Va. sheriffs plan to pull all their inmates from regional jail

The jail has been on a downward spiral despite reform attempts by jail management, state legislators and the DOJ


By Gary A. Harki and Margaret Matray
The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK, Va. — The Norfolk and Chesapeake sheriffs plan to pull all inmates from their cities out of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail because they say conditions there are not improving.

The decision leaves the jail, which is facing a series of crises that endanger both its employees and those confined there, without inmates from three of the five cities that pay to house people there.

A cell at Hampton Roads Regional Jail.
A cell at Hampton Roads Regional Jail. (Photo/Bill Tiernan via TNS)

Hampton Roads cities banded together to create the regional jail in the 1990s, pooling resources to better care for sick inmates. Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton and Newport News founded the jail, and Chesapeake joined later.

But since the 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell, who spent the last weeks of his life with a severely swollen leg in a cell covered in his own feces and urine, the jail has been on a downward spiral despite reform attempts by jail management, state legislators and the U.S. Justice Department.

Norfolk Sheriff Joe Baron said he and Chesapeake Sheriff Jim O’Sullivan spoke to each other repeatedly before coming to the decision.

“It’s a response to what I would consider inadequate staffing levels, the recent loss of (a national organization’s) accreditation, continued noncompliance with the Department of Justice consent decree and no clear plan, either budgetary or otherwise,” Baron said.

O’Sullivan said it’s his job as sheriff to provide the best care for his inmates: “I want to do what’s right; it’s my responsibility.”

Since 2008, at least 53 people have died in the regional jail, more than any other jail in the state. One of the deaths last month is apparently being investigated as a murder, although the jail and Portsmouth police won’t confirm that.

It has over 100 vacant jail officer positions, up from about 90 in mid-December, leaving the jail without more than a third of its guards and severely short staffed.

The jail — which is in Portsmouth — remains under a federal consent decree, making it the only jail placed under this form of federal oversight by the DOJ during the Trump administration. A 2018 report found conditions at the regional facility violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Under the decree, the jail is required to make changes, including hiring more medical, mental healthcare and security staff and reducing its use of solitary confinement for inmates with serious mental illness. But there were twice as many inmates with mental illness in solitary confinement late last year than when the DOJ conducted its 2018 investigation, a court-appointed monitor wrote in his initial report.

O’Sullivan, the Chesapeake sheriff, said staffing levels at the regional jail have gotten worse instead of better and he doesn’t think the jail will be able to fill vacancies or comply with the consent decree, especially given that nationally jails are struggling to hire qualified guards. He said he plans to attend a board meeting Wednesday, but if there isn’t an “immediate change” in sight, he’s prepared to remove all of his inmates over the next 60 days.

Baron said he also planned to remove all of his inmates in the next two months. He’s in the process of planning how to care for those that need dialysis and other special treatments.

‘Something has to be done’

The jail has had chronic staffing shortages throughout its history that’ve been exacerbated by a reluctance to increase costs by the jail board, a 15-person panel made up of sheriffs and city officials from the five cities.

Under a service agreement created in the 1990s, each of the cities must pay for a certain number of beds, regardless of whether they fill them.

To try to ease the staffing shortage, the jail’s board voted in November to send about 30% of its inmates — 255 people — back to the city jails from which they came.

Norfolk hasn’t sent any new inmates there since the fall. Chesapeake stopped sending people several weeks ago. And Portsmouth Sheriff Michael Moore hasn’t sent anyone since early 2019, citing the DOJ report.

At a board meeting last month, Norfolk Councilman Martin Thomas said the cities that pulled inmates out to ease the impact of the staffing shortage should get back some of the money they put into the regional jail coffers. Whether that will happen hasn’t been decided.

The board meets virtually Wednesday.

State Sen. Louise Lucas, a Portsmouth Democrat and one of Virginia’s most powerful legislators, believes the jail needs additional oversight, or perhaps a restructuring of the board. She suggested Attorney General Mark Herring might need to investigate and said she plans on talking to fellow legislators about the jail’s problems.

The jail’s board chair, Hampton Assistant City Manager Brian DeProfio, said he was too busy to discuss the jail earlier this week. Herring’s office and the Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.

“To keep having these mysterious deaths is a major problem, and something has to be done,” Lucas said.

How did we get here?

In February 2020, Hampton Roads Regional Jail had 12 vacant guard positions.

But once the coronavirus pandemic hit the following month, vacancies began to climb.

There were 51 by September, 73 by October, 91 by mid-December and more than 100 in February, according to figures shared with the jail’s board.

Jeff Vergakis, who took over as the jail’s interim superintendent in January, said in an email earlier this week that staffing at the jail has been hit hard by the pandemic: “Our challenges with hiring and retaining staff are not any different than other correctional agencies. Regionally, law enforcement agencies are experiencing a shortage of staff.”

Officers who quit last year cited the pandemic and being overworked and underpaid — and the vacancies making it harder for remaining staff — among their reasons for leaving, the jail’s human resources department told the board last year. Five current and former officers who spoke with The Virginian-Pilot last year spoke of burn-out, low morale, 16-hour shifts and feeling unsafe.

Sending inmates back to their home jails was intended to be a temporary solution, but staffing has continued to slip.

On Feb. 17, members of the jail’s board met virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, appearing in small squares on a computer screen from their own offices.

As the board reviewed the proposed budget for the next fiscal year, jail leaders outlined staffing goals: hire 25 new trainees by July this year, and eight every eight weeks after that until July 2022. That’s about 77 new hires planned over the next year and a half.

Baron raised concerns.

Those proposed hires wouldn’t even fill the current vacancies, he said, let alone factor in the number of departures expected over the next year and a half. The plans didn’t show the jail was going to get to a point where the cities could resume sending inmates there safely, he said.

“I don’t think this is sustainable. I don’t think we’re ever going to get there,” Baron said. “And I think honestly it’s probably time that we start thinking about other options other than continuing this venture.”

Baron reiterated those concerns in an interview Thursday and said he plans to be at Wednesday’s board meeting. Past that, he’s not sure whether he’ll continue to attend meetings. He said he’d like to continue if it’s helpful, but it’s a 15-member board and he’s only one voice.

“I don’t have the purse strings,” he said. “I don’t have the decision-making power.”

Vergakis told the board the crises facing the jail were a “perfect storm,” with the pandemic, retirements, vacancies and other challenges hitting all at once. He said a culture change was needed and that he is working both to improve morale and come up with a strategic plan.

He’s the seventh person to hold the top job in about four years.

Vergakis told The Pilot this week the jail was “aggressively recruiting” officers. It competes with six local jails, two regional jails and two prisons for the same pool of applicants, he said. To address morale, his administration has been touring the jail to talk with officers and has held open forums and created a committee of officers to share their perspectives.

What happens next?

Chesapeake has 168 inmates housed at the regional jail. Norfolk has 125.

Removing them all, in addition to the 255 the board voted to move, would leave the regional jail with about a third of the inmates it had four months ago.

Moving that many people back to Chesapeake is an “operational juggling act,” O’Sullivan said, particularly since many of the inmates have mental health or chronic illness needs or disciplinary records.

“It’s going to be an undertaking, but we’re fully prepared to do it safely and securely,” O’Sullivan said.

Once the Norfolk and Chesapeake sheriffs take their inmates back, it’s unclear what comes next.

The move sets up potential political and legal battles, although it’s too soon to say what that might look like.

Baron and O’Sullivan said officials from their respective cities knew of their plans to pull out all the inmates and supported the decision.

But if any city wanted to eventually pull out of the contract and its financial obligation to the jail, it would require the approval of all five city councils, according to the contract.

O’Sullivan said removing inmates from the regional jail presents a new opportunity for the cities to work together to redefine what the facility is used for: “It’s time for some change.”

And then there is the Special Litigations section of the Department of Justice, which will be involved with the jail’s operations for years.

It’s not uncommon for a facility’s staffing and care for inmates to get worse right after a monitor is installed, said Aaron Zisser, who worked in the Special Litigations section of the DOJ from 2009 to 2013. Making improvements takes a lot of time, he said.

“It’s sort of inevitable… two steps forward, one step back, as they ramp up,” he said. “What you really should be worried about is, are you addressing the harms that are occurring? Staffing levels aren’t a harm, they’re a process to prevent a harm.”

He pointed to California’s prison system, where in 2009, a panel of three federal judges ordered the release of 44,000 prisoners within two years because of decades of failure to provide constitutionally adequate healthcare.

“They could have said, ‘build more prisons,’ but that’s not realistic,” Zisser said. “There are other ways to alleviate harms.”

To meet the DOJ requirements “you could hire more staff or empty things out a bit at the jail,” he said. “The jail could be ordered, for example, to address these strange relationships with the cities and turn people away.”

With the Norfolk and Chesapeake sheriffs’ decision, the jail is likely to be hollowed out soon. When the two cities pull their inmates, a jail that’s designed to hold more than a thousand people will be down to several hundred.

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(c)2021 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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