Bad Times at Richmond Jail

by Jon Baliles

If anyone knows what the hell is going on at the Richmond City Jail, please raise your hand. Stand up. Write it down. Grab the mic. Something. Anything.

In a bizarre series of stories in recent days, people are dying, guards are getting beaten, and strange and awful things are happening at the City Jail. The slow drip of bad news has turned into a torrent of stories — none of them good. Sheriff Antionette Irving is invoking the opening of the Miranda warning on herself by not saying much of anything while charging the media absurd fees to get information about even basic records, whether they are subject to the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) or not.

Luca Powell at the Richmond Times-Dispatch tried to get basic payroll records and was told the work to find that information would cost $1,385 by tasking four people to do the work at $98 per hour.

Payroll records are explicitly not protected from FOIA under the Virginia Administrative Code. When they receive requests from the public, agency records officers estimate prices based on how many hours employees will need to produce the records. Sheriffs sign off on those labor estimates.

Despite payroll being a record that public agencies are required to maintain, the sheriff’s records officer, Aviva Shapiro-Frye, stated that four employees would be required to pull together the document, and they would need 20 hours of labor among them.

Shapiro-Frye said it would take one employee, who is on an hourly wage of $98.46, eight hours to help pull the pre-existing payroll records, a $788 task.

What is even more insulting is the response Powell got in a follow up question. Asked to explain the charges, Shapiro-Frye said, “Your FOIA request would require staff to create new queries as well as create a new document, as not doing so would be even more expensive.”

But we are just getting warmed up in bizarro-world.

The Sheriff charged Tyler Layne at CBS6 more than $1,000 for his FOIA request as he inquired about two deaths that occurred at the jail in just over a month. No explanations have been forthcoming, and now everyone is asking questions. Layne said that Councilwoman Reva Trammell, who serves as chair of city council’s public safety committee, called for a state investigation into the jail amidst concerns for the “safety of inmates and staff, reported assaults on deputies, and a significant staffing shortage. Currently, Sheriff Irving is down about 160 deputies out of 385 positions.”

But Layne didn’t let the Sheriff’s silence stop him from digging. “CBS 6 obtained more than a dozen jail incident reports, which showed just in November, two separate assaults on deputies and another deputy who was hurt while moving an inmate.”

When reporter Layne asked Sheriff Irving in a recent interview how frequently deputies are assaulted on the job, Irving said, “Not often. We may have one this month, and we may have one six months or a year down the road. But we’re not having assaults every day. We’re not having assaults every month.”

And then came another big bill. Under the Freedom of Information Act, CBS 6 requested the total number of assaults on staff for 2022 and 2021 along with information about charges against inmates, staffing numbers, and overtime pay. The Richmond Sheriff’s Office said it would charge CBS 6 $1,086 for the requested information due to four employees working for a total of 21 hours to gather the necessary records.

And then came the comparison that made Richmond’s Sheriff look completely ridiculous. “For comparison, the Chesterfield Sheriff’s Office provided CBS 6 with the number of assaults (8) on deputies at the Chesterfield Jail in 2021 and 2022 free of charge and within 24 hours.”

Transparency and accountability are good things. They instill confidence that people in charge know what they are doing. When you push back against those things, it usually means you have something to hide and bad news you don’t want seeing the light of day. There are not nearly enough deputies, and the Sheriff does not seem capable of running the show. Those on the front lines are trying to talk to reporters to get the word out because they fear that people’s lives (deputies, inmates, the public) are in jeopardy.

Jeremy Lazarus at the Richmond Free Press has a summary of some of the issues just in the last month, from deputy injuries to inmates sneaking blades into the John Marshall Courthouse. But the Sheriff has gone into information blackout mode — no questions, no answers, no talking, charging outrageous FOIA fees. She is not asking for help, and there is no code red alert to do something about filling the vacancies. Instead, “the Free Press has learned that the sheriff ordered eight deputies to take polygraphs beginning Tuesday to determine if they provided information about jail conditions to outsiders and is prepared to fire them if they do not pass.”

 Tyler Layne at CBS6  also reported in a story last week  that a Sheriff’s aide said this was justified: “When asked why Irving’s office tested her deputies and if it was an appropriate use of the lie detectors, jail administrator Major Stacey Bagby said, ‘Polygraphs are used to establish information during investigations as they may relate to safety and security.’”

Bagby added that keeping information confidential, “helps reduce violence, vandalism, the introduction of illegal and dangerous contraband, unsanitary conditions, etc.”

Lazarus spoke with some former deputies who were able to offer some insight as to the situation. They have told him that the Sheriff rarely allows deputies to swear out warrants against inmates for attacks on deputies or other inmates but the ones remaining are doing so because their pay has soared (in some cases, doubled) because of all the overtime they are working. But fewer deputies and more overtime leads to increased risk of danger, decreases coverage per shift, and increases stress. And this is just the start — the rumor is that more and more deputies are talking on background because they are desperate for something to change and they don’t want to be injured or assaulted. So these stories will keep coming.

One former deputy said it best: “The most important thing for deputies is to know that it is safe when you’re coming to work and that you can leave in the same condition you came. That’s number one, more important than pay,” he said. “But that is no longer the case.”

That is all on the Sheriff, who seems more interested in keeping her blinders on. It is up to the city, the state, and the public to demand answers and accountability. If Irving asks for support then she should (and I think would) get it to right the ship and fix these problems. But so far, nothing.

Never has the old phrase, “There’s a new sheriff in town” ever been more appropriate — or more needed.

This report by former City Councilman Jon Balilies was originally published in RVA 5×5 and is republished here with permission.