People all across the Commonwealth of Virginia are feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is especially important to protect people who are most at risk, such as people who are incarcerated, people with disabilities, and immigrants. The ACLU of Virginia's physical office is closed, but we are working remotely to advocate for constitutional government responses to the pandemic, which should be based on good science and the best expert advice.

In this uncertain moment, it’s more important than ever for us to take necessary precautions and pull together with kindness, care and concern for the common good. We count on all of you to act in the public interest in ways that help ensure that this crisis is resolved as soon as possible and join us in advocating against discrimination and government overreach that limits our civil liberties in ways that are not essential to protect public health and safety. To that purpose, we created a virtual hotline, covid19@acluva.org or ‪(804) 803-3566, for the public to report any violations of people's civil rights related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay safe, stay vigilant, and stay in touch with us!

Along with our partners, community advocates, public defenders and many others, we are taking actions to:

  1. Protect the life and health of incarcerated people.

  2. Reduce the number of people who are unnecessarily jailed and incarcerated.

  3. Ensure that people are able to exercise their right to vote while practicing social distancing, isolation or self-quarantine.

We will upload resources and updates to this page to keep you informed on our collective efforts. You can be an agent of change during this pandemic. We hope you will continue to stand with us and be a champion in your own community.

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1. Protect the life and health of incarcerated people

Q.Protect the life and health of incarcerated people
A.

People involved in the criminal legal system face heightened risk of COVID-19 infection. They are housed in close quarters and are often in poor health. Without the active engagement of the administration, they have little ability to inform themselves about preventive measures, or to take such measures if they do manage to learn of them.

We should have compassion for the safety and health of people who are incarcerated. To that end, we believe that:

  • Prisons and jails must be developing plans to protect people. They must provide soap, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies.
  • People who are incarcerated need to be informed about the virus and the measures they can take to minimize their risk of contracting or spreading the virus.
  • Correctional, administrative, and medical staff all must be educated about the virus to protect themselves and their families, as well as the people in their custody.
  • Testing, housing of people infected with COVID-19, and treatment must be accessible to all those who are incarcerated.
  • Prisons, jails, and detention centers must provide for additional precautions for those who are at high risk of serious illness if they are infected, including pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses, compromised immune systems, or disabilities; people over the age of 65; and people whose housing placements restrict their access to medical care and limit the staff’s ability to observe them.
  • As with any contagious disease, data collection is critical to understanding and fighting the virus. Prisons and jails must be part of this process.

The ACLU of Virginia is monitoring and evaluating decisions by correctional officials at state and local facilities to ensure that adequate steps are being taken to protect the life and health of people housed in their facilities. We have already written to the people who can make decisions regarding the steps taken to protect these vulnerable people. We will continue to exercise vigilance so that we can identify and respond to civil liberties and civil rights abuses arising out of this public health crisis.   

2. Reduce the number of people who are unnecessarily jailed and incarcerated

Q.Reduce the number of people who are unnecessarily jailed and incarcerated
A.

From policing, prosecution and pretrial hearings, to sentencing, confinement, and release, Virginia officials must work together to reduce the number of people who are unnecessarily incarcerated and confined in substandard, dangerous conditions. Law enforcement officers need to balance their enforcement priorities with the realities of the pandemic. Police agencies need to rethink how arrests can be minimized to reduce the public health risks of unnecessary jailing. These following steps should be taken with the utmost level of urgency:

  • Police chiefs and sheriffs with law enforcement authority should be directing their officers to follow state law to cite and release anyone they observe committing a misdemeanor.  They should not be pushing more people into jail whom the law mandates be cited and released except in limited circumstances. 
  • Commonwealth's Attorneys, sheriffs, police chiefs and regional jail authorities should work together (with judges and magistrates) to affect the release from jail on their own recognizance (no bail) anyone in jail pending trial who doesn't pose a threat to public safety.  We too often forget that people held before trial are presumed innocent and should be treated as such.
  • The Parole Board should take an aggressive posture in favor of paroling anyone who is eligible (pre-1995 convictions) with due regard for ensuring that there is a humanitarian approach to anyone who is paroled who is in need of continuing health services.  Older people and people with long term illnesses or disabilities should be paroled into an effective safety net.

3. Ensure that people are able to exercise their right to vote while practice social distancing, isolation, or self-quarantine

Q.Ensure that people are able to exercise their right to vote while practice social distancing, isolation, or self-quarantine
A.

No one should have to choose between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote. To protect the right to vote, it's now even more critical that:

  • Virginia leaders and election officials make it as easy as possible for all Virginia voters to vote absentee by mail in 2020, and prepare for a likely surge in absentee ballots.
  • Virginia local registrars, election officers, and voters should be informed about voting law changes and the process for how to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic.