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Richmond leaders 'scared' about mounting staffing shortages at city jail: 'We're in an emergency'

Posted at 6:40 PM, Jan 24, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- Some Richmond city leaders declared an "emergency situation" at the Richmond City Jail due to significant staffing shortages that are showing no signs of improvement.

On Tuesday afternoon, Richmond Sheriff Antionette Irving gave an update to Richmond Council's Public Safety Committee on her staffing levels. Deputy vacancies have grown over the past couple of months, despite increased efforts to recruit new employees.

Irving said she's currently down about 170 deputies, which account for around half of her total 385 sworn positions. She said "a few people" have been hired recently, but she's lost other employees who quit due to personal reasons or left while they were "under suspicion of misconduct."

The sheriff described the situation as "the worst it's been" since she first took office in 2018.

David Dupree, a former inmate who spent two weeks at the jail in December, said he also noticed staffing issues while he was behind bars.

"Right now, it's just out of control," Dupree said. “You could die any time down there. You can do anything you want down there.”

Dupree said during overnight hours, there were times when no deputies were monitoring his pod. Because of this, he claimed he received minimal help from staff when he experienced a medical emergency.

“The guards were gone the whole time. I was up the whole night. I couldn't sleep, period," he said.

As the Richmond Jail has seen four inmate deaths in less than a year and three inmate deaths in the past three months, Dupree believed a lack of oversight has put safety at risk.

He said many inmates had access to drugs inside the jail and that "people were walking around like zombies."

“It’s got a lot to do with the staff because the staff feels like they've taken on too many responsibilities," Dupree said. "I felt like they wouldn't do any security checks and they wouldn't provide you with anything."

During Tuesday's meeting, Richmond City Councilmember Kristen Nye called Irving's staffing numbers "really scary" and that they left her "super concerned and nervous."

“This feels to me like we're in an emergency situation, and I don't know what the options are, but it just seems like this recruitment is going to take more time than we have," Nye said. "And it feels like we are in a crisis right now.”

However, Irving maintained that she's not at a crisis point yet. She said her employees are still able to properly monitor the jail's roughly 600 inmates due to how the inmates are spread out across the facility and how the building is designed.

"It is a concern that we have, and we're working hard to manage how we operate and how we house individuals to ensure that we can also provide safety for the individuals that are working and living there," Irving said.

She added, "But when you say it’s an emergency or a crisis, if you see it, you'll be able to better understand it.”

Irving said a number of recruitment initiatives are underway such as job fairs, increased incentives, advertisement on radio and billboards, internship programs, and university partnerships.

However, she said bad publicity about the sheriff's office is hurting efforts to hire.

"The main thing that we need to do is working together and trying to make sure that we have a positive outlook on what we are communicating to others so that we can get more people to work," Irving said.

Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Reva Trammell, who has publicly raised concerns about the jail for months, asked Irving if she has reached out to the state or surrounding agencies for staffing help.

"We are reaching out to other agencies, but those agencies need their people," Irving said. "And they also are not housing our people, and they have their challenging numbers as well."

Irving said about 100 of the jail's inmates are under the Department of Corrections, and she said the state could help provide relief by taking those inmates and housing them elsewhere. However, she said it's "cheaper" for the inmates to stay in Richmond.

Though the meeting ended without a definite plan as to how the sheriff's office and city leaders will move forward, Irving said she welcomes more conversations about solutions and invited council members to take a tour of the jail.