Daily dangers, including physical assaults on deputies, allegedly occur at city jail

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 7/14/2022, 6 p.m.
Seven months after Richmond Sheriff Antionette V. Irving was sworn into her second four-year term, concern is mounting over her …
Sheriff Irving

Seven months after Richmond Sheriff Antionette V. Irving was sworn into her second four-year term, concern is mounting over her control of the still short-staffed Richmond City Justice Center, as the jail located in Shockoe Valley is called.

While the sheriff is keeping mum about conditions inside the jail, as has been her practice since she first took office in 2017, reports are surfacing that the jail reeks of marijuana, with one person telling the Free Press that he has a photo of an inmate rolling a joint.

Inmates “are in control,” the Free Press was told.

But it’s not just drugs.

The concern is in large part fueled by the daily dangers faced by the jail’s deputies.

Staff stress is high, the Free Press was told, because of the nerve-wracking potential for inmate violence, a key issue in the 2021 primary campaign in which Sheriff Irving defeated challenger William J. Burnett, a police officer who had run the day-to-day operations of the jail while her predecessor, C.T. Woody Jr. was sheriff.

That concern has escalated in the wake of a male inmate’s unprovoked, vicious assault July 8 on a petite 5-foot, 3-inch- tall female deputy who was stationed in a mental health unit on the third floor.

According to reports from concerned jail staff and others, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, the inmate repeatedly struck the deputy in the head and face during the attack and left her bleeding and unconscious on the floor.

The deputy was rushed to a nearby hospital where she was revived and has undergone surgery for the damage to her face, the Free Press was told. The Free Press was not able to contact her.

Assaults on deputies are not rare, the Free Press has been told. During the 2021 campaign, the Free Press reported that deputies are routinely spit on, have had bleach and hot water thrown on them, been hit with sticks and punched.

But this assault ratcheted up the danger level, according to sources, and is largely due to the reduced number of deputies on each floor. “When something happens, too often a deputy is on his or her own. There is no one to available to help,” a source said.

At the time of this assault, according to the information provided that the sheriff has not contradicted, only two deputies were on the third floor, which has eight pods or contained cellblocks, far short of even the minimum staffing levels needed.

Based on the design, the Free Press was told that on each shift, two deputies and a supervisor are supposed to be on each floor monitoring cameras that show the activity in each pod. Each pod also is supposed to have one deputy stationed inside.

When the attack occurred, the second deputy who had been monitoring the camera on that pod was called away to deal with a situation in another pod. That deputy was unaware that the assault was taking place, the Free Press was told.

According to the reports, the sheriff was distressed that a responding deputy not only called for medical help but also contacted the Richmond Police Department for assistance. She did not want police officers entering her facility, and since the attack, the sheriff has ensured that her staff retained investigative control.

As yet, the Free Press was told the sheriff has not filed any complaint with the commonwealth’s attorney against the inmate so that he could be prosecuted.

Since taking office, Sheriff Irving, according to the information, has barred deputies from filing charges against inmates without her permission.

She did not respond to requests for comment on the assault or her plans for seeking prosecution of the inmate.

Inside the jail, the Free Press was told, that the sheriff reportedly was less upset about the assault than about the fact that information about the assault had leaked and was being reported on Facebook. The Free Press was told that the sheriff told her staff she was considering calling in the FBI to learn who had disclosed the information.

As is the case for other public safety operations, staffing remains an issue at the jail.

According to the city’s budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year, the funded positions for Sheriff Irving’s department, including deputies, was reduced by nearly 96 positions, from 466 to 370.5, reflecting the continuing vacancies. Neither the sheriff nor her staff responded to Free Press questions about staff shortfalls or how many of the funded positions are vacant.

The sheriff also provides security to the city’s courthouses, serves subpoenas and other legal papers and handles evictions. The jail, though, is the biggest responsibility, absorbing most of the money and manpower.

The staff is at minimum even though in recent years the jail has been holding fewer people. The reduction is due to diversion policies that have a significant impact.

Fewer people in Richmond who are charged with a crime have to post bonds under the policy former Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring installed and current Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette W. McEachin maintains. That policy is to release people pending trial unless they present a danger to the community.