by Jon Baliles
The recent stories from the City Jail have been anything but good — inmates dying far too often, staffing shortages leading to dangerous work conditions, deputies quitting, and the lack of leadership that can’t fill the vacancies while conducting lie detector tests on some of the staff that remain.
Tyler Layne at CBS6 reports: “In December 2022, Richmond Councilperson Reva Trammell sent a formal letter to the Board of Local and Regional Jails requesting an investigation into the facility for compliance with state regulations. Several of Trammell’s colleagues on Richmond City Council said they supported her efforts.”
Few people beyond Trammell sounded much of an alarm about the jail until recently, when it became far too obvious that something needs to be done. Families, advocates, and elected officials have finally started raising the volume in recent weeks.
Layne went to the meeting of The Board of Local and Regional Jails (a state board charged to oversee, regulate, and investigate facilities across Virginia) to try and get some answers as to what, if anything, the state is doing. At the meeting, the board discussed ten different cases but found no violations (each case’s location were not revealed), but Layne was told after the meeting that Richmond was not one of the ten cases discussed.
Board Chairman Vernie Francis, Jr. told Layne “We’ll handle all the investigations of any facility the same way, through the process, treat every facility the exact same way.”
Francis told Layne that once an investigation is concluded and reported back to the Board, the facility must develop a corrective action plan if violations are discovered; the action plan can be approved or rejected by the Board.
CBS6 submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the board’s recent email communications related to Richmond’s jail. Ryan McCord, the Board of Local and Regional Jails executive director wrote Layne that “the board withheld 50 records, citing a FOIA exemption that applies to information about imprisoned people. The board withheld an additional 75 records, citing an exemption that applies to working papers of the Governor’s Office.”
Strangely, in April 2021, the Richmond Jail received a 100% compliance score in an audit done for The Board of Local and Regional Jails. According to Luca Powell at the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this month, at the time of the April 2021 audit “the jail was understaffed by 84 employees, a deficit that has since grown to more than 160.”
In December 2020, three months before the audit, the jail had confiscated a slate of drugs from inmates — including 8 grams of fentanyl and 18 grams of marijuana, according to data from the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.
In March 2021, just weeks before the audit, the jail submitted another set of confiscated drugs — this time including more than 10 grams of cocaine and several strips of Suboxone, a sublingual film smuggled into jails that do not scan inmate mail.
In her audit report, Tawana Ferguson, who performed the audit and scored it 100 percent in compliance noted a positive staff morale, and “that staff felt empowered by the sheriff and her administration.” It identified no deficiencies with the jail outside of a handful of minor administrative recommendations.
Powell noted in the article that Ferguson is also a member of the same sorority as Sheriff Antionette Irving. McCord said “the board has no concerns regarding Mrs. Ferguson’s ability to remain objective in the performance of her duties and does not believe her membership in the Richmond chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority to be a conflict.”
So, not much is known about what is being done, but we do know it is on everyone’s radar now, including Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Bob Mosier. How long it will take to get answers and corrective action is another question.
“Do you have a message for any of the families who are worried for the safety of their inmates at the jail and how the board will respond?” Layne asked Francis.
“Again, the board will do the investigations on this jail just like they do every other one,” Francis said.
Let’s hope we get answers and begin corrective action before it happens again because three deaths in three months is a bad trend that needs to end.
Jon Baliles is a former Richmond City Councilman. This article was published originally in his blog RVA 5×5 and is republished here with permission.