Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Jail Plans Hope to Alleviate Overcrowding, Boost Rehabilitation

Listen to the full story here.

The Richmond City Jail has come under scrutiny this summer after two inmates died within a week of each other in June. Sheriff C.T. Woody admitted temperatures had soar to 120 degrees in some cells and the deaths were connected to jail conditions by local media. The cause of death for prisoner Grant P. Sleeper was listed as complications from stroke and inmate Kerry Wayne Bennett's death was ruled a natural occurrence related to heart problems. But the ACLU called for the Justice Department to take a look at the jail and even sue the City of Richmond, if conditions were deemed unconstitutionally harsh. A group of local protestors marched through the streets to chant on the jail's sidewalk, asking for fair treatment of inmates. Richmond Independent Radio News took a look at these grievances in a previous story but in this addition we will look at what occurred after the deaths stirred public interest. Sheriff C.T. Woody and Mayor Dwight C. Jones have said they don't consider the jail adequate. Mayor Jones said in a recent City Council meeting he didn't want to wait any longer to remedy the situation and hoped to break ground on more modern facilities in September of next year.

In a City Council meeting July 19th, 137 million dollars of city funds were approved to renovate the current site on Fairfield Way in Richmond. The plan is for 1,032 beds but will be able to expand to accommodate 1,500 prisoners. The current jail was built for 882 people in 1964 but often houses 1,500. Mayor Dwight C. Jones said the new plan can allow the city to save money while pursuing alternative strategies for criminals.

“Not a 2000 bed jail, not 225 million dollars," he said. "We didn’t want a lock ‘em up and throw away the key approach.”

In order to make a smaller jail feasible, the city would have to make changes. At the July 19th City Council meeting, Mayor Jones alluded to some changes for a city with a broken jail system and declining resources.

“A smaller more efficient jail is everyone’s best interest. It will cost the tax payers less and it will allow us to provide services for those who need them, where they need to have those services provided," said Mayor Jones. "Low risk offenders don’t need to be there, traffic violators don’t need to be there, mentally ill people need to be receiving services as do substances abuse offenders need to be receiving services.”

Mayor Jones suggested there were alternative sites for the presently incarcerated to go but didn't specify where. Sheriff C.T. Woody has echoed that notion. At the July 19th City Council meeting he also said he wanted to push to implement early release for good behavior and to move people to other facilities.

“I would just like to ask everyone of you all to stay committed and see this through," Sheriff Woody said. "It’s been a lot of talk, but now we’re actually walking the walk. And I’m proud of where we really are.”

25 new fans were added to the jail about a week after the July 9th protests and a new jail was approved within two weeks. And then another step came when a proposal submitted by Mayor Jones to the City Council came to the floor July 26th. Before the jail deaths made news, a grant had been approved May 18th. The Virginia Prisoner Reentry Initiative Grant for a total of 599,114 dollars in funds, 449,336 in federal funds and 149,778 in local funds. The grant's purpose is listed as "providing services and supervision" for each offender while they are in the Richmond City Jail and continuing to reintegration and aftercare in the community. The Sheriff's Office proposed to use the funds to target 50-75 special needs inmates serving six months or more. They would be provided psycho-social treatment and education services as well as job training and placement. After the deaths at the jail occurred, Mayor Jones introduced a new ordinance on July 12th, to add 134,336 dollars in additional funds to the program. This item came to the floor July 26th. According to Jean Whiting, Deputy City Clerk, a typographical error on the paperwork for the ordinance listed the amount of funds Mayor Jones was proposing incorrectly. This meant the ordinance had to be amended and re-advertised in the newspaper to be presented at a later meeting. Now the ordinance will be up for vote September 13th, since the City Council is not meeting in August.

But the protestors we heard from in WRIR's previous story on this issue say the changes to the city jail need to go beyond new policies and programs. And some city officials seem to agree that who is in jail at all needs to be reconsidered. Attorney General Mike Herring said:

“We are also contemplating revisting the sentences of some people who have already been convicted. And that is going to require us to do a gut check at the community level and examine our tolerance for housing or accommodating certain offenders at the community level as opposed to behind bars.”

And with the National Institute of Corrections listing Richmond as having the highest incarceration rate per capita of any city they evaluated and the city jail overflowing until sometime after September 2011, when the city hopes to break ground on new facilities, it couldn't hurt to reassess who's in the city jail.

Stay tuned for the results of the September 13th vote and to hear more about the Prisoner Reentry Initiative Grant Program.

-Caroline Jackson

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