Richmond Sheriff addresses jail safety challenges as city official calls for state investigation

Posted at 6:49 PM, Dec 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-03 11:41:28-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond Sheriff Antionette Irving addressed what she called security challenges within the Richmond jail as Richmond Councilwoman Reva Trammell called for a state investigation into safety concerns regarding inmates and staff.

The issues have now caught the attention of Governor Glenn Youngkin's cabinet.

Trammell, who also serves as Chair of the council's Public Safety Committee, said she's alarmed to hear of consistent reports of attacks on inmates and deputies.

“Everybody’s scared for their life," Trammell said. “Their families have been calling me, begging me to try to help them because they're afraid something's going to happen to their loved ones. But I think it's horrible when these deputies go to work to do their job, and they have to be severely attacked and assaulted.”

The 8th district councilperson said she believed the violence was so out of hand that she's requested Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares to launch an investigation and for Governor Youngkin's Secretary of Public Safety Bob Mosier to get involved.

“I want someone to find out what is going on in there and why is this happening," Trammell said.

Trammell also called on Sheriff Irving, the elected official who oversees all things at the Richmond Justice Center, to be transparent about any safety issues with the jail.

Trammell's call for action comes weeks after an inmate died while in custody. An incident report showed the inmate suffered a medical emergency, but Sheriff Irving told CBS 6 neither the medical emergency nor the death was the result of a drug overdose.

An official cause and manner of death are still pending, according to the Medical Examiner's Office.

Sheriff Irving invited the CBS 6 Problem Solvers into the jail this week to directly address concerns.

“Do you feel like you’re having issues with safety right now within the jail?” CBS 6 Problem Solver Tyler Layne asked.

“We do have challenges with safety and security but no more than any other facility," Irving responded.

The sheriff acknowledged that assaults on her deputies do occur but not at an unusual rate, she said.

“We have one incident, and it appears it gets blown out of proportion," Irving said. "This is a jail. In any jail or prison, inmates do certain things. As I've been trained over the years, inmates do inmate-type of stuff. Deputies do deputy type of stuff."

“How often or how frequently maybe in a given month would you say that a deputy is experiencing getting injured on the job?” Layne asked.

“Not often. We may have one this month, and we may have one six months or a year down the road, but we’re not having assaults every day. We’re not having assaults every month," Irving said.

The CBS 6 Problem Solvers obtained more than a dozen jail incident reports detailing at least three incidents when deputies were injured by inmates just within the past month.

The reports showed inmates beat deputies, charged at them, and threw things at them. Trammell said she's spoken with deputies who have had to go to a hospital due to their injuries.

The CBS 6 Problem Solvers requested official data and numbers for reported assaults on deputies for 2022 and the month of November and has not yet received the information.

“Just to set the record straight, you do not think the violence is getting out of control in the jail?” Layne asked.

“I always think that violence has its place to not be here. The violence in the streets rolls over to the violence we have here," Irving said. "Our staff do a really good job of being observant and trying to catch those types of things prior to them happening. Can we avoid all of them? Absolutely not. Have they increased at periods of time? Absolutely have."

The sheriff said she follows a strict protocol when an inmate commits an act of violence by first institutionally charging the suspect and then coordinating with the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office to figure out if a criminal charge is warranted.

When asked if her office always pursues charges when a deputy is attacked, Irving said they will always gather information to present a case to the Commonwealth's Attorney and from there, a decision is made.

Irving said it was important to "correct" information regarding rising violence at the jail.

When asked why she thought that information was getting out into the public, she said, "It's a violent atmosphere. We also have people that are overworked. We have people that are tired. We have people that are frustrated, and we have people that are disgruntled. Here we hold people accountable."

Irving added some staff members who are held accountable may be trying to "blame someone else" for their own errors.

She gave additional context to the challenges her staff faced.

Out of the jail's roughly 600 inmates, she said half are violent offenders. She said a slight uptick in violent crimes committed in the City of Richmond and surrounding communities has led to an uptick in jail violence.

So far this year, Richmond Police has reported a 3% rise in violent crimes compared to 2021.

Irving is also dealing with a staffing shortage.

She said she's currently down about 160 deputies out of 385 total positions. In 2021, the retention rate for employees with the Richmond City Sheriff's Office was 76%, but she said it's difficult to recruit.

"It's just tough, especially since 2020. It's a different eyesight on doing this type of work," Irving said. "It's tiresome. It's frustrating. It's overwhelming. The lack of respect-- we are not looked at the same way we used to be looked at."

Ultimately, Irving disagreed with Trammell that a state investigation into the jail is necessary and said city leaders should be more focused on the violence happening outside the jail to prevent people from being incarcerated in the first place.

“I can't stop her from asking for an investigation, but what I would like her to do is come and be a part of what it is that we're doing and see how hard these individuals are working. They're working hard, and for someone to say that they're not doing what they're supposed to do, it's really disappointing," Irving said. “For people to talk negatively about what we’re doing in here, I don’t take that too lightly."

The sheriff said Trammell has not visited the jail since Irving first took office in 2018 but would like to invite her back.

"She has some great ideas, and I'd love to continue to talk about those things with her and collaborate with her on how it is that we can continue to improve," Irving said.

But the councilwoman said she's not coming to the jail until safety challenges have been resolved.

“Something needs to be done now," Trammell said.

A spokesperson for Governor Youngkin's Office said Secretary Mosier has inquired about more information about the jail and is in contact with local officials. A spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General said it has not yet received an official request for an investigation.

CBS 6 reached out to the other two council members on the Public Safety Committee alongside Trammell. Councilor Ann-Frances Lambert declined an interview. Councilor Ellen Robertson did not respond.

CBS 6 reached out to sheriff's offices in surrounding localities to ask if their jails are experiencing similar issues. The Chesterfield Sheriff's Office was the only one to respond.

Jail administrator Maj. Donald Huff said assaults on staff at the Chesterfield jail are a rarity. Over the past two years, there have been eight total assaults. Three were felonious assaults, and five were simple assaults. None were reported in the month of November.

Huff also said it's important to be transparent with the public when such incidents occur.

"The effectiveness of the Sheriff’s Office depends considerably on the relationship that we have established with the citizens we serve. That relationship is based on mutual trust and respect which is forged through not only the actions we take but the transparency and accountability of us reporting those actions," Huff said.

The Chesterfield jail has about half the inmate population as Richmond. Currently, it houses 304 inmates with 137 deputies assigned to the jail.