RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Current and former Richmond City Justice Center employees are speaking out about a severe staffing shortage they say puts the safety and security of everyone at risk. The Richmond jail is short 110 sheriff’s deputies.

Some employees spoke to us on-camera, others off-camera for fear of losing their jobs.  They told 8News they’ve feared for their lives, some have been attacked and claim the inmates run the jail.

“There was an incident where I got my nose broken.” said James Alexander, a former Richmond sheriff’s deputy.

He says he decided it was time to leave the Justice Center after an inmate assaulted him when he tried to give him his medication. “He swung and hit me right in the nose.  And it was fractured. I fell on my back, I was out for about three weeks,” he explained.

8News has seen his worker’s compensation paperwork.  Some of his injuries required physical therapy.  To add insult to injury, he says Richmond sheriff Antoinette Irving wouldn’t let him press charges.

Alexander said, “I was told that you know charges could not be filed.  She had made some statements before information that all charges had to go through her and be approved by her.”

In full disclosure, Alexander has volunteered for a candidate running against the sheriff in the upcoming election. Yet, he is just one of many who have now walked away from a job at the jail.

Sheriff Irving recently revealed in a City Public Safety Meeting that the Richmond jail was down 110 deputies. Data obtained by 8News through a Freedom of Information Act request shows as fast as they hire, more leave.

This year, the Sheriff’s Office made 20 new hires but 47 people left.  

We asked Sheriff Irving why the jail is so short-staffed.  She said, “We’re training individuals and they’re leaving going to places that can provide more funding for them.”

She blames the job openings on low pay and the current climate.  “A lot of this is from COVID, the unrest, the use of force. We are not the only ones suffering from this,” Irving said.

She’s right, while the turnover rate at the Justice Center is about 12%, The Virginia Sheriffs’ Association says statewide the average is 35%.

Yet, those who left the jail like, Blythe Balestrieri, say they walked because of her.

“She rules the jail with fear and intimidation,” said Balestrieri.

“She clearly said to us, I don’t know you, I don’t trust you,” said another former employee who has asked not to be identified. He quit after years of service at the jail. 

They allege Irving has created a hostile work environment and belittles them. “She called us rejects. Rejects, and if we don’t like it, GRTC gives out transfers,” he told us.  

Alexander also told us she was very abrasive.  He said, “She was not approachable at all.”

We asked Irving about it.  She said, “That’s false. No, no, we are not going to go there. My door is always open to my staff. I speak to my staff and I talk to my staff, but I hold my staff accountable. This is about life health and safety.  This is not about us being friends.”

“The jail became so short-staffed under Sheriff Irving’s leadership, I was unable to do my job,” said Balestrieri.

She says the mass exodus made work unsafe. The civilian law library expert couldn’t leave her office to assist inmates – there were no sworn officers to safely escort her.

“I have never felt so scared as towards the end of my time at jail,” Balestrieri said.

The Sheriff admitted in a recent Public Safety meeting that most at the jail aren’t behind bars for misdemeanors.

“We have over 300 violent offenders,” she said.  

Incident reports requested by 8News, show there were 21 staff or contractors assaulted in 2020. There have been seven attacks so far this year.  

Last year, there were 86 inmate on inmate assaults. There’s been 24 as of May.

“The inmates start running the jail,” said former Lieutenant Juan Mejia. 

He says the lack of staff, assaults on deputies, and the sheriff’s refusal to grant deputies their right to press charges forced him to flee. “The jail is out of control right now,” Mejia said.

An image shared with 8News from a security camera inside the jail shows no social distancing in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak.

On a Facebook page calling for the “Boycott of Sheriff Irving” and other social media sites, 8News has seen multiple photos, videos, even choreographed music videos, posted by inmates on the inside.

“She has let the jail become almost like a playground,” said one former employee.
When asked how those things happen, Sheriff Irving said, “Well, we use tablets, and people on the outside take pictures of those on the inside. If they are in a bunch, which we hope they are not because of COVID, but if they are in a bunch, then they are in a bunch and they are happy. They are not breaking a rule because they’re in a group taking a picture.”

Irving stresses there have been zero deaths inside the justice center since she took over.

Meantime, those who have stayed on say they’re working 16-hour shifts to make up for the staffing shortage and they’re tired.  That former employee told us, “Deputies have actually fallen asleep on post.”

A City audit revealed Irving was nearly $3 million over budget in 2019.  She claimed most of that was due to overtime.

Irving calls much of this rumor, says some just aren’t committed to the job, and reminds us it is an election year.  The unidentified former jail worker said, “I am not taking no candidate’s side whatsoever.

Alexander said, “I am speaking out on behalf of the deputies that are still there and the deputies that were injured after me.”

Sheriff Irving tells us staff will get a raise from the state in July and she is trying to get the city to boost salaries to help with new hires. The sheriff’s office is also covering the costs of a deputy’s equipment.