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Covid 19 in Prison -- Pardons and Paroles

With the inescapable and unrelenting threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most vulnerable will never make it home safely. When this pandemic erupted in Virginia, Governor Northam took to the podium and exclaimed that as a doctor himself, he would do everything in his power to protect the most vulnerable who could not protect themselves. He kicked off this urgent health crisis by directing the Virginia Parole Board to expedite the release of the most vulnerable eligible or nearly eligible for geriatric release. "Time and tide wait for no one." The rhythmic persistence of this deadly virus seems to follow a similar theme. The ACLU of Virginia and other legal entities stood the sideline for weeks, all the while, the most vulnerable Virginia prisoners died and hundreds contracted the virus from the very individuals sworn to protect the prisoners. After double digit press conferences, the most vulnerable are still behind bars just waiting for the virus to overtake them. The idle "lip service" and slow acceleration coming out of the State capitol caused a Virginia attorney joined by the ACLU of Virginia to file a lawsuit against the Governor in the local state and federal courts. Their position was the Governor was acting too slow at opening the prison gates to protect the most vulnerable.

Admittedly, the Northam team won the lawsuit even though it ended in a mutual settlement or "handshake." Northam's team agreed that it would immediately start reporting to the ACLU and other joined parties the Early Release Initiative (the release of offenders within one year of their projected release date), Conditional Pardons related to COVID-19 and the rate of COVID-19 infections and spread in the VDOC. Geriatric releases through the Parole Board was not a reporting feature contained in the settlement. "How did we get to this point." Why should it have taken a lawsuit or the threat of any legal action for the Governor to do what is morally correct? The "bean counters" at the VDOC knew from a couple keystrokes of their massive database (VACORIS) exactly who was eligible for the Early Release Initiative. The same keystrokes could have easily identified the most vulnerable geriatric group with underlying health conditions for contracting the virus. This was not an accidental delay in saving lives; this was a systemic delay in playing politics over the sanctity of human life. A lot of the unacceptable delay verses a need for urgency has to do with the the phrase "public safety" which is loosely use to guard the public against the massive release of prisoners. However, the relevant question is: does the public safety need to be protected from the incarcerated prisoner or does the prisoner need protection from the public servants of the VDOC? The answer is the latter since the prisoners' COVID-19 deaths and infections originated from the VDOC public servants.

Politics and humanity make strange bedfellows. The cost of just one prisoner contracting the deadly virus can never be an accepted trade off for playing politics. As long as this pandemic exists, human lives are at stake everyday. The Governor is expected to say what he means and mean what he says. If the prison gates continue to open too slowly, the likelihood is that a unwitting prisoner will die who was not sentenced to death. As the upcoming second wave of this deadly virus is imminent, the Governor, VDOC and the Parole Board should have already identified the most vulnerable prisoners and the most expeditious path to their unfettered


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