Harrisonburg asks for legislative action to address overcrowding at Middle River Regional Jail

Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 8:40 PM EST
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - The City of Harrisonburg is calling on state representatives to sponsor legislation to address overcrowding at Middle River Regional Jail, a problem that stems from a lack of transfers of inmates who belong in state prisons.

State prisoners being held in regional jails like MRRJ are supposed to be transferred to state prisons within 60 days of their final sentencing order being signed by a court, but an amendment in the Virginia Department of Corrections budget gives the DOC the discretion to keep inmates at regional jails as long as they see fit.

This is causing big problems at Middle River.

“When you operate a facility at close to 200% capacity for long periods of time you put a lot of stress on the inmate population, you put a lot of stress on the staff, and you put a lot of stress on the physical plant, and I just don’t think that’s a long term solution for us here at Middle River,” said Jeffery Newton, superintendent of Middle River Regional Jail.

MRRJ is currently housing around 115 inmates who belong in state prisons and over the course of the pandemic that number has risen as high as 250.

“We don’t have the capacity to house those inmates appropriately nor do we have the programing that these inmates should be permitted to participate in to address the underlying causes of their criminal behavior,” said Newton.

At their meeting last week, the Harrisonburg City Council passed a resolution asking area representatives Del. Tony Wilt and Sen. Mark Obenshain to take legislative action to get rid of the loop hole in the DOC’s budget and pass legislation that would make the DOC transfer inmates on time or fully compensate jails for holding them.

“I remember calculating it that we were paying something like $10,000 a day for all the extra inmates. If we can hold them to the sixty day limit then so much the better, if not then they would at least have to pay the full cost,” said Harrisonburg City Councilwoman Laura Dent.

Harrisonburg claims it costs Middle River $58 a day to house each inmate but the DOC only compensates the jail $12 a day for each state prisoner being held there.

Middle River is rated to house 396 inmates but has been housing many more. Newton said this limits the ability of state prisoners to be rehabilitated.

“At the end of the day it’s not all about money, it’s about individuals that are criminal justice involved. How do we want to address and provide them an opportunity to change?” said Jeffery Newton. “Unfortunately, here at Middle River Regional Jail we don’t have the space and we don’t have the capacity to provide the level of programming that some of these folks need.”

Laura Dent said if the DOC begins transferring inmates at the rate it’s supposed to, it could also eliminate the need for an expansion of MRRJ.

“There’s the on-going debate about whether we need an expansion of the jail and the more we can alleviate the crowding that’s already there, the less we need more space for the jail,” Dent said.

While Harrisonburg is hoping for a legislative change 26th District Delegate Tony Wilt hopes to find a quicker solution since the new state budget will not be considered until the spring.

“If we can solve a problem without legislation that’s always the best for everyone concerned, especially the citizens who are footing the bill for everything that we do. So, I’ll certainly make every effort to reach out to DOC,” said Wilt.

Wilt said he has had discussions in the past with the DOC about the overcrowding issues at MRRJ and even approached the governor’s office about using federal relief funding to aid jails dealing with overcrowding, but no plan was ever agreed upon.

Wilt said he will look to connect with the DOC and with members of Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin’s staff to address the issue once the new governor is inaugurated.

“Part of the total process is to try to nail down what’s going on, why have me stalled here in you all transferring folks from one facility to another. That’s gonna be my approach and hopefully we can find out what the hold up is,” he said.

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