Coalition calls for releases, transparency in prisons, jails

ACLUThe ACLU of Virginia has joined the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Humanization Project, RISE for Youth and more than 40 additional organizations to form the Virginia COVID-19 Justice Coalition.

Together, the coalition is calling for the swift release of any person who is in custody and does not pose a demonstrable, imminent threat of bodily harm to others. The group is also calling for accountability and data transparency from state and local officials regarding COVID-19 infections and measures being taken to keep people safe within custodial facilities.

The coalition held a press conference Thursday to announce its formation and lay out its agenda. Speakers included family members of people who are currently incarcerated, Commonwealth’s attorneys from Charlottesville and Fairfax, and representatives from coalition member organizations.

“We urgently need statewide action now,” said Ashna Khanna, legislative director for the ACLU of Virginia. “The actions so far from the governor and his administration do not go nearly far enough in addressing this pandemic within Virginia prisons, jails and custodial facilities.”

In a statement read by her daughter, Cynthia Scott, a 50-year-old woman who is currently incarcerated, described the current conditions inside Fluvanna Correctional Center. Scott lives in a wing with 27 other women and says it is “impossible” to keep six feet away from each other.

“I was not sentenced to death, and I don’t want to die here,” Scott wrote. “But I am afraid I will when the coronavirus comes.”

Joseph Platania, Commonwealth’s Attorney for the City of Charlottesville, laid out the steps being taken locally and how releasing people who are incarcerated has kept everyone safe.

“Prosecutors in the City of Charlottesville and the County of Albemarle, along with judges, court clerks, defense attorneys, law enforcement partners, and the superintendent of the local jail, have undertaken aggressive and proactive measures to release 113 individuals from custody, reducing our jail population from 421 to 308 in under four weeks,” Platania said. “We are seeing the benefits of keeping jail staff, medical professionals and inmates safe and healthy while not compromising public safety.”

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano says his office is working with the sheriff and other local officials on similar actions, but emphasizes that without a uniform statewide approach, local measures are not sufficient to address the health crisis.

“I demand that our state officials show the leadership necessary to standardize Virginia’s legal response to COVID-19,” Descano said. “Now is the time. Because much like our community, our system must not only survive these troubling times, it must come out stronger in the end.”

The ACLU of Virginia has also set up a hotline to receive information on civil right and civil liberties violations in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Anyone with information should email or call (804) 803-3566.

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