Prince William-Manassas jail officials violated their own record-sharing policies “over many years” to give local prosecutors direct access to inmate records and phone calls while preventing similar access to defense attorneys, according to two letters sent from jail officials to Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth in August.
The letters have shed new light on a dispute between the jail, the commonwealth's attorney’s office and the public defender’s office over whether defense attorneys should have the same access as prosecutors to their incarcerated client’s records. Those records include inmate phone call recordings, text messages and other written correspondence – all of which are admissible as evidence in criminal cases.
The commonwealth’s attorney’s office has historically been given open access to those records by the jail – an apparent violation of jail policy – while defense attorneys have been required to obtain those records through a time-consuming subpoena process.
The now year-old local public defender’s office raised concerns about whether the jail was implementing their record-sharing rules fairly. The dispute appeared to arise from an ongoing criminal case. Ultimately, jail officials determined their record-sharing policies were not being carried out equally and took action to begin following their own policy in mid-August.
Maj. Amanda Lambert, the jail’s director of support services, notified Ashworth on Aug. 16 that the jail would begin enforcing their existing policy. As a result, the commonwealth’s attorney’s office would need to obtain inmate records through a subpoena, and would no longer have direct access to them.
Jail Superintendent Col. Pete Meletis offered this explanation to Ashworth in an Aug. 18 letter about why the jail decided to begin enforcing the policy:
“Unfortunately, a former employee chose to disregard our requirements and elected to provide [jail] records to the commonwealth’s attorney’s office over many years without supervisory knowledge, or contrary to direction,” Meletis said. “... We pride ourselves on being consistent and fair with all our external partners. The practice of permitting [jail] records to be obtained without a subpoena by your office but requiring it for others is not in the best interest of all stakeholders.”
It remains unclear what repercussions could come from the recent revelations. Chief Public Defender Tracey Lenox said this week it likely will not have any impact on past convictions.
The issue was partially resolved in mid-September after the Prince William-Manassas regional jail board reversed the jail’s record sharing policy at Ashworth’s request at their Sept. 15 meeting. The new policy allows prosecutors to once again have open access to the records of incarcerated individuals.
Ashworth said during the meeting that access to those records was an urgent “public safety issue.”
The new policy allows prosecutors access, “without delay,” to a deluge of inmate records including recorded phone calls, text messages, tablet messages, recorded inmate visits, booking photos, visitor logs, copies of non-legal mail, intercepted written communication between inmates, discipline reports and housing records.
Allowing commonwealth’s attorney’s offices access to the records of incarcerated individuals is common practice in Virginia.
Defense attorneys must still obtain a subpoena for inmate records. But the jail board left open the possibility that another resolution could be passed at an upcoming jail board meeting to further update their policy allowing defense attorneys easy access to their client's records.
Incarcerated individuals are charged 11 cents per minute for phone calls and 25 cents per text message by a third-party vendor contracted by the jail. Incarcerated individuals are also charged when they use digital tablets provided by the same vendor for listening to music, playing games or watching television.
In 2020, the jail collected $245,000 in annual revenues from phone calls and tablet use by incarcerated individuals, according to its annual report.
The Prince William-Manassas jail board will meet again in two months on Wednesday, Nov. 17.