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Virginia legislators seek reforms at Riverside Regional Jail

Sen. Aird gvies remarks at a podium
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Sen. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, gives remarks joined by Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, Del. Michael Jones, D-Richmond, Del. Debra Gardner, D-Chesterfield and Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, about the Riverside Regional Jail on Monday, May 20, 2024 at the General Assembly Building in Farmville, Virginia.

18 people have died while incarcerated at the Prince George facility.

Virginia legislators are sounding the alarm over the health and safety conditions at Riverside Regional Jail in Prince George County.

On Monday, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers held a press conference at the General Assembly Building in Richmond to address their commitment toward holding those in charge of the jail accountable.

In a recent op-ed, state officials urged the board of city managers, county administrators and law enforcement officials who govern the facility, to install new, permanent leadership to address the jail’s failures to provide a safe and healthy environment for imprisoned people.

“A jail is a part of your community and it should be led by someone who has a vested interest in the outcomes of individuals who live there because they know they're going to come right back into the community that they're serving,” said Del. Carrie Coyner (R–Chesterfield).

Coyner spoke alongside Sen. Lashrecse Aird (D–Petersburg) and six other state lawmakers who supported the op-ed.

As representatives of the seven localities who utilize Riverside Regional Jail, Coyner said the facility is in need of reforms.

“The regional jail model is a broken one,” Del. Coyner said.

Riverside Regional Jail Facade
Riverside Regional Jail has found itself in hot water after several recent incidents. New Superintendent Larry Leabough has pledged to turn the facility around. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Currently, Riverside Regional Jail serves seven localities including Chesterfield, Prince George, Charles City and Surry counties, and the cities of Hopewell, Petersburg and Colonial Heights. The localities share in the funding responsibility for the jail and its debt through taxes.

“The problem is we have a perverse incentive to keep Riverside open,” Coyner said. “Every locality contributes towards the paying off of the debt associated with the construction and is not going to be paid off for quite some time. In order to leave, you still have that commitment that you've made to continue the financing.”

Coyner didn’t think that was a good reason to “stay together.”

“It should be because we believe we can best serve members of our community by collectively working together,” she said.

Riverside has the capacity to house 1,500 incarcerated people and has a staff of about 400 people. Since opening in 1997, the jail has encountered controversy over its leadership, safety conditions, lack of rehabilitative programs and high death rate.

In 2019, the jail was placed on a three-year probation period by the board of local and regional jails, and in April 2021 a committee recommended the jail be shut down after a study looked into several deaths at the facility.

The most recent data, collected by Virginia Board of Local and Regional Jails, indicates four people died at the jail in 2022 in addition to the 14 deaths between 2020 and 2021.

Reports about the jail's death toll and lack of transparency have persisted since the state panel’s ruling. The jail’s leadership has changed hands several times over the past four years, following the resignation of former superintendent Col. Carmen DeSadier

Larry Leabough was appointed later that year, but today interim Superintendent Tojuanna Mack heads the facility

Chesterfield County is one locality that has started to move to depopulate residents from Riverside because of the jail’s failings.

“There is no reason that an institution should be a death sentence, when it is intended to be a rehabilitation environment, an opportunity for perhaps you to serve time that you earned, but not for it to be a permanent state for the rest of your life when it is a stop along the way,” Aird said during Monday’s press conference.

Libbie Roberts, who was previously incarcerated at Riverside, spoke about her experience there and the lack of care at the facility.

Roberts said that during her incarceration, she suffered from a medical condition that caused blood clots to form in her lungs, but was not given the appropriate medical attention or treatment.

“This is the way that they treat people at Riverside,” Roberts said. “It's been going on for years. It's still going on now and change is imperative.”

Denise Gunn said she was also impacted by Riverside’s failure to care for and treat her son, Kevin Wyatt, who’d struggled with substance abuse disorder for over a decade. Wyatt was sent to Riverside for violating his probation last year, but his drug use didn’t stop during his incarceration, she said.

“My son told me, ‘Mom, why do you have me locked up? There's drugs in jail,’” Gunn said.

Wyatt died eight months later.

It’s stories like Gunn’s that prompted lawmakers to find a remedy to issues at the facility.

“The immediate course of action right now is to ensure that we get competent leadership at the regional jail level,” Aird said. “The second tier is doing the research to figure out what is the best data-proven, effective way or model that has worked in other places. I can't say that I know what that is yet, but what I can say is that we're committed to looking at that as we move forward.”

Lyndon German covers Henrico and Hanover counties for VPM News.
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