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Virginia’s Tangled Politics of Jail Reform

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The Hampton Roads Regional Jail, which for years has been a dumping ground for many of the sickest inmates in Virginia’s historic coastal region, had a chance for change.

Facing an ongoing federal investigation, jail officials worked frantically in the final months of 2017 to get legislative support behind a measure that would have given the jail $5 million in state funds to hire as many as 80 new correctional and support staff.

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The Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Va., has been coping with staff shortages and underfunding almost since it opened in 1998. Photo by Alex Driehaus/The Virginian-Pilot.

But that budget amendment died mysteriously in a legislative committee. And the jail’s board members, many of whom were not happy the legislature had been asked for the money, did not push for a similar measure this year.

The board — made up of sheriffs, city managers and a council member each from Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Hampton and Newport News — have the role a sheriff traditionally plays for a jail: The buck stops with them.

But each member has other priorities. In fact, it saves each city money to send the jail its sickest inmates while also keeping costs to a minimum.

With responsibility dissipated through the multi-member board, there is no one elected official accountable for what happens there.

“If everyone is in charge, then no one is in charge,” said Michelle Deitch, a jail oversight expert and senior lecturer at the LBJ School and the School of Law at The University of Texas at Austin.

“On the other hand, I understand the interest and importance of having something like this. At least in theory it enhances the treatment of the population. If you pool resources, it can be better. But this is the downside.”

Then-Superintendent Ronaldo Myers, in an effort to increase services and staff, fought for the $5 million budget amendment and for a large increase in each city’s contribution to the jail. He had spent the better part of a year making what improvements he could with the money he had on-hand.

But rather than work with Myers, the board castigated him for spending so much in overtime and not filling about 30 open positions quickly enough, though most jails chronically struggle with turnover.

By the board’s February 2018 meeting, the $5 million budget amendment had died in committee and Myer’s budget request to the cities was cut back. Instead of the 11 percent increase in the amount cities pay for each inmate every day, he’d have to make due with 6 percent. There was no money for additional staff.

What happened next is illustrative of how the board operates: refusing to come to grips with the severity of the jail’s shortages and blaming jail leadership for the problems.

At the meeting, several members of the board made it clear they didn’t like the way Myers asked the legislature for the money.

“You should’ve come to us first and had that discussion,” said Norfolk Councilman Martin Thomas, who would soon lead the board. Thomas did not return repeated messages for this story.

“And that dovetails into another concern that I’d like to point out. Really, be careful about getting ahead of the board.”

But Myers had been telling the board about the proposal for months. It’s in the meeting minutes from December 2017 and a draft of the legislation had been given to each member, including Thomas.

Board members hadn’t paid attention.

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Cell at Hampton Roads Regional Jail where 24-year-old Jamycheal Mitchell was found dead Aug. 19, 2015. He had been charged with theft and was awaiting trial. Photo by Bill Tiernan/Virginian-Pilot

This is how things had gone for Myers since he’d taken the job the previous March. He would try to push forward on desperately needed changes while board members remained ill-informed about the jail’s plight. They continued resisting measures that cost more money while their cities kept dumping the sickest and most vulnerable inmates there.

“I really don’t think the board knows what it’s created in the regional jail,” Myers said in a December interview. “It is basically a mental health and medical hospital. … I believe that’s what it was designed for. I think they believed that if they consolidated everything into one, it would be better.

“But you have to understand, once you consolidate, you have to pay for it.”

The Hampton Roads Regional Jail (HRRJ) receives funding in excess of $40 million. Only five other jails state-wide received more combined state, local and federal money in 2017, the last year for which figures are available. And other jails — particularly regional jails — have similar problems.

A judge recently criticized the treatment of inmates with mental illness at Riverside Regional Jail, which is just below HRRJ in total funding.

Since the death of inmates Jamycheal Mitchell in 2015 and Henry Stewart in 2016 sparked multiple investigations into HRRJ, the facility’s officials have received an annual grant for mental health treatment, changed the jail’s healthcare provider and emphasized getting inmates into treatment or out of the jail.

It has also drastically increased its medical budget and medical staff — which are separate from correctional and support staff  from about 20 in 2015 to more than 60 today.

Current superintendent David Hackworth says more medical staff is on the way. Much of the financial burden from that increase has fallen on the cities.

Hackworth says he has the number of jail officers and support staff up to 289 from about 260 when he started.

Norfolk’s current sheriff, Joe Baron, said while Myers was superintendent, the board didn’t have enough information about staffing.

“They weren’t keeping their employees and they had all these vacancies,” he said. “You never really had the opportunity to see the organization when it’s fully staffed and how it operates, whether it’s effective and whether its efficient with that level of staffing.”

There’s a plan to fill 10 vacancies and, thanks to funding from the cities, add 10 more positions, Hackworth said. He’s shifted around some positions so there are more jail officers to deal with inmates.

He said he thinks that’s enough for now.

“Would it be nice to have more? Absolutely. That’s why I asked for the 10 additional,” he said.

But jail experts have been saying for two decades that given the population it is asked to handle, the regional jail doesn’t have enough officers and support staff to manage its inmates — or even keep them safe.

There remains a systemic and well documented shortage:

  • In state studies dating back to 1999, the jail has been found to be inadequately staffed by the Board of Corrections. It’s most recent study, in 2017, calls for an increase in total positions from about 300 to 422.
  • The Justice Department, which crawled through the jail’s files and interviewed staff and inmates for months, sent clear signals in 2017 that there were not enough people working at the jail to care for its population.
  • An examination of state jail data by The Virginian-Pilot found that HRRJ has more people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and more inmates receiving antipsychotic medications than any other jail in the state. Yet it also has fewer staff members per-inmate than all five of the city jails that send their sickest inmates there.

In a 2017 meeting with the jail’s finance committee, Myers warned that the jail was dangerous for inmates and guards alike. At the time, there were about 265 employees, low even for the jail’s 10-year average and well below the 366 recommended in a staffing study a decade earlier.

The building itself is a relic from another age. It was not designed to house so many inmates with mental illness. That makes the jail even more staff-intensive, Myers said.

Dedicated Staff

The jail officers and support staff, Myers said, are dedicated. But they’ve gotten used to operating in an unsafe jail.

“They have done the best they can, but in the event of any major incident, the jail would not be able to control the situation,” he said, according to notes from a finance meeting in 2017.

The August 2015 death of Mitchell, who died alone and naked in his jail cell, still reverberates throughout the state.

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Jamycheal Mitchell died in 2015 in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. Photo courtesy Roxane Adams/Virginian-Pilot

A bill passed in February by the state’s General Assembly that enforces standards on mental health treatment at state jails was directly attributed to his death.

But it’s clear that the questionable treatment of prisoners at HRRJ neither begins nor ends with Mitchell.

Nearly a decade earlier, Sandra Kenley had died at the jail while in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Kenley had been arrested on a three-year-old drug charge for which she had already completed probation. The 52-year-old was scheduled to have surgery on a large tumor that caused her to hemorrhage and took medications for high cholesterol and blood pressure.

She passed out face down in her cell in December 2005 and died in the hospital later that day. It took 20 minutes for jail staff to respond when her cellmate called for help, the lawsuit says.

At the time, ICE paid the jail millions of dollars to reserve as many as 450 beds. Kenley’s death was one of several around the country that called into question ICE’s detention practices.

Eventually ICE pulled its inmates from the regional jail because it could not follow the federal agency’s standards.

A Justice Department report released in December documents horrific deaths, cries for help from inmates with internal bleeding and repeated denials of care.

In January 2013, 52-year-old Betty Wills was “actively psychotic upon admission” and suffering from diabetes, thyroid disease and congestive heart failure. She died in a local hospital after being allowed to deteriorate at the jail, according to the Justice Department report.

On April 3, 2015, about two months after the General Assembly cut the jail’s funding by $400,000, Robert Elmo Davenport was found hanging in his cell, according to the Justice Department report.

Davenport, who was 54 and had a history of major depression, had filed a grievance stating his request to see a psychiatrist “had been put off” on several occasions. He said that his medicine was not working and he was having anxiety attacks. The next day he was placed in isolation, which is known to exacerbate mental illness, for having contraband in his cell. He still hadn’t seen a psychiatrist.

“The only evaluation he received was by a social worker on the morning of his death,” the report states.

Three days after Davenport was found hanging, another inmate with mental illness was close to death. Alton D. Cowins had been admitted March 31, 2015, in a state of extreme psychosis, already incoherent and throwing feces. But he did not see a psychiatrist, who could have granted a medical clearance allowing him to be transferred to a state mental hospital.

Instead, on the same day Davenport was found hanging in his cell, Cowins was placed in isolation. On April 5, a nurse noted he had a bulge in his abdomen and was in intense pain.

About 14 hours later, he was throwing up what appeared to be feces and green bile. Still, a nurse did not examine him. He was later found unresponsive and died of an ulcer.

The DOJ report notes that his death was preventable had he received adequate medical attention.

After Mitchell died in 2015, the death and suffering didn’t stop. At least 18 people have died in the jail since.

In November 2015, Mark Goodrum died of end-stage kidney disease. He was arrested for smoking marijuana in his home and taken to the jail because he was unable to pay a $100 bond.

Then, in August 2016, Stewart, who had been vomiting blood and not eating for days, collapsed and died in his cell.

He had begged for help in handwritten notes.

The months that followed Stewart’s death focused attention on the jail from the governor, national media outlets and federal investigators. Board members claimed to be gaining a better understanding of the facility’s needs.

Still, each member was only so responsible for what happened there, and the incentive to dump problem cases on the jail while keeping costs low remained. Few had a deep understanding of the jail’s problems.

In September, then-Norfolk Sheriff Bob McCabe, who would soon resign amidst his own scandal, became the interim superintendent. He placed the blame for what had happened to Mitchell and Stewart on the jail’s previous administration.

“You’re going to see a lot more transparency,” McCabe said.

But suffering in the jail continued. On Jan. 10, 2017, an inmate was pepper sprayed while threatening to hang himself in isolation. On Feb.7, a man with bipolar disorder swallowed a sharp object and was transferred for the second time in a month from an isolation cell to a state psychiatric hospital.

Meanwhile, board members fought to keep their contributions to the jail’s budget as low as possible. At the Feb. 15 meeting, Newport News Sheriff Gabe Morgan, a long-time board member and advocate for mental health reform in the criminal justice system, questioned whether the jail would need a $1 increase to the per diem rate that year. The board had just found out the jail might have a small budget surplus.

A representative of the Norfolk city manager said she would prefer to keep the $1 increase in 2018 rather than look at a $2 increase the following year.

Myers was hired in February 2017. By that time, the Justice Department’s investigation into the jail’s treatment of inmates was in full swing. Linda Bryant, a former Norfolk prosecutor and deputy state Attorney General who had been hired by McCabe, stayed on as assistant superintendent.

The two, alarmed by what they found at the jail, pushed for change. A $1 million grant, which was requested before Myers was hired, was being used to hire mental health staff and get services for inmates with mental illness. Staff were given new training and pressure was put on Correct Care Solutions, the new medical contractor, to have enough medical personnel on site.

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Col. David A. Hackworth, at left, formerly Chief Deputy of the Chesapeake Sheriff’s Office, will be sworn in as Superintendent of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail.Photo by Rebecca Carballo/The Virginian-Pilot

Myers, who is now president of the American Jail Association, said he didn’t need the job when he was hired at the jail; he only took it because he thought he could do some good. He left when he met resistance from the board. He had led the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Columbia, S.C., which had its own problems with staffing and mental healthcare, for about 13 years prior to taking the job.

“I wanted to do more, but I thought the board really didn’t understand my intentions,” he said.

In his first meetings with the HRRJ board and finance committee, Myers said the jail needed more than 100 additional positions, which would require an increase in the daily per diem for each city of about $9.

At least 50 of those positions he considered critical to the jail’s safe operation.

The jail had about 275 staff members, with about 30 open positions. Jails frequently have a high number of open positions because the pay is low and the work difficult. Already Myers was instituting mandatory overtime to have enough people on duty for each shift.

In the April meeting, the board voted to ask the state to conduct a study that would eventually allow them to increase the number of personnel. The process would take months.

And while staff were doing their best, they continued to be overrun with inmates with severe medical and mental health problems.

In June 2017, Leonard Allen Morrison III was shot by police and paralyzed after grabbing an officer’s gun and firing at him.

He was discharged from Riverside Regional Medical Center to the Hampton Jail, which promptly sent him to HRRJ on a weekend. The regional jail was not equipped to handle someone with that kind of injury; he should have gone to a rehabilitation facility.

Had he not been sent to the regional jail, the Hampton sheriff’s office would have had to pay for his treatment instead of HRRJ.

The incident prompted Myers to enforce a long-standing — and long-ignored — agreement between the regional jails and the five city jails. HRRJ would no longer take inmates as soon as they were arrested. They would have to spend at least 14 days at the city jails, long enough to get through most preliminary court hearings and for their medical condition to be assessed.

The board was not happy.

The Blame Game

By October 2017, tensions were coming to a head.

Myers was using overtime to make up for the staffing shortage. The problem was not just officers in cell blocks. Two decades after an initial staffing study by the Board of Corrections found shortages, transporting so many inmates to court and doctor appointments remained a huge issue.

Meanwhile, Hampton Sheriff B.J. Roberts, who had sent a paralyzed man to the jail during the summer with no warning, did not like that the regional jail was now enforcing a 2010 agreement with the cities that it would only take inmates after their first 14 days of incarceration.

The rule was in place because inmates needed to be transported to court often in the first two weeks after arrest, further compounding the jail’s need for staff. Enforcing the agreement was, Bryant explained, a way to control costs.

A representative from the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office attending the meeting in place of the sheriff said his department backed Roberts 100 percent. The Norfolk jail was looking at spending an additional $90,000 on HIV medications alone because the rule was being enforced.

Board members were demanding the jail control costs while insisting the facility take inmates as quickly as possible, which increased the cost to the regional jail.

And all the while death and danger continued.

In July 2017, an inmate had died after staff watched his condition deteriorate, according to the Justice Department’s report. The following month, a 36-year-old prisoner with a history of sickle-cell anemia died. The Justice Department report released in December found that notes in his medical file were falsified.

At the December 2017 meeting, Capt. Thurman Barnes, the head of security, went over two incidents that highlighted the shortages. In one case, an inmate assaulted another inmate for about 25 minutes inside a cell. Barnes defended the guard responsible for that floor.

“The officer didn’t do anything wrong, he was just performing his duties. (He) just did not have the extra set of eyes to notice that the assault was happening,” Barnes said, according to the minutes.

Someone committed suicide earlier that month when, once again, an officer was tied up doing other parts of his job.

‘No Second Set of Eyes’

“There was no second set of eyes on the floor,” Barnes said.

Thomas, the Norfolk councilman, blamed Myers.

“I don’t have any experience running jails, but I’m going to look at the Superintendent and say it’s your fault. This has got to stop,” Thomas said, according to the meeting notes.

“I’ve been here for a little over a year now and we’ve been talking about staffing issues. You’ve got to get the guys in there. Take that OT you’re paying them and hire some more employees. It’s your job to try to fix this.”

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Jail Director Ronaldo Myers, right, gave several Richland County Council members a tour of the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in 2013. Photo courtesy The State (Columbia, SC)

Later in the meeting, Myers and his staff would explain part of their fix — getting money for positions from the state legislature.

At the heart of the regional jail’s problems is staffing. You have to go back to 1998, shortly after it opened, to understand.

That’s when its first superintendent, Roy Cherry, requested additional security staff because of how often inmates needed to go to the doctor and courthouse.

The plan had initially been for new admissions to occur after arraignment or sentencing for minor crimes, limiting the need for transport. Instead the jail was getting from three to five new inmates a day.

By 2006, the jail had 300 state funded positions. That number has barely changed since.

The state Department of Corrections conducts staffing studies that are used to determine the number of officers and support staff at all jails in Virginia.

If that study finds the jail needs more positions, it’s up to the state legislature or a municipality to come up with the funding. The state Compensation Board oversees the allocation of 8,400 state-funded positions at local and regional jails. It can shift some positions based on changing inmate populations, but for a permanent increase a staffing study is required.

For the past decade, the number of employees at HRRJ has fluctuated — thanks in large part to turnover — from 296 in 2009 to about 270 in 2017 to 299 last year, according to jail figures.

The state’s yearly report to the legislature on jail funding doesn’t keep track of how many employees are on hand, just how many positions are funded.

A 2007 staffing study again stressed the need for more employees, particularly because of so many trips to court, doctor appointments and hospitals. It recommended an increase from about 300 staff members to more than 330 and that the cities pay for an additional 32 positions just for transportation.

“It should be noted that the Compensation Board does not currently provide positions for transportation. These positions need to be filled none the less (sic),” reads the study.

State reports indicate those positions were never funded.

While the cities didn’t pay for additional staff, they have increased their funding for the jail, from about $12 million in 2009 to nearly $27 million in 2018. Much of the increase occurred after the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency pulled its inmates — and funding — from the jail.

The most recent study, requested by Myers in 2017, makes a special allowance for emergency staff because of the number of physically and mentally ill inmates. It recommends an increase from 309 to 422 positions — and sounds a warning for the jail.

“Although the Compensation Board would not normally consider the jail to be eligible for emergency positions … the volatile and excessively needy population at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail makes this facility very staff intensive,” the study reads.

“It is therefore strongly recommended that consideration be given to increase the emergency positions.”

Meanwhile, the jails in the cities that feed HRRJ all have more guards and support staff per inmate.

The city jails are older and in general it takes more staff to keep an eye on inmates because of their floor plans, sheriffs argue. They say that they need more people per inmate for that reason.

Norfolk has 390 jail positions funded by the state and an additional 65 by the city, giving it 455 positions to care for an average daily population of 1,146 inmates. That’s about 2.5 inmates for each staff member. Chesapeake has about the same ratio. The other cities have even fewer inmates per staff member.

The regional jail, which has higher numbers of difficult-to-care-for inmates, has about 3.6 inmates for every staff member. The additional positions called for in the 2017 study would more closely align it with Norfolk and Chesapeake.

Dissection of Failure

Why the budget amendment died in the legislature was a mystery.

At the February 2018 regional jail board meeting, its failure was a major point of contention.

“I will tell you that the Sheriff’s Association worked to kill that bill,” said Morgan, according to the meeting notes.

But John Jones, who runs the Sheriff’s Association, says that’s not the case.

“I don’t recall opposing any amendment for regional jails,” he said in an interview.

Morgan did oppose it, however, even though he is not opposed to the jail getting more staff.

He said that had he realized what was happening — he was not at the December meeting — he would have helped the regional jail.

“I would have said, ‘hey, slow down, we’ve got to get DOC to validate these positions,’ ” he said. “And then I would have helped walk them through the process.”

Politics and Jail Funding

He says the bill did not follow the correct procedure for requesting more staffing from the state.

And, he says, if jails don’t honor the process, then those in influential districts with powerful sheriffs will get resources that other jails will not.

“It puts the entire system in chaos,” he said. “That’s the level of the opposition. The opposition wasn’t to say that they shouldn’t get $5 million.”

But Robyn de Socio, executive secretary for the Compensation Board, says Myers did go through the proper process. Her office helped put their package together.

“They obtained the staffing study, the staffing study identified additional needs. We assisted in putting numbers with that, looking at the funding — at what was currently provided and what was needed,” she said. “Then we assisted in providing cost figures they would need.”

The way the jail pushed for legislation doesn’t happen every day, she said. “But I wouldn’t say it’s unusual or a circumvention of the process.”

And Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle got about $1 million from the legislature last month to better treat his jail’s inmates with mental illness without going through a staffing study.

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Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle.Photo by Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot

The $1 million will go to fund about 12 positions and is focused on the treatment of inmates with mental illness. Stolle got support for the bill from Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment and Del. Chris Jones, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Stolle’s brother Del. Christopher Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored it.

At the February 2018 meeting, besides being upset that Myers had gone to the legislature for money, board members also asked him why he was talking to the press about issues surrounding the housing of juveniles, another problem that had been plaguing the jail.

“My suggestion is that no one should be talking to the press unless it first comes through the board, or if it has to be done before the next board meeting, talk to the chair and the vice chair,” Thomas said, according to meeting notes.

“What was the benefit of talking to them in the first place? Why? I mean get our defense attorney in here, what will he say? He’ll say, ‘Don’t talk.’”

After the dressing down, Myers resigned and returned to his old position, where the Richland County administrator was happy to have him.

“I thought I was getting some resistance from the board, and I couldn’t work under that situation.

I would rather just resign,” he said. “I believe in working in a cooperative spirit, and I felt as if I didn’t have the full support of the board.”

 What Now?

Beyond the staffing issues, the jail faces numerous challenges.

Portsmouth’s sheriff has stopped filling all his beds in the jail, at once relieving the crush of sickness inside HRRJ’s walls while setting up a fight about whether the city can withdraw from its agreement to pay for 250 beds every day.

There was a mysterious and persistent water problem that had cost the jail thousands of dollars a year which may or may not have been solved.

The building itself was made in the “tough on crime” 1990s. There are no windows or fresh air.

It’s a very poor environment to keep people with mental illness healthy enough to stand trial.

The Justice Department could sue the jail to force changes, which would cost it even more money.

Hackworth is in a near impossible position, though he says he likes the challenge.

He thinks the jail is in a better place than it was a year ago. He’s got almost 300 people on staff — something Myers was never able to do. Now if he asks for more positions from the legislature or cities, they have to listen, he says.

Hackworth, a long-time undersheriff in Chesapeake, knows the area’s jail leadership. He believes their trust in him is a big part of why he’s better able to make changes.

He’s started working with judges to use video conferencing for court hearings, cutting down on the number of times inmates need to be transported, and started working with the other jails to get some help in other instances.

And he’s getting the staff up to 309 people.

“The board was fully supportive of that,” he said. “And so I think rather than just to ask for a lot of things, we’ve got to be very calculated and really be able to justify what we’re doing. And that takes time to look at the situations and the issues that are going on and say, ‘Is this what we need?’ Or can we do it a little bit differently?”

One thing that’s changed: That 2010 agreement that the regional jail would only take inmates after their first 14 days of incarceration.

That has dropped to five days.

Another change? The pace at which people are dying at the jail.

It’s increased.

Seven inmates died in 2018 — more than in 2015, when Jamycheal Mitchell died, or 2016, when Henry Stewart died.

Changing that has proved to be more elusive.

Gary A. Harki, a staff writer at The Virginian-Pilot, is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This story appeared Thursday  as part of his fellowship reporting project. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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