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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Local Jail Concerns Well Received By The Community Criminal Justice Board

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Recommendations for jail reforms presented by members of the Valley Justice Coalition, a a group of concerned local residents, were given a sympathetic hearing at yesterday's meeting of the CCJB. 

In addition, there were the following encouraging developments:

1. The new chair, William Kyger, who represents the 4th District on the Board of Supervisors, announced there will be regular quarterly meetings of the Community Criminal Justice Board starting in January, 2017. Its last session had been in September of last year.

2. A study committee headed by retiring Judge John Paul, which gave its first report to the CCJB yesterday, is to take recommendations made by his own group, by the Richmond-based Moseley Architects firm (as received two years ago), and by the Valley Criminal Justice Coalition and others present yesterday, and to come up with a plan in which working sub-groups made up of members of the CCJB and local residents will study and work on improving our criminal justice system.

3. In the open comment time Harrisonburg Mayor Chris Jones and others urged the CCJB to move ahead with all deliberate speed to implement proposals to reduce incarceration and implement improvements in jail health care and other jail-related issues.

4. Two local women shared moving personal accounts of mistreatment and lack of proper medical care experienced by loved ones in our local jails.

The following recommendations were presented by the Valley Justice Coalition:

A. Improve Conditions of Confinement
  • No one should be confined to the holding area for more than 12 hours without being provided    with a blanket and mattress while waiting to be placed in a regular cell.
  • No one should be confined to a segregation cell or placed on lockdown for long periods of time without opportunities for regular physical exercise and mental stimulation.
  • Non-violent offenders should be able to come the visitation area to talk with family members without being in handcuffs  and prison garb.
  • All inmates should be able to wear ordinary civilian clothes to court appearances.
  • Families of inmates should not have to bear the burden of paying an arbitrary $1 per day in jail “rent” ($3 for MRRJ) before their family members can purchase commissary items.
  • Commissary items and phone service should be provided at reasonable cost and not for profit.
  • Quality health and dental care should be provided for all inmates regardless of their ability to pay, and those on prescribed medications should be able to continue them without interruption.
  • Suicidally depressed inmates should not be placed in a restraint chair or confined to the isolated padded cell due to the lack of sufficient mental health personnel.
  • Well vetted local mental health professionals should be solicited—on a voluntary basis if necessary—to provide crisis intervention if a CSB worker is not available.
B. Review and Update Procedures for Inmate Grievances

Both staff and inmates benefit from cogent, documented policies which articulate the methods to question and receive responses from administrators. In that regard, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) of 1996, a solid, non-discriminatory grievance procedure is viewed as an element of positive correctional management which assists in creating safe, institutional environments.

Additionally, as the intent of PLRA was to significantly impact on the number of frivolous lawsuits clogging federal court dockets, the language of the statute dictates that inmates must “exhaust all administrative remedies” prior to filing lawsuits.

All correctional facilities should appoint an “Inmate Ombudsman” who maintains accountability and equality in grievance procedures. He or she constantly should review the processes to insure that timeliness, fairness, and rational responses are inherent in the processes. Further, as relevant, modifications and improvements should be initiated to maintain positive and fluid communication between personnel and the justice-involved.

At intake, a resident handbook should be distribute which contains a clear, concise grievance mechanism which is delineated in two distinct sections: policy and procedures. 

Policy must define allowable categories for submitting complaints. Procedures must be instructional as to the steps of the process, forms, identities of the arbiters, anticipated timeframe, and appeal process. The latter supports the credibility, while offering each individual the opportunity to further receive information and, perhaps, reconsideration.

Fair and objective inmate grievance procedures are critical in every correctional facility to insure that all voices are heard. Integrity in the process provides all incarcerated persons, without reprisal or retaliation, access to information, ability to question management, and express concerns regarding the conditions of confinement. Further, an element of participation in their life situation is empowering and humane to those who have no control over their daily existence.

C. Adopt Best Practices That Help Reduce Recidivism

      • Have a Community Oversight and Accountability Board appointed for each local jail.
  • Provide more pre-and post-release vocational training and educational programs to help     inmates become gainfully employed.
  • Eliminate laws and policies that serve as obstacles to the successful reintegration of former inmates into the communities (such as limitations on getting a driver's licenses or trade licenses, the burden of fines with accumulated interest having been incurred while in prison, prohibitions against receiving social services such as food stamps, low income housing, etc

D. Begin Work on Jail Accreditation 

Accreditation improves public confidence in correctional facilities which meet accepted national standards designed to safeguard the life and health of personnel and offenders. It serves as a means to implement these standards in all aspects of offender management, conditions of confinement and delivery of health services. It reduces exposure to costly liability and recognizes an institution’s commitment to meeting quality goals and employing evidence-based practices.  

The accreditation process, typically completed within two years and costing less than $20,000, provides correctional institutions tools to fortify their policies and procedures consistent with nationally recognized standards and practices. Following a professionally assisted self-study, surveyors from the accrediting organizations conduct an extensive on-site review and bring years of experience and familiarity with national standards and best practices.  

The primary accrediting organizations, which establish the industry benchmarks, are the American Correctional Association (ACA) and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC).  A number of local and regional jails across the Commonwealth are accredited by one or both organizations.

Benefits of accreditation include:         
                                                                                                   
~ Improvement of staff morale and promotion of professional excellence.                                                                   
~ Reduction in litigation relative to inmate health care and conditions of confinement.                                                                                                                                                                 
~ Establishment of good-faith efforts to improve management and operational policies.                                        
~ Justification for budget requests.                                                                                                                                      
~ Application of accepted national standards through facility self-governance.                                                                                                                                        
~ Development of institutional pride from completing a rigorous review process.

Recognizing that the accreditation process is less than perfect and may well not change the philosophies of individual correctional administrators, it nevertheless provides accountability, reduces liability and can be an effective catalyst for cultural shifts.

Therefore, The Valley Justice Coalition respectfully requests that the Community Criminal Justice Board recommend to the Harrisonburg City Council and the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors that both Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail and Middle River Regional Jail begin immediately to pursue national accreditation and that sufficient funds be allocated to support that process.

- prepared for the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Community Criminal Justice Board 8/29/16

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“The Valley Justice Coalition is made up of residents of Rockingham County, the City of Harrisonburg and adjacent areas who are concerned about justice reforms in our community and state. It actively promotes restorative justice and other alternatives to incarceration, advocates for just and humane treatment of offenders, collaborates with local officials in promoting best practices that result in reduced rates of recidivism, and advocates for a system of justice that can be a model for communities everywhere."
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