Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mayor Pushes Plans for New Jail after Deaths Raise Protests

Listen to the full story here.

Mayor Dwight C. Jones announced at Monday’s City Council meeting the city would accept plans for renovation and construction of a new jail. He didn’t suggest specific criteria but made clear proposals would only be accepted to renovate the current site on Fairfield Way with 137 million dollars of city funds. Mayor Jones called conditions at the jail “horrendous” and Sheriff C.T. Woody cheered the council for “walking the walk” after years of “talking the talk.”

Monday’s break through didn’t come out of nowhere. It followed weeks of protests and media attention after inmate Grant R. Sleeper died from heat-exposure and Kerry Wayne Bennett was suspected to, in early July at the Richmond City Jail.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice July 6th. Executive Director Kent Willis asked for an investigation into what he called “unconstitutionally harsh conditions.” Willis said he has been in contact with the Department of Justice since sending the letter and the ACLU hopes for an answer this week or next.

“They are looking at jails across the country and it’s often hard to get their attention and get them to focus on a particular place. But what we were hoping is because of the dire circumstances that we could get them to move in Richmond. But as of this moment we don’t know if they’re going to act or not.”

Willis said Richmond officials have known for twenty years that the jail is antiquated and overcrowded. And Sheriff Woody has admitted temperatures have soared as high as 120 degrees in the jail this summer. But Willis said the Department of Justice has the authority to change things quickly in the jail and to sue the city on behalf of its citizens. He said in the past progress has been stalled.

“It’s a sad truth that it took two deaths for everyone to get mobilized again. But what we’re hoping is between the Department of Justice and the attention that’s come to this because of these two deaths that we may finally solve the real problems with the new jail by simply replacing it.”

And now there may be relief in sight. Last week, new fans were installed in the jail and Mayor Jones said they should break ground on modernized facilities by September 2011. Willis said the hardest part in changing the jail has been getting people to agree to spend tax dollars on prisoners. Sheriff Woody has been advocating for a new jail since he took office in 2006 but until now the City Council had moved slowly towards a fix.

“ The sheriff’s and the advocates for prisoner’s rights are basically on the same side it’s the people who control the purse strings are the ones who have to be compelled to do something to fix these problems.”

And the ACLU of Virginia wasn’t the only organization demanding justice for the inmates who recently died. Friday, July 9th, a smattering of local activists gathered in front of City Hall with signs reading “Tear Down all the Jails”, “Can You Live with Blood on Your Hands” and “Cops Murder Everywhere.” Organizers originally planned to stand in solidarity with Oscar Grant who was shot by a subway cop in Oakland but quickly included the two Richmond inmates in their demonstration.

Many of the two dozen protestors who marched from City Hall to the City Jail WERE anarchists who live in a collective in Barton Heights called the Wingnut. They have a particular view on jails but said there are certain changes that could ease what they call the dehumanization of prisoners. Kaylie Dickie who is part of the Wingnut collective said:

“In an anarchist’s perspective, I would say take down all the jails, things like that. But there is something we can do in this society to at least change some parts of the rules and any kind of alternative rather than to not educating, just punishing, torturing prisoners without any fans or air conditioning is unreasonable and shouldn’t be allowed.”

Local activist Chris Dorsey also attended the Friday afternoon protest. He is not part of the core of organizers but was concerned about the state of the Richmond City Jail and decided to attend. He said:

“People are dying from exposure inside the jail. People are dying because they have been beaten by the guards and people are dying because they aren’t receiving their proper medical conditions. To me that is cruel and unusual punishment. So I’m out here to oppose unconstitutional conditions and unconstitutional officials like C.T. Woody.”

But he said more needed to be done to spur the general public from awareness to action.

“I think this is the beginning of a larger movement. I mean, we want more people to come out to these events. These are individuals showing up on their own but you know I think this has got to be part of a larger movement to reinstate the constitution.”

When the group reached the jail they chanted and banged on makeshift instruments for a half an hour. The jail was closed down during the protest and jail officials were overheard saying the protestors were hurting inmates by inhibiting family members from bailing them out. Since the protests, the Wingnut has written a letter on their website saying police have routinely visited their Southern Barton Heights, flashing their lights and turning on their sirens. Wingnut resident Jeremy Hawthorne said the visits stopped after the letter was posted.

And with new fans and a clear move forward to designing a new jail announced by Mayor Jones Monday, jail inmates may be on their way to relief as well.

Stay tuned to Richmond Independent Radio for the second half of this story where we will outline the proposed changes and hear what Mayor Jones, Sheriff Woody and the Attorney General have to say about current conditions at the Richmond City Jail

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