Richmond sheriff blames staffing challenges for city jail’s violence

7/28/2022, 6 p.m.
“We are doing everything we can to create an atmosphere that is positive” inside the Richmond City Justice Center and …
Sheriff Irving

“We are doing everything we can to create an atmosphere that is positive” inside the Richmond City Justice Center and prevent attacks on deputies and inmates, according to Sheriff Antionette V. Irving.

“We work diligently every day to makes sure our staff are safe and our inmates are safe. I want people to walk out the door better than they came in,” Sheriff Irving said Tuesday in defending her management of the city’s jail.

The sheriff, whose office is independent of the city, spoke at a meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee that only the chair, 8th District City Council- woman Reva M. Trammell, attended amid reports of continuing violence and drug abuse inside.

Just since last Friday, July 22, according to information provided to the Free Press, a female deputy was punched in the face, three inmates suffered serious stab wounds and two inmates had to be revived after overdosing on illegal drugs.

“We do have issues at the Sheriff’s Office. Yes, we do,” the sheriff, without being specific, told Ms. Trammell. The sheriff added that reports of such incidents “are often inaccurate.”

However, Ms. Trammell, who invited the sheriff to appear in the wake of the savage attack on a female deputy July 7 that had left the woman with a broken jaw and other injuries, found that claim difficult to accept.

The councilwoman said she regularly receives calls from family members of incarcerated people pleading with her to get their relatives out due to the threats they face, though she is powerless to do so. She also said the claims that deputies are attacked are supported by videos from inside the jail that she and other council members receive.

“The deputies cannot be making up all of these stories and loved ones, too,” said Ms. Trammell, who requested the sheriff attend the meeting after learning about the female deputy was savagely beaten by a mentally ill inmate earlier this month.

Sheriff Irving said the biggest challenge is staffing. She said she currently has 160 vacant deputy positions, up from 100 last year, and that the jail would be safer if she could just fill 80 of those positions.

That drew musings from Ms. Trammell that the sheriff is now in the worst shape in terms of personnel of all the public safety agencies in the city, that also are short-staffed.

The shortfall has impacted the sheriff’s ability to manage the jail and carry out her other duties, including providing security at the three city courthouses and serving civil papers carrying out evictions

The jail, however, has been the most impacted, with mandatory overtime apparently providing little help.

Shifts that once had 40 deputies before she took office in 2018 can muster only 10 or 12 deputies to monitor cameras and patrol the cellblocks or pods that are on all six floors of the building – leaving inmates largely to police themselves.

The jail has seen a major increase in broken cell locks and other equipment as a result, the Free Press was told.

The risks to inmates and deputies also have gone up. While the number of inmates being held has fallen, those that remain are harder to deal with, the sheriff confirmed.

At a jail built to accommodate 1,132 people, the sheriff said she averages about 602 inmates a night.

However, she said 333 of the residents are being held for violent crimes. In addition, she said more than half, 365, have mental health challenges and are prescribed daily medication, while 38 others are now at Central State.

“Whatever goes on in the streets of the city of Richmond, those are things we have to deal with once those individuals are brought into our facility,” the sheriff said.

According to the sheriff, she has pushed “training, training, training” beyond what the state requires so that deputies can be prepared if an inmate snaps. She said that deputies need that because often “when you are in the back of the jail, you are alone.”

But a former deputy, Richard J. Shannon, who listened to the meeting, said the sheriff was painting a rosy picture that does not comport with reality.

He said because of short-staffing, deputies cannot be pulled out for training. “It’s not happening,” he said.

Sheriff Irving also claimed that she has sought to increase mental health and wellness services both for inmates and staff. She said she also regularly grants time off for beleaguered deputies who have used up leave time and pitches in on meal deliveries and on relieving stressed deputies.

“I can’t do this job by myself,” she said. “I need the people who work for me.”

But Mr. Shannon said the sheriff depiction of herself as a caring, engaged individual was belied in his case. After nearly 20 years on the job and a few months away from retiring, he said the sheriff fired him after he was diagnosed with a medical issue, without offering him any accommodation.

Another former deputy, Charles “Chip” Davis, said the sheriff’s claim that she and her staff check up on injured employees was false in his case. He said he got a card, but virtually no other support or expressions of concern after an inmate hit him in the head and created injuries that left him unable to continue working at the jail.

“I was attacked Sept. 13, 2020, working at the Richmond City Justice Center,” he said, and then had to fight the sheriff’s office to get worker’s compensation.

“We shouldn’t have to worry about being punched in the face, having boiling water thrown us, having people break bones,” Mr. Davis said.

A Richmond native, who worked for the Henrico County Sheriff’s Office for more than 25 years before winning her office in the 2017 election, Sheriff Irving insisted she cares about her staff and for treating those in custody humanely.

“Anyone who tells you I don’t care,” she said, “is not telling you the truth.”