Chesterfield County takes steps to depopulate Riverside Regional Jail

Chesterfield County
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CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — The Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors held a special meeting Wednesday to discuss concerns at Riverside Regional Jail.

Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl S. Leonard said that depopulation of the jail is imperative due to understaffing issues and inadequate inmate conditions.

“For all the inmates there and for all the people that work there, we’ve got to reduce the inmate to correctional officer ratio,” Leonard said.

Given the severity of reported conditions at the facility and pending action that could result in its closure, Leonard said that Chesterfield County is in the process of removing its inmates from Riverside Regional Jail.

The jail houses approximately 1,300 inmates from seven localities: Charles City County, Chesterfield County, Prince George County, Surry County, City of Colonial Heights, City of Hopewell and City of Petersburg. Of those localities, Chesterfield County supplies the most inmates to Riverside. Leonard reported that, as of 7 a.m. on Wednesday, May 12, there were 546 inmates there from Chesterfield County.

Riverside Regional Jail was placed on probation in June 2019, also losing its accreditation with the American Correctional Association that year. Most recently, the Jail Review Committee of the Virginia Board of Local and Regional Jails recommended the closure of the facility in May 2021, after reports of poor conditions, including the deaths of three inmates in 2019 and 2020.

The Jail Review Committee also is targeting the Hampton Roads Regional Jail for closure, and it set to meet May 19 to present its recommendations to the Board.

“Our move to shift inmates to other facilities is not dependent on the outcome of the upcoming Board of Local and Regional Jails meeting,” Leonard said. “It’s dependent on Riverside getting to the position where the minimum standards of care, especially when dealing with health, life and safety standards, are being met.”

Leonard said that, although Chesterfield County Jail does not have the capacity to take in all the inmates for the locality that are currently being house at Riverside Regional Jail, the County had worked out a plan to move its inmates out of Riverside through additional staffing and transfer of inmates in state custody. However, he said that the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions put this move on hold.

“Last week, we already started to shift many of these inmates. This will be an ongoing, continuing operation,” Leonard said. “By fully utilizing all space at our jail, with agreements we have in place already at other facilities, and providing the state does take responsibility for the state-responsible inmates, we have secured the beds we need to depopulate Riverside.”

When Riverside Regional Jail opened in North Prince George in July 1997, Chesterfield County Administrator Dr. Joe Casey said that it was a model for other correctional facilities. But as time went on, the standards at the facility declined.

“Fiscal, staffing and operational issues began to arise, mainly caused by a per diem that has been set artificially low, a level that was below our recommendations, and what appears to be an ignorance for the wisdom from the only locality who runs a jail of their own — our Chesterfield Jail — that’s nationally accredited and receives much praise and attention for its inmates’ care and programs,” Casey said.

Chesterfield County Jail Medical Director Dr. Georges Mantovani Gay also spoke at the special meeting regarding his contacts with the medical staff at Riverside.

“In the beginning, they did have their own medical director, and we spoke all the time,” Gay said. “However, when he left, they did go to a contracted medical model, which is where a company comes in and will take over the whole medical facility and all the medications and patient care and things like that. It was was that that communication between myself and Riverside started to get less.”

In addition to sharing the challenges he and his medical staff face in trying to speak with the medical team at Riverside, Gay shared the stories of inmates who have spent time at the regional jail, including a plumbing issue in a segregated part of the facility that allegedly caused approximately an inch of sewage water to sit in the inmates’ cells for several days.

Sanitation issues were also addressed by Crystal Snodderly, a former inmate of Riverside Regional Jail. She said that she was arrested in Chesterfield County on a possession charge.

“Upon intake, I let the medical staff know that I was in acute withdrawal from Xanax and from heroin, and a great deal of it,” Snodderly said. “I was unable to move. I was defecating on myself, throwing up on myself, urinating on myself. The only advocates that I had were the other females that were there [in the cell] that were not in as bad of shape as I was.”

Snodderly said that she went an entire week in that condition without seeing a member of the medical staff at Riverside.

“I’ve heard so many stories that are like mine,” she said. “I’ve shared it. I’ve talked about it.”

Defense attorney Sangeeta Darji corroborated stories of unsanitary conditions at the faculty.

“I won’t speak to the unsanitary conditions in Riverside, including insects crawling on the wall and floor when members of the staff and members of the bar are walking along the corridors,” she said. “I won’t talk about my client who died there in his cell, and I was not told about it by the Riverside staff. Instead, I had to find out about it in court. When clients die in Riverside, defense bar are told that they have been discharged from the facility. They’re not told what actually happens, and unless a member of the Sheriff’s Department, a member of the bar, a member of the bench tells us what happens, we don’t know.”

Darji said there is a pattern at Riverside Regional Jail of denying constitutional rights to inmates and not allowing for adequate counsel.

Leonard and Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacey Davenport also flagged security failures at the jail.

Of the highest concern to me is a very specific incident that occurred July 16 of last year. My office prosecuted a defendant for two counts of forcible sodomy against a victim under the age of 13. That defendant went to Circuit Court and plead guilty to those charges, thereby admitting that he committed those offenses. His sentencing was continued. He was initially convicted on January 27, sent back to Riverside to await his sentencing, which was supposed to be in April. But because of everything that happened with COVID, it was continued. It was continued because we were awaiting psychosexual evaluations that were not able to be done because of the COVID situation at the jail. My office was notified that, based on a conversation this defendant had with a member of the staff at Riverside, he was released on July 16 of 2020 — a convicted child sex offender. He is currently believed to be in Guatemala, and the federal government is attempting to help us locate him so that we can return him to the United States and sentence him for the crimes he committed against that child. I cannot assure you if that will ever happen.

Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacey Davenport before the Board of Supervisors on May 12, 2021

When asked by Bermuda District representative Jim Ingle about rumors of inadequate fencing around part of the jail, as well as a broken window through which citizens on the outside can toss narcotics to inmates, Leonard confirmed these issues.

“It’s very frustrating. When you have a breach in your security system, that breach needs to be fixed,” Leonard said. “We have been hearing for a long time now about drugs getting into Riverside through an area of the jail that does not have a perimeter fence that does have a broken window, and drugs are just tossed into the window.”

After approximately two hours of testimony, the Board of Supervisors approved unanimously a motion to send a letter explaining the conditions described at Riverside Regional Jail to the Secretary of Public Safety and Governor Ralph Northam.

“At this point, we don’t have any other choice but to pull out all of our residents in that facility and relocate them to somewhere else,” Ingle said.

The Riverside Regional Jail Authority, which oversees the facility, argued that the recommendation for closure is misguided, given that it has passed all state and federal audits.

“This recommendation appears to be misplacing the responsibility for systemic criminal-justice and mental-health failures on Riverside, which like most large jails has become a de facto health and mental health institution,” according to a statement from the authority.

According to the jail’s website, the Riverside Regional Jail Authority is holding a Special Board Meeting on May 14 “to discuss legal matters with RRJA’s counsel.”

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