Sep. 18--All women incarcerated in Virginia prisons will soon be located in the central region of the state, part of what officials are calling a "gender responsivity plan."
The move comes after several women died in state prisons this year, including three this summer at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. The state is appealing some court-mandated changes to its medical care at Fluvanna to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The new plan aims "to make the state prison system more responsive to the needs of female offenders" and will include additional training for inmates and staff. In a news release announcing the changes, the Virginia Department of Corrections did not connect them to the deaths.
The biggest immediate change is moving the women to central Virginia, where a majority are already located.
The corrections department divides its operations into three regions -- east, west and central, spokeswoman Lisa Kinney said in an email. Going forward, all of the women will be housed under the central unit.
"The idea is to have all female offenders under one administrative team so it's the same team working on everything for the female offender population, from nutrition to programming," Kinney said.
Kinney did not respond Wednesday to questions about how many people would be moved, what prompted the changes, what the department means by "gender responsivity" and more about the specifics of the plan.
Fluvanna, the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland and Central Virginia Correctional Center Unit 13 already house women. The State Farm Work Center in Goochland, meanwhile, will transition from men to women inmates, with the men being relocated, according to the news release. The Brunswick and Deerfield women's work centers will also transition from housing women to men, with the women relocated to central Virginia.
All prisoners will be moved by early November, according to the news release.
That means families in Hampton Roads whose loved ones were incarcerated at Brunswick and Deerfield may have to drive an extra hour or two to visit. Last year, state data showed there were 43 women from the seven cities incarcerated at those two facilities.
Prison officials also said in the news release they plan to increase vocational training for the women and train staff in "gender responsive and trauma informed care." In the future, the department "hopes" to add a nursery for women who will be released from incarceration by the time their children are 18 months old, and have re-entry centers where inmates could have overnight visits with family and learn about banking and employment.
In the statement released Tuesday, department officials said "gender responsivity throughout the agency is the goal of this large and innovative project, which is just getting started." It aims to "meet the unique needs of female offenders."
The medical needs of incarcerated women are generally almost double that of men, DOC director Harold Clarke told lawmakers at a committee hearing earlier this year.
The announcement comes after years of complaints about deficient care at women's prisons -- Fluvanna in particular. The prison has been under a federal court order since 2016, when it reached a settlement designed to bring up the level of care to the bare minimum. A group of inmates had sued the corrections department over the medical care. Attorneys for the inmates now argue the prison is not upholding its terms, and in January a federal judge agreed that the state was not providing constitutionally-mandated care. The state is now appealing that decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Three women incarcerated at Fluvanna died this summer, including Margie Ryder, who'd pleaded with a judge for emergency medical relief two months earlier and was waiting on a ruling.
The Pilot has also reported about women struggling with medical care at the Goochland prison, where Jennifer Addison died last year of the flu and MRSA after multiple written requests seeking medical help.
The responsivity plan makes no specific mention of changes to medical care at the prisons.
Shannon Ellis, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center who represents the inmate plaintiffs in the Fluvanna case, said in an email that the changes sound positive.
"One can only hope the aspirations are actually implemented on the ground in a meaningful way," she added. "Having worked with women at (Fluvanna) whose babies were taken away from them and witnessing their pain, the goal of a nursery program is long overdue."