Today, I watched as my friend Maurice was escorted by officers out of the housing unit on his way to those coveted gates that would mark both his exit from penal confinement and his (re)entrance into the free world. The reason Maurice - or Reese, as we called him - needed to be escorted is because he's in a wheelchair. One of the officers ushering him out pushed the wheelchair while the other pushed a cart containing Reese's personal belongings. A smile stretching from ear to ear covered his face as everyone crowded around him to offer parting words and shake his hand one final time. Seeing someone go home is always a celebratory moment in prison, but for Reese specifically, we had even more of a reason to be happy for him. He'd been waiting on DOC to release him via the Inmate Early Release Plan that Governor Northam authorized in April of last year to reduce the prison population due to the pandemic. In fact, Reese was the very first person at this institution to be administratively approved for early release. Yet, like hundreds of other offenders in Virginia - and thousands of offenders across the nation - his approval ultimately meant nothing because DOC never actually released him early. Today (January 11, 2021) is his regular release date from his court sentencing. Technically, he's still on DOC's wait list to be released "early" . . . .
These COVID-19 early release initiatives were created to help protect us by reducing the prison population. The less people in prison, the more other offenders would be able to practice social distancing. And of course, anyone released from prison would be better able to protect themselves from infection on the outside. By now, it's well known that there are a lot of offenders who have preexisting medical conditions that put them at an increased risk of complications from COVID. But the same states that implemented these early release programs immediately undermined the effectiveness of them by setting "eligibility criteria" that automatically excluded the majority of their offender populations. Why would we need to be "eligible" to be protected from COVID? The criteria varied from state to state, but they generally excluded any offenders with recent institutional infractions, those serving time for "violent offenses," and those with more than 12 months remaining on their sentence. With these exclusions, only a small fraction of offenders was deemed eligible for early release, and that small fraction certainly wouldn't reduce the prison population to the degree needed to make prisons safer in light of the pandemic.
Furthermore, a lot of the offenders who actually met the criteria for early release and were administratively approved STILL weren't released. Case in point: Reese. Months after he was approved (last April), he began filing grievances and writing letters to DOC asking why he hadn't been released yet. But according to him, no one ever responded. It's as if they ignored the early release altogether and made him finish serving the remainder of his sentence. Right now, there are three more offenders in my housing unit who were also approved for COVID early release last April. Although eight months have passed, they're still here. Like Reese, they'll probably end up serving out their sentences as well. Do lawmakers understand how emotionally torturous it is to dangle freedom before our eyes only to snatch it away the moment we reach for it? I remember vividly how excited these guys were last year when they were notified that they'd been approved for early release. I remember Reese telling me how his mother had cried on the phone when he told her he would be home early, and how she immediately began planning for his homecoming. Neither of them was aware that DOC would never release Reese early, and that he'd end up serving all the rest of his sentence. It might've been less disappointing for both of them had DOC simply denied his application in the first place.
The way Virginia, and a lot of other states, are handling their early release programs shows that despite all the criminal justice reform / anti-mass incarceration rhetoric spewed by elected officials - which seems to have become the new trend in politics - they aren't serious about it. We have over 38,000 offenders in Virginia's prison system; yet, only 1,172 of them had been approved for early release as of October 2020 (Virginian-Pilot). Of those approved, only 786 had actually been released as of December 2020 (NBC 29). Even in light of this deadly virus that has already entered every Virginia prison, infected well over 6,500 offenders and staff members, and claimed the lives of 35 offenders (NBC 29), lawmakers are still tip-toeing around true reform efforts instead of enacting the broad, comprehensive changes needed to not only reduce the prison population, but to save lives. There are several moral, ethical, fiscal, and other reasons why mass de-carceration is needed, but if this pandemic hasn't been enough of a catalyst for lawmakers and corrections departments to make the necessary reforms, what will?