Transferring prisoners from MRRJ ‘alleviates pressure’ — for the moment

The Middle River Regional Jail’s authority board has been pushing for a multi-million-dollar expansion plan. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

With an abrupt transfer of 180 inmates to Virginia Department of Corrections facilities last week, the Middle River Regional Jail reached its lowest population in seven years. 

WHSV reported last Monday that 89 state-responsible inmates were transferred that day. The Daily News Record reported on Tuesday that an additional 91 inmates were also being transferred en masse, leaving 585 people still incarcerated at Middle River Regional Jail. 

The jail’s average daily population has remained above 600 since March 2014, according to a needs assessment conducted by Moseley Architects in 2019.

The jail held 611 inmates on Monday, “and I expect that count’s going to continue to climb,” said Jail Superintendent Jeffery Newton.

Newton told The Citizen there are still 66 people in their custody waiting to go to a Department of Corrections facility. An inmate is considered “state-responsible” when they are given a sentence of a year or more. Across Virginia, however, many of those inmates stay in local and regional jails for several months before the Department of Corrections will say they’re ready to take them. 

The Citizen previously spoke with one inmate who served an entire two-year sentence at Middle River Regional Jail. Newton said that’s an ongoing problem.

“These folks may be here, I don’t know, six months or a year, or they may leave next week. We don’t control that,” he said. “It’s a significant challenge, and it’s not just unique to now. It’s a process that needs to be improved … they just need to move people faster.” 

The jail is owned by the localities of Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, Staunton, Augusta County and Waynesboro. The jail authority board has proposed an expansion, but that plan is on hiatus because it’s unclear whether the multi-million-dollar expansion and renovation plan has the support from at least four of the localities’ governments.

Aside from the obvious problem of crowding more people into limited space to house state-responsible inmates, Newton said the bottleneck is also bad for the inmates themselves because jails have fewer rehabilitative programs than prisons and other state-run facilities.

They “sit and languish in local and regional jails, and they don’t have the opportunity to begin rehabilitation,” he said.

Statewide, Newton said at any given time between 2,300 and 5,600 inmates are stuck in the “limbo” of local jails. The Department of Corrections contacted Newton and his staff two weeks ago and sent a list of inmates to prepare for transfer. Newton told The Citizen that one of the department’s representatives would have to explain who they choose to transfer and when.

Lisa Kinney, the director of communications for the department, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Monday afternoon.

With the available space, Newton said the jail soon will take in more inmates from the Rockingham Harrisonburg Regional Jail. 

The large Department of Corrections transfer “is a great thing for how we manage the facility. It’s a great thing for the community because it alleviates pressure, but this is not a solution,” Newton said. 

“This,” he said, “is a short-term Band-Aid to a long-term problem.” 

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