Richmond mayor, majority of councilmembers 'profoundly concerned' about city jail: 'The issues are endless'

Posted at 6:47 PM, Dec 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-22 09:48:55-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- The number of Richmond city leaders speaking out about safety challenges at the Richmond Jail continues to grow.

A majority of councilmembers and Mayor Levar Stoney's Office are now expressing concerns and some have questioned the sheriff's ability to lead.

“We have a lot of concerns about the jail right now. We're getting numerous calls about incidents occurring, just a lot of severe incidents." said 3rd District Councilmember Ann-Frances Lambert. "I mean, the issues are endless. Where do we begin?"

Lambert, who also serves as Vice Chair of the council's Public Safety Committee, is the latest city leader to speak out about the conditions inside the jail.

Her worries follow three inmate deaths this year including at least one confirmed drug overdose, a 50% vacancy rate in deputy positions, reported assaults against staff and sources saying that Sheriff Antionette Irving put deputies through a lie detector test to find out who's leaking information to the press.

CBS 6 has heard from six out of the nine Richmond council members who are each voicing frustrations, exploring options for oversight and accountability and seeking answers from Sheriff Irving.

8th District Councilor and Chair of the council's Public Safety Committee started raising red flags in November after she said she heard of violence happening within the jail "at a disturbing rate." Since then, Councilors Lambert, Mike Jones, Kristen Nye, Stephanie Lynch, and Andreas Addison have expressed similar sentiments.

In an interview outside the jail Wednesday, Lambert said many of her concerns stem from a lack of transparency from Sheriff Irving's Office.

“Lack of communication is the main thing," Lambert said. "I think that's key when it comes to the sheriff. I don't want her to be on attack mode, because we understand a lot of the issues she's dealing with, but it's also going to take a communicative collaborative effort of us coming together to really help her deal with what's going on inside the jail."

Lambert said the council, as the body which allocates city funding to the sheriff's office, could better support Irving if members clearly knew about the challenges she faces.

In early December, CBS 6 requested data from the sheriff's office through a Freedom of Information Act request. After initially saying it'd charge CBS 6 more than $1,000 for a response, the sheriff's office provided the information this week at no cost.

Jail administrator Stacey Bagby said there's been one major assault on staff and four minor assaults in 2022. That's an increase from 1 major assault and 1 minor assault reported last year.

Bagby said the sheriff's office is expected to spend nearly 2.9 million taxpayer dollars on overtime for jail security by the end of 2022.

Additionally, she said there are currently 170 sworn staff members who work in the jail and 168 vacancies. For comparison, the Norfolk Jail currently has 35 vacancies out of 325 sworn positions. The Chesterfield Jail has seven vacancies out of 137 deputies assigned to the jail.

To combat a staffing shortage, Lambert said she's hoping the Richmond Sheriff's Office might benefit from additional funding from the General Assembly as Governor Youngkin has proposed $30 million for law enforcement recruitment in the next state budget.

As far as the next steps, she said she's requesting a tour of the Richmond Jail to get a firsthand account of potential issues inside.

“I would love to have a one-on-one with the sheriff, so she can actually walk me through and actually see the nitty and the gritty," she said.

Lambert also supports the request from Councilor Trammell for a state investigation into the jail by the Board of Local and Regional Jails. Trammell sent a letter formally requesting the probe in mid-December, but when asked about it by CBS 6, the board's executive director Ryan McCord said he had "no comment."

Additionally, Lambert said the council's Public Safety Committee and Education and Human Services Committee plan to hold a joint meeting to specifically address jail issues and potential solutions.

Asked if Lambert had confidence in Irving's leadership of the jail, she said, “You know, that's hard to say until I have a conversation with her and really kind of see where her head is. It's just unfortunate that we're dealing with this right now.”

She said if she doesn't see improvement, she encourages the community to vote her out in the next election.

"We're going to need citizens to stand up. So those who are feeling like they want change, one way to do change is in [2025] and elect a new sheriff," she said.

When CBS 6 asked Mayor Levar Stoney's Office for a comment on the concerns at the jail, spokesperson Jim Nolan sent the following statement:

“Any unexpected death in our jail, or any city facility, is a serious cause for concern. The Administration will continue to work with the Richmond Police Department to provide assistance wherever possible to the Sheriff’s Office in its administration and operation of the facility."

Here's how the other Richmond Councilmembers have responded as of December 21:

Andreas Addison (1st District):

"I am concerned with the reported issues that may be going on in our local jail. It is paramount that we prioritize the safety of all inmates, employees, and families. City Council must request a meeting to discuss these allegations with the Richmond Sheriff's Office to gain more knowledge about what is taking place and use any authority we have to initiate an investigation," Councilor Addison said in a statement to CBS 6.

Katherine Jordan (2nd District):

The liaison for Councilor Jordan said she was out of the office Wednesday and did not have time to provide a response.

Kristen Nye (4th District):

In an interview with CBS 6 last week, Councilor Nye said it's incumbent upon city leaders to ensure a safe environment for inmates and staff.

“For oversight, I’d need to know more of what that’d look like, but in general, we definitely need more information about what is going on with the safety of our inmates, with the staffing challenges, and safety of the staff that work there," Nye said.

Nye said she's aware that mental health challenges and community issues that integrate into the jail may be contributing to violence and should be addressed.

However, she added, "But at the end of the day, this should be a safe environment for everyone who’s in there, and we’re seeing ongoing problems.”

Stephanie Lynch (5th District):

“I am profoundly concerned for the health, safety and well-being of both the staff and incarcerated individuals at Richmond City Jail. Often, our jails are the endpoint of a failed mental health and social service system- and corrections facilities are ill-prepared to handle the unique needs of this population, particularly those experiencing a triple entendre of lifelong trauma, mental health diagnosis and addiction. We do not have a full and complete picture of why these fatalities and incidents are occurring, but we plan on seeking answers. We need a systemic approach to addressing safety in our jails, with our current population- as well as strategies to provide treatment and promote safe re-entry into our community," Lynch said.

As the Chair of the Education and Human Services Committee, Lynch has called for a joint meeting with the Public Safety Committee. She said it's tentatively scheduled for January 11, 2023.

Ellen Robertson (6th District and Council Vice President):

Councilor Robertson's office has not responded to any of CBS 6's three requests for comment since November 30. Robertson serves on the Public Safety Committee alongside Trammell and Lambert.

Cynthia Newbille (7th District and Council President):

Councilor Newbille's office did not respond to CBS 6's request for comment Wednesday.

Reva Trammell (8th District):

Councilor Trammell was the first to call for a state investigation into the jail in November.

“The deputies fear for their lives. Other inmates fear for their lives. Their loved ones are calling me, begging me to help," Trammell said in a previous interview with CBS 6. "The inmates, they feel nobody is listening to their cries."

Trammell said she was in contact with the Commonwealth's Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Bob Mosier to request state intervention. Trammell officially sent Mosier a letter asking the Board of Local and Regional Jails to step in earlier this month.

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

Trammell has also questioned Irving's ability to lead.

Mike Jones (9th District):

Councilor Jones said while he understands the staffing challenges that law enforcement agencies face, he said additional oversight wouldn't be a bad thing.

"We need to look further into these issues and ensure the jail is as safe as possible," Jones said.

Jones previously said he's confident in Sheriff Irving's leadership but supports the council exploring next steps to find solutions.