Who’s manning Richmond City Jail?

8/4/2022, 6 p.m.
For several weeks the Richmond Free Press has reported ongoing violence at Richmond’s City Jail.

For several weeks the Richmond Free Press has reported ongoing violence at Richmond’s City Jail.

On July 7, Deputy S. Cole was assaulted at the Richmond City Justice Center. The petite female deputy was violently beaten by an inmate, suffering facial injuries that required hospitalization and surgery.

The inmate alleged to have committed the assault has a history of mental health challenges. Following the attack, Sakeem Jamar Bell was taken to Central State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Petersburg. He was there no longer than a day, and is back at the jail after being arraigned in Richmond City General District Court on felony charges of malicious assault to law enforcement officers.

One of our recent articles about jail violence at the Richmond City Justice Center includes comments from Sheriff Antionette Irving.

This was good news, so to speak, as previous Free Press efforts to speak with the sheriff had failed. Thus, we are led to believe that our questions about jail conditions would still be unanswered had not Sheriff Irving basically been ordered to talk by a member of Richmond City Council.

On July 26, Sheriff Irving, re-elected last fall to a second four-year term, broke her silence when called to appear before 8th District Councilwoman Reva M. Trammell, chair of the city’s Public Safety Standing Committee.

Asked about the jail’s ongoing violence, reported to include beatings, sexual assault and drug use, the sheriff acknowledged the issues, but added that everything being reported isn’t true. She also attributed many of the jail’s problems to a lack of a sufficient number of deputies.

Sheriff Irving stated there are currently 160 vacant deputy positions. Shifts that previously had 40 deputies have been running with as few as 10, and mandatory overtime policies are little help in the face of such staffing shortages.

And even though the jail that opened in 2014 was built to house 1,132 people is currently averaging just over 600 inmates a night, Sheriff Irving contends the current population is harder to deal with.

About 60 percent of the residents in the East End facility have mental health challenges and are prescribed daily medication. More than half are being held for violent crimes. Add in major increases in broken cell locks and other equipment, and it is clear the risks are significant for both inmates and deputies.

Despite the sheriff’s words, it was alarming to hear Ms. Trammell say during the question-and-answer session that she has seen videos of violence at the facility, and that inmates’ family members routinely ask her for help. We must assume other city council members also have been contacted given that the jail serves all of Richmond’s nine districts.

It also is disturbing that negative reports about Richmond’s jail are not new. In May 2021, Free Press reporter Jeremy M. Lazarus quoted several former jail employees who addressed many of the same issues.

“Deputies have been spat on, had hot water thrown on them. They have had bleach thrown in their face. One had his nose broken,” said one former supervisor.

“You can’t do this job with so few people. It left the inmates in control,” another former lieutenant added.

All of this leads to several questions.

Do certain inmates truly run the jail as has been suggested and in accordance with the video footage Ms. Trammell says she has seen?

What are other council representatives, members of the Virginia General Assembly who represent Richmond, and local court judges doing to address this violence?

Before our questioning continues, it may be worth noting that a jail that equates to a holding cell for violence is not a “good look” for Richmond. The city just spent $450,000 on its new “Richmond Real” branding campaign. It is a depot for new luxury apartment buildings, encourages Virginia Commonwealth University’s ever-expanding footprint and continues to pine for a casino and other business and industry — all while allowing its jails to fester with unruly inmates who choose chaos over calm.

There is no excuse for allowing such conditions to persist.

Haven’t we advanced enough as a society, as a city, to end, rather than put a bandage on the city’s dangerous jail conditions?

Well, yes. And no.

Long before the city’s newest jail opened eight years ago, one of the Richmond’s earliest jails, built in 1902 was awash in crime. A 2021 Valentine museum blog reveals:

“Built directly beneath the Marshall Street Viaduct, the main bridge that spanned Shockoe Valley at the time, the jail’s hidden location only added to its problems. Passersby on the bridge easily lowered contraband into unscreened cell windows. The window bars were so cheap that prisoners filed through them faster than the city could replace them. Once a prisoner broke out, it was easy to disappear without being seen, often by hopping a train on the nearby C&O tracks. Politicians joked that it was a jail “easier to get out of than to get in.”

There’s more.

“After Prohibition in 1920, Richmond City Jail went from being a problem to an outright joke,” the Valentine blog notes. “Unable to accommodate the masses of arrests each night, City Sergeant George Saunders, who ran the prison, adopted a laissez faire attitude to wait the law out. Alcohol flowed freely, prostitutes worked the (large common) room, and prisoners largely came and went at will.

“The permanent party beneath the Marshall Street Viaduct enraged citizens and politicians, though the building remained unchanged until 1934, when an escape turned deadly.”