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Chesterfield Moves To Depopulate Riverside Jail

Sheriff Leonard
Sheriff Karl Leonard addresses the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors on his plan to move Chesterfield people incarcerated at Riverside Regional Jail to other facilities. (Photo: Lyndon German/VPM News)

Lyndon German contributed to this report.

Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard announced that he’s moving incarcerated people out of the Riverside Regional Jail, which was investigated after a series of deaths in 2019 and 2020. 

In April, a committee of Virginia’s Board of Local and Regional Jails recommended finding it responsible for the deaths of three people being held there in 2019 and 2020, as well as decertifying the facility, effectively shuttering it.

The Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors discussed and heard testimony on conditions at the jail ahead of its expected closing in a special meeting on Tuesday. 

At the meeting, several different figures in the field - including attorneys, medical officials and a former inmate - shared stories backing up themes of unsanitary conditions, breakdowns in constitutional rights and medical care, and consistent substance abuse issues.

“We were heading towards this day and discussion from the accumulated issues we’ve had over the past few years,” said Joe Casey, Chesterfield County Administrator.

He says Chesterfield tried to make the jail work, through additional funding, new programs, and investigations, many of which were not adopted by the jail. The Board of Supervisors held a much-publicized meeting with Riverside Superintendent Larry Leabough last year, where Leabough pushed back on recommendations and asked for more time. Several members of the county board expressed a lack of confidence as a result of that meeting.

Riverside is a regional jail, meaning they house people from several counties. Those counties each pay into the program through taxes - over $3 million yearly for Chesterfield residents - and have an equal say in the jail’s decision-making process. Supervisors are concerned that they are paying so much into an institution with a track record of danger and without appropriate oversight.

Chesterfield has the largest population in the facility, about 500. That’s around double the number from Petersburg. The county would have to take them back if the state board takes up the recommendation to shutter the facility.

Leonard says many of those people fall under state jurisdiction, and relocation should be a state responsibility. But he has his own plan to house Chesterfield’s population, and says he won’t wait around for the state to take action.

“I wanna be clear that our move to shift inmates to other facilities is not dependent on the outcome of the upcoming Board of Local and Regional Jails meeting,” Leonard said. “It’s dependent on Riverside getting to a position where the minimum standards of care - especially when dealing with health, life and safety standards - are being met.” He said that seems unlikely.

An extended operation to move people to the county jail and other facilities began last week. And if all goes to plan, he says, “We have secured the beds we need to depopulate Riverside.”

Crystal Snodderly was formerly incarcerated at Riverside Regional. She was brought to the jail after being arrested for possession of drugs. Upon arrival, she informed medical staff that she was suffering from intense and worsening withdrawals, and was transported to medical housing. But Snodderly says she received little help.

“Besides the nurse that walked down the hallway of medical housing, that was the last time I saw medical or a doctor for the next seven days,” she said.

Snodderly says she was frozen on her mat on the floor for that time, unable to control her body. Her only advocates were the three women detoxing in the same cell as her, whose symptoms were not as acute.

“I remember one of the times I was halfway coherent, hearing the corrections officer say ‘Well, she did it to herself, shouldn’t have done drugs,’” she said.

Dr. G. Montovanni Gay, the medical director at the Chesterfield County Jail, says he’s been working with Riverside for years. He’s heard many horror stories like Snodderly’s.

Among Gay’s clients was one man whose living quarters held an inch of sewer water for days. Gay sees patterns in how medical care breaks down - people not getting the medication or treatment they need, sometimes even if the treatment is available.

“It’s very difficult to hear these stories, and as a physician, it’s very disconcerting,” Gay said.

Gay and several other people giving testimony say that it’s clear the facility has an ongoing problem with illicit drugs getting inside. Multiple people have been released on probation, only to go into withdrawals within hours. Leonard testified that a broken window was used to transfer drugs inside for an extended period of time.

Also present was Sangeeta Darji. She’s a criminal defense attorney working in Richmond, Chesterfield, and the surrounding area. She regularly provides legal counsel to people being held pre-trial in Riverside.

But Darji says that just accessing people is often impossible - even video calling is frustrating and regularly unsuccessful. She says the solution is for Chesterfield to follow Leonard’s plan and pull their people out of Riverside.

Following the testimony, members of the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors expressed disdain at conditions in the jail.

Chris Winslow, supervisor of the Clover Hill district, says the weight of the evidence points to a culture with a lack of care, and referred to the jail as a “Shawshank-lite.”

“I think the term used was ‘callous disregard,’” Winslow said.

Before closing the meeting, the board voted to send a letter to Governor Ralph Northam urging the closure of Riverside. Leonard’s removal of incarcerated people is ongoing, although the sheriff hasn’t released a broad plan to address full relocation yet.

 

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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