By Bill Atkinson
PRINCE GEORGE, Va. — Officials at the Riverside Regional Jail are disputing a recommendation by a state study committee that the jail be shut down and its inmates be returned to their localities for holding, claiming that three deaths at the facility cited by the committee were ones that “are not always preventable for any jail.”
In addition, RRJ said the recommendation is “misplacing the responsibility” for criminal-justice and mental-health failures on the jail turning it into a “de facto health and mental health institution.”
Last week, the Jail Review Committee of the Virginia Board of Local and Regional Jails recommended that the state close RRJ following reports about poor health and safety conditions at the River Road jail, including the deaths of three inmates in 2019 and last year. The board will be presented with the panel’s recommendations May 19.
Friday, the Riverside Regional Jail Authority, which oversees the jail, issued a statement saying it “does not feel as if this recommendation is warranted.” It also called the recommendation “particularly shocking” given that the jail had passed all of its audits by state and federal regulators.
RRJ was one of two regional jails targeted for closure by the committee. The other is in Hampton Roads.
RRJ houses roughly 1,300 inmates from seven localities — the cities of Petersburg, Colonial Heights and Hopewell; and the counties of Chesterfield, Prince George, Surry and Sussex. Of all of them, only Chesterfield has a local jail.
In its report, the committee noted the deaths of one inmate in 2019 and two last year at the jail. But RRJA said two of those deaths were attributed by the state medical examiner to chronic health conditions. The third was the suicide of an inmate who was being closely monitored for severe mental issues by certified mental-health personnel.
According to the authority, more than half of the jail population suffers from some kind of mental condition on any given day, and more than two-thirds of them are on doctor-ordered medications.
“All inmate deaths are tragic,” the authority statement read. “But they are thankfully exceedingly rare in a facility that houses over 1,300 local, state and federal inmates per day and processes over 22,000 inmates per year, and they are not always preventable for any jail.”
RRJ has been under close scrutiny by the state since being put on probation two years ago after the BOLRJ for mishandling circumstances surrounding the suicides of two inmates in 2017. As a result of that probation, RRJ is subject to two unannounced state audits every six months.
The probation ends in 2022.
The authority cited progress in jail administration after it hired Larry Leabough as superintendent. Under his stewardship, “great strides have been made” to improve the facility.
“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,” the authority said.
RRJ “looks forward to presenting the whole facts to the committee and full board when given the opportunity,” the authority’s statement said. According to a letter sent Friday to the jail, the authority has 10 days from the date the letter was received to request an “informal presentation” of the committee findings before they are presented to the board May 19.
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