Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere
Martin Luther King Jr.
Our neighbors are dying in the Richmond, Virginia jail. More than 80 of our neighbors have died since 1994, more than 30 of them since C.T. Woody became Sheriff in 2004. Another one of our neighbors, Charles Preston Mitchell, age 62 passed away during the last week. Despite the dozens of deaths, there has been no serious investigation of the Richmond City jail by any city, state, or federal organization. This means that after years of unusually high inmate death rates, no government official at any level has taken the time to perform a serious inquiry into this pattern of deaths. The underlying causes of these deaths must be addressed. This can only be addressed if there is a public outcry.
The Richmond City, Virginia jail is something of a sick inside joke among Richmonders. Residents complain about corruption inside the jail. Civil liberties advocates, former inmates, and their family members complain about a lack of adequate air conditioning and ventilation inside the facilities, pointing out that during 100 degree summer days, conditions inside of the jail can rise to over 120 degrees. There are accusations of deputies using excessive force, beating nonviolent inmates. Many residents also speak of the Sheriff’s staff failing to protect inmates from other inmates and their selves, pointing to a number of questionable suicides within the facility.
The Richmond jail has one of the highest inmate death rates in the United States. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, there had been at least 30 deaths at the Richmond City facility since 2006. It is difficult to identify the exact number of deaths that occurred in the Richmond jail because the Sheriff’s Office rarely issues press releases for inmates’ deaths. In fact, the Sheriff’s Office website titled “PRESS, REPORTS AND ARCHIVES” lists only two statements on inmate deaths during the administration of Sheriff C.T. Woody, despite the fact that the Richmond Times-Dispatch Identifies at least 30 deaths during the same timeframe.
From 2000-2007 the Richmond jail had a death rate 2.5 times as high as the national average. The DOJ has not released statistics for 2007-2012, but it is known that the death rate at the Richmond facility has risen despite a downward trend in jail deaths. To put this in to perspective, it is becoming increasingly more likely that a suspect arrested in Richmond will die in custody, despite the fact that is becoming less likely for someone arrested to die in custody.
No agency uninterested in investigating the unusually high death rate in the Richmond jail. As stated above, the Sheriff’s office has only issued formal press releases about two deaths during the tenure of Sheriff C. T. Woody. There are no statements about the other deaths, nor are the findings from investigations into the cause of inmate deaths available to the general public. There is no indication the Richmond jail has been investigated by the Richmond City Council, the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, or the US Department of Justice. Right now, in isn’t clear what the procedures are for determining why inmates are dying in such high rate nor is it clear why the Richmond jail has not come under scrutiny from the Commonwealth of Virginia, given its near record-breaking death rates.
Reed Williams of the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a July 29th article which provided many of the statistics used in this article. Melissa Scott Sinclair of Style Weekly, a local arts and entertainment newspaper, also deserves credit for covering this topic. These two reporters stand out because local media has paid so little attention to this issue. It seems unusual that local media has given so little attention to this issue, especially when one considers that investigative journalism on topics like this often sell newspapers.
The issue of deaths in the Richmond City jail has continued for too long without outside oversight. Too many of our neighbors have died in the custody of the Richmond Sheriff’s Office. Most of these people were being held pending trial or bail hearing. Most of the dead were people who had not yet been tried by a jury of their peers for their alleged crimes. Regardless of their innocence or guilt, the Sheriff’s Office was responsible for the safety and wellbeing of their prisoners. At the very least, these deaths represent a pattern that be investigated to find the underlying cause. Virginia CopBlock is planning a protest at the Richmond Sheriff’s Office on Friday, October 5th. We ask that everyone concerned about this issue attend the protest. These deaths have gone on too long. We must make it clear that these deaths cannot be tolerated.
Written by: Chris Staples