Let’s Get Out of Here

Petersburg Federal Correctional Institution

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that four prisoners escaped from the federal prison complex near Petersburg early Saturday morning.  No details were released on how they escaped.

Undoubtedly, it is important for federal officials to discover how the prisoners escaped and take steps to tighten security.  However, there is another question that is almost as important:  how did it come about that these particular prisoners were housed in that particular facility?

Three of the four had long sentences resulting from their convictions on drug distribution charges (fentanyl, cocaine, or heroin). Also included among the charges were possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, possession of a stolen firearm, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Their sentences ranged from 10 to 16 years.  In summary, these were serious offenders who had shown a tendency toward firearm violence.

According to news reports, the four offenders were housed in the “Federal Correctional Complex Petersburg’s satellite camp.”  A satellite camp is described by the federal Bureau of Prisons as having “a relatively low staff-to-inmate ratio, and limited or no perimeter fencing.”  Their main function is to “provide inmate labor to the main institution and to off-site work programs.”  A consultant for offenders sentenced to federal prison or serving time in federal prisons notes that, in order to be assigned to a satellite camp, an offender must have less than ten years to serve on his sentence.

So, we are back to the question of how offenders who had long sentences, had been charged with firearms crimes, and at least one of whom had been formerly convicted of a felony got assigned to a facility with the lowest security level in the federal system.

Comparable units overseen by the Virginia Department of Corrections would be work centers and field units.  Normally, only nonviolent offenders with 12 years or less to serve on their sentences would be assigned to field units.  For work centers, only nonviolent offenders with seven years or less to serve would be placed in them.