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Last Saturday, City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson of Richmond’s 6th district held a meeting to discuss plans for a new Richmond City Jail. The jail resides in her district on Oliver Hill Way and controversy has heated up this summer over the conditions the ACLU of VA has called “unconstitutionally harsh”.
The Richmond City Jail was built in 1964 for just under 900 inmates. Now it often houses 1500. They sleep in bunk beds stacked three high. The Sheriff has admitted temperatures in the jail soar well into the 100’s in the summer. Lt. Colonel Walter Allmon of the Sheriff’s office said on Saturday the jail has 214 broken windows and the roof leaks when it rains. Both problems when the temperatures dip this winter.
Lt. Colonel Allmon explained the jail was originally constructed to get rid of undesirables but is not functional for rehabilitation.
“We’ve already talked about the jail design as a dormitory. It was a warehouse. That’s what the jail was designed to do," he said. "It was designed to warehouse individuals. There were no classroom space in the old jail, there was no infirmary. There was no consideration even then for the people that had mental problems and so forth, when the jail was built.”
He said the outdated facilities are limiting the possible progress of inmates.
“The desire of the sheriff is to make the prisoner a person a better citizen then they were a criminal because believe me, when you sit there and you’ve got an idle mind, you can think of 12, 550 things you can do when you get out that’s going to be destructive and put you right back into the situation that you just left," Lt. Colonel Allmon said.
Sheriff C.T. Woody also said the jail’s set up is problematic. Guards can’t view inmates well enough to directly supervise them. He said single cells which could be electronically locked and unlocked would make the jail safer for guards, residents and the community.
“That’s the new way. That’s the best way," Sheriff Woody said. "And I’m not going to stand here and say the bricks and mortar will solve our problems. We do need a new facility, a new building. Yes, we do need that. But we also need alternative sentences.
Sheriff Woody said 200 to 250 inmates are mentally ill and 200 to 250 are first time violators, some of which are there for traffic violations. He said a smaller jail could force the city to re-examine locking certain people up at all.
“The bigger you build a jail, more people came come there. And that’s not being proactive. That’s being reactive," Sheriff Woody said. "We need to send people where they need to go."
The city plans to work with the Commonwealth Attorney, judges and the police department to not put certain offenders in jail at all. Walter Ridley, head of Prisoner Re-entry suggested some would-be inmates could work weekender jobs, do volunteer work with senior citizens or be put on home arrest. He echoed Sheriff Woody’s sentiment and said larger isn’t better.
“That’s not the real solution to crime and justice in our community," Ridley said. "The real solution I think is to give people value, to give people training, to give people a sense of belonging.”
And Ridley said people being moved to other facilities could actually save the city thousands of dollars. He explained substance abusers could be treated for 7,000 dollars a year elsewhere but to keep them in the jail costs the city 20,000 dollars a year. He said inmates would be serving the community instead of rotting in a cell.
“And then the city of Richmond becomes an ideal city," Ridley said. "And I’m not an optimist. I’m an eternal optimist. I believe that people can change.”
The mayor’s administration is looking at four firms to design and build the new jail. Once the city looks the proposals and makes a decision, they will enter into a contract and they hope to break ground in 2011. The city has predicted the construction will take 30 to 36 months. Representatives from the firms in the running to build the jail were introduced at the meeting on Saturday. Councilwoman Robertson praised the mayor for including the public in the conversation.
“I think it was very wise of the administration to have those four firms here today to hear the citizens concerns about design and sensitivity about the jail itself and how we really need to address the design and how it fits into the community," Councilwoman Robertson said.
She said a new path was forged on Saturday to start a conversation not only with members of the community around the jail but with other people from the city of Richmond.
"…yo really talk about the impact of how we build this jail, make sure we build the right facility and that we are absolutely certain the alternative services are planned for and will happen," Councilwoman Robertson said.
The mayor confirmed building a new jail at the current site would be the quickest and most cost effective avenue. But the limited land around the jail rules out expansion in the future. Councilwoman Robertson said maybe the site of the jail should be changed.
“There is no place that anyone would willingly say, build a jail," she said. "And I have two other colleagues here from City Council and I don’t feel there has been any location suggested that, you know, let’s move the jail out of District 6th and move it to another district for a change but we are open to that recommendation…”
And one resident who spoke at Saturday’s meeting agreed.
“From what I see and from all that you want, you can’t do it here," he said. "You need to stretch out, that’s what it’s all about.”
And Councilwoman Robertson didn’t just have doubts about the location. She said she wasn’t sure the ideas being presented by the city would pan out.
“For the city to position itself to provide services for a thousand persons who would otherwise be in the jail is a major step and I’m not absolutely sure all of those details have been worked out to a point where we know we are going to be able to afford that," said Councilwoman Robertson.
On Monday, the Richmond City Council unanimously approved just over 130,000 dollars in additional funds for the Virginia Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative Grant with little discussion for or against the proposal by attendees. Now, Richmonders will have to wait and see whether this step, a new jail or new plans from the city and Sheriff’s office will mitigate the apparent problem with the current facilities and maybe the justice system itself.