Richmond sheriff’s race heats up

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 5/13/2021, 6 p.m.
Sheriff Antionette V. Irving wants voters to re-elect her to a second four-year term based on her track record operating …
Sheriff Irving

Sheriff Antionette V. Irving wants voters to re-elect her to a second four-year term based on her track record operating the Richmond City Justice Center and handling other duties of the office.

However, her challenger in the June 8 Democratic primary, William J. Burnett, who once ran the jail’s day-to-day operations, alleges that the incumbent has wasted millions of dollars, has left the jail understaffed and created unsafe conditions for deputies and inmates.

Mr. Burnett

Mr. Burnett

Now it is up to city voters to decide whether the 56-year-old incumbent or her 53-year-old opponent will get the job that carries a salary of about $150,000 a year.

Early voting already is underway in the party’s nominating contest that will culminate in less than 30 days, with the winner virtually assured of victory in the Nov. 2 general election to take on the duties of the office on Jan. 1.

Those duties include handling a budget of more than $40 million a year, supervising hundreds of deputies, managing the jail, providing security in city courts, handling evictions and serving subpoenas and other documents in civil court cases.

Jail operations take up most of the budget and manpower assigned to the sheriff, so it is no surprise that Sheriff Irving and Mr. Burnett have put most of their emphasis on that aspect.

The sheriff has touted her success in steering the jail’s operation through the pandemic and in providing programs that help inmates overcome addiction and prepare to leave with tools that can keep them from coming back.

“I believe we have done a really good job of ensuring the residents have been given the preparation and training they need to go home to be productive citizens,” Sheriff Irving said.

She rose to the rank of major during her 26 years of service with the Henrico County Sheriff’s Department and took over in Richmond after defeating former Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. in the 2017 Democratic primary election and knocking off two independents and a write-in candidate in the November 2017 general election.

Sheriff Irving said that through partnerships, the jail is connecting jail residents with housing and other services when they leave and helping them gain certification in various trades, including as forklift operators, painters and carpenters. She said the jail has 250 programs to improve the health and the education of inmates to help them avoid a return.

She also said that her office has been hit with fewer lawsuits since she took office.

Mr. Burnett, a former police officer who ran the jail during Sheriff Woody’s 12-year tenure, is promoting positive changes he wants to introduce if elected, such as creating a civilian oversight board and starting a Sheriff’s Department Athletic League to reach city youths before they get into trouble. He has spent much of his campaign expressing concern about jail operations to show Sheriff Irving is painting a false picture of jail conditions.

He insists that “the jail is out of control. I’m not just saying this because I am running for the office. I am saying it because it is true.”

He said there are at least 110 deputy vacancies, forcing the sheriff to use mandatory overtime to provide even minimal coverage at the jail. He said the overtime policy has not helped ease safety threats, citing an inmate assault May 6 that sent two deputies to the hospital for treatment.

Sheriff Irving rejects the allegations. She said the jail has continued to pass state inspections since she took office.

She acknowledged that there are staffing issues, but she said other jails are experiencing the same problems. She said she keeps losing people because the city Sheriff’s Office no longer can pay competitive wages. She said those who get a job in a neighboring jurisdiction immediately start making $6,000 to $8,000 more a year than she can offer. Mandatory overtime is one of the few tools she has to fill empty slots, she said.

“It’s not about the money. If it was about the money, me and a lot of people would have left years ago,” said a former jail supervisor, one of three former jail employees who have left since early April and who spoke with the Free Press on the condition of anonymity.

Instead of supervising 12 to 13 people on the night shift, the former supervisor felt fortunate to have seven respond to roll call and often had only five deputies to cover several floors and multiple pods or cellblocks.

“There are 29 pods in the building, and some nights up to 15 did not have a deputy on the floor. The inmates could do what they wanted to,” the former supervisor said. “In most cases, there was no one to respond if a fight broke out.”

The former supervisor decided to quit after watching two inmates drag a third person to the shower to revive him. “I realized someone could get killed on my watch, and I was go- ing to get the blame even though there was nothing I could do about it.”

While published reports Sheriff Irving has submitted to the state indicate assaults are rare, Mr. Burnett and others have said the data does not reflect assaults that do not result in court charges.

The former supervisor said, and the two other former employees confirmed, that assaults on deputies have increased. “It’s happening almost weekly,” the former supervisor said. “Deputies have been spat on, had hot water thrown on them. They have had bleach thrown in their face. One had his nose broken,” the former supervisor said. “Deputies have been hit with sticks, punched and knocked down. When I started eight years ago, it happened hardly never.”

According to a deputy who had spent more than 12 years at the jail before quitting last month, “It is just too dangerous. My job is to protect people. And with so few people, I couldn’t anymore. I felt helpless.”

A former lieutenant, who was supervising at least 30 deputies on a shift six years ago, said he regularly had only 10 deputies reporting for duty before he left in April.

“You can’t do this job with so few people,” he said. “It left the inmates in control. I just felt it was unsafe, and I didn’t want to be part of it.”

Mr. Burnett also claims that most of the programs Sheriff Irving publicly talks about are not functioning.

The sheriff provided a long list of jail programs to the Free Press. However neither she nor her staff responded to a follow-up request for information on the number of inmates enrolled in each and the success rate.

It also is unclear whether programs continued to operate during the pandemic.