks on serious felonies should not be on bond. In contrast, those who have been awarded a bond but cannot afford bail should not be held simply because they are indigent. We work to make those situations right. When we do not agree on the bond, we go to court and let the judge decide.”
Overall, the jail population in Virginia was 24,000 as of April 7, a 17% reduction from March 1, according to a news release issued by the governor’s office on April 17. The number of new inmate commitments for misdemeanors has declined by 67% in the Commonwealth during that same timeframe, the release states.
The state’s General Assembly on Wednesday voted in favor of a budget amendment proposed by the governor to allow limited inmate releases to cut down on the population of inmates vulnerable to COVID-19. The amendment gives the Virginia Department of Corrections the authority to release nonviolent inmates who have one year or less remaining in their sentences.
However, Trent says the budget amendment only applies to state inmates in state prisons, and does not apply to any of the inmates in his regional jails. Some of those inmates are what Trent calls “out-of- compliance” inmates and should be incarcerated in state prisons.
“They are state responsible inmates, and I think they should be included in a decision on a state level,” Trent said. “Some of them do fall into that vulnerable category.”
Trent reiterated that if the recent budget amendment applied to the “out-of-compliance” inmates in the jails under the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority, it would reduce the chances of a COVID-19 outbreak.
“We have about 200 state responsible inmates that should be in a state prison,” Trent said. “Due to budget cuts, a couple of state facilities were closed. Those inmates are now backed up in our (local and regional) jails.”
Trent estimated the number of out-of-compliance inmates in local and regional jails throughout Virginia is 3,500.
The jail administrator said he and his staff are doing everything possible to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in the Authority’s jails.
“All of our officers have masks. I have bought masks for all the inmates,” Trent said. “When we come in the door, there’s somebody there screening us. They’re asking us questions, taking our temperature. All the jails are locked down as far as visitation. Each inmate gets two free calls per day.”
In addition, Trent said the jail authority has contracted with a company that regularly sprays disinfectant on “every surface” of the jails.
“The best help the jail can get is for people to remain law-abiding throughout this crisis and in the future,” Martin said.
She added that the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority deserves “high praise” for its efforts and working with her office in finding “creative solutions to keep our community safe.