Is the Virginia prison system failing those with mental illnesses? Does the state need to reform its re-entry program? Those were among the topics of discussion at a town hall meeting on prison reform, held by local Arlington delegates Adam Ebbin and Patrick Hope, July 24th.

Helen Trainer of the Legal Aid Justice Center pointed to a story of an inmate who wasn’t allowed to self-medicate in his prison cell. Told to wait in the daily line at the clinic, he ultimately suffered numerous seizures and left the prison as a quadriplegic. Trainer believes the story is not an isolated incident and is indicative of the reform needed throughout the nation’s criminal justice system.

Trainer said prison employees, more often than not, falsely believe that inmates’ behavior stems from a lack of control, rather than from mental health problems. Identifying individuals with mental health issues from the point of intake and diverting them to mental health facilities could help alleviate many of the outbreaks that occur in prisons, she explained.

Gail Arnall, Executive Director of OAR, asked why was Virginia locking up so many people rather than giving them the mental health and substance abuse treatment they need.

Rebecca Kobar, OAR’s Client Project Board President, explained that men and women coming out of local jails and prisons need a reentry program like OAR in Arlington to give them the skills and the confidence to come back into our community safely and successfully.

Scott Richeson of the Virginia Department of Corrections spoke about the department’s new emphasis on prisoner re-entry programs. He said that 13,500 people are released from Virginia’s prisons annually, but only 600-800 are paroled, making Virginia one of the country’s lowest parole-granting states. And of the 13,500 prisoners released, 28.5 percent are incarcerated again within three years.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has also taken an interest in re-entry policy. He has appointed a “Virginia Prisoner and Juvenile Offender Re-entry Council” to help improve public safety by promoting successful re-entry strategies and thus reducing the re-incarceration rate. (Arnall has been appointed to the Virginia Re-entry Advisory Group.)

Bill Richardson of Virginia C.U.R.E. (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants) said he is hopeful that the Department of Corrections and the Virginia Parole Board will start working together to create a plan from the first day of sentencing for inmates deemed parole-eligible.

The meeting at the Walter Reed Community Center was held at a time when Virginia Sen. Jim Webb was working to get his National Criminal Justice Commission Act passed. (It passed the Senate the following day.) If passed by the House, the bill calls for a commission to conduct an 18-month top-to-bottom review of the nation’s criminal justice system.

About 50 people attended the meeting. Successful alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, ways to handle an aging prison population and incentives for good behavior were also brought up during the course of the discussion.