At home, in jail: new program lets inmates travel to work, sleep in their own beds

Staff writer

For Tonya Dempsey, 45, waking up in her own bed next to her husband is nothing short of a personal miracle. Every day is the same routine. Get up, get to work, go home. If she strays from that routine she could be arrested.

Dempsey is one of two inmates at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail in James City County participating in a new ankle-monitoring program.

Dempsey and fellow inmate Patrick Valdez are no longer held within the steel and concrete confines of the jail. Instead, they’re allowed to work, sleep in their own beds and visit the jail, and that’s about it, according to one of the correctional officers overseeing the inmates, Cpl. Tulia Mahon-Askew.

“It’s better than being in orange,” Dempsey said. “It gave me the freedom not to sit in the jail, to be able to go to work and not to depend on somebody else. It gave me a little responsibility.”

Since Feb. 12, Dempsey has participated in a monitoring program called Home Electronic Incarceration or HEI — a form of house arrest that uses GPS transmitters to track an inmate in real-time, according to a letter submitted to the York-Poquoson Circuit Court by the jail and Dempsey.

Similar monitoring programs have been in operation across the state for years, but the program at the jail is just one of several new technology-based initiatives.

Dempsey joined the HEI program after the jail asked her if she’d be willing to be one of its pilot participants. The jail submitted a letter to Judge Richard Rizk and the York County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office to inform them Dempsey was approved for the program and could be released if they had no objections. Rizk responded with “no action needed” and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office approved the release.

A team of correctional officers at the jail vets potential HEI participants. Certain classes of inmates: violent criminals and sexual predators cannot participate.

The program is limited in the number of people it can allow out at one time, about 15 inmates, according to Superintendent Tony Pham.

Inmates must pay a fee — $15 daily — for the monitor and the tracking services, the letter said. Both Dempsey and Valdez are geographically limited to where they can and cannot travel; they can go to work, home, the jail, and healthcare treatment facilities or programs, according to their caseworkers. Inmates can’t go to church, run errands or visit friends.

The jail has operated a similar monitoring system for daily work-release inmates for about 17 years, according to Lt. Ronald Roth.

If Dempsey were to deviate from her pre-determined route to work or home, her case officer at the jail would be notified, her ankle monitor would begin to screech and she’d have to let her agent know what was going on. If she didn’t call her case agent after the monitor “pinged,” she’d find herself back in a jumpsuit for violating the conditions of the program.

“It’s not a program for everyone,” Pham said. “It’s a valuable program, but it’s not a program for everyone.”

After her sixth larceny conviction, Dempsey was sentenced to five years in jail with all but one year suspended. She realized then that she never wanted to go back to jail for any reason. She joined the jail’s HEI program in February. She’ll be released from jail and the program April 15.

It’s an exercise in avoiding temptation, Dempsey said. When she hits the road on her way to work, she knows she’s always just a few feet — one turn into a McDonald’s drive-thru — away from spending the night in jail.

“I go home and I gotta pick up the pieces to what (my husband) didn’t do, and what needs to be done,” Dempsey said. “I’m able to contribute to that instead of taking away from that (by) being in jail.”

The program does come with a caveat for inmates: it can extend their length of time at the jail due to Department of Corrections regulations, Pham said. They can’t get credit for good behavior in jail if they’re not in jail.

For Valdez, 46, a former Smithfield Police Department Lieutenant convicted of embezzling money from the department in 2018, the program has allowed him to spend time with his family and pick up the pieces of his own life.

He’s able to work and spend time with his wife and three young kids at their home in Chesapeake, he said.

Valdez was evaluated for the program after months of hard work in the traditional work-release program and after he jumped into a fight to help protect a correctional officer.

“My rule of thumb was to stay below the guards’ radars,” Valdez said. “I was on my way to work one morning, just sitting in the intake area, and the intake officer he was moving one inmate from an intake cell to a holding cell. I heard some yelling, then out of the corner of my eye I hear (an officer) say stop.”

Valdez stepped in as the officer took punches. He helped the officer wrestle his attacker to the ground, he said.

Behind the scenes

Behind both Valdez’s and Dempsey’s release on HEI, is a team of caseworkers at the jail who make sure they both are in compliance at all times.The team includes Mahon-Askew, Roth and Cpl. Marcos Tomala among a handful of others.

The caseworkers monitor Dempsey’s and Valdez’s travel, perform site checks to make sure they’re at work when they say they are, and the agents test the pair for drugs and alcohol, Roth said.

The program saves the jail about $85 a day per participant for the cost of housing, feeding and clothing inmates as they live at home.

“A lot of other inmates have asked (Dempsey and Valdez) how do you do it?” Pham said. “How do you stay in compliance? Because of the temptations of life that create the opportunities where bad decisions are made. This is not a behavioral modification program, this is a re-entry program.”

Part of that re-entry includes paying debts to society: fines, court fees, monitoring fees, restitution and child support, Pham said.

“It kills me to pay it,” Dempsey said. “But at the end of the day, I’m free.”

Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at srobertsjr@vagazette.com and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.

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