Surry opposes jail closure

Published 8:27 pm Thursday, July 1, 2021

Surry County’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously July 1 to pass a resolution opposing the proposed closure of the Riverside Regional Jail.

A state committee tasked with investigating three inmate deaths at the facility — one in 2019 and two in 2020 — had published preliminary findings in April concluding “acts or omissions” by jail staff “may have directly or indirectly contributed to the death of these inmates” by allegedly failing to meet minimum state standards pertaining to suicide intervention and the inmates’ medical care, and in one case, allegedly falsifying and/or destroying records.

According to past reporting by the Associated Press and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the state had previously imposed “probationary certification” on the jail in 2019 following a similar investigation into the 2017 deaths of a 32-year-old inmate found hanging in his cell just after his arrest on charges including petit larceny, and another inmate who died of an apparent suicide less than a month later. That time, the committee said the jail violated inmate supervision and screening regulations.

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Committee Chairwoman Olivia Garland wrote to jail superintendent Col. Larry Leabough on April 26 that given the jail’s existing probationary status, the committee would this time be recommending to Virginia’s Board of Local and Regional Jails that the facility be decertified and closed, and its inmates be transferred to the custody of their jurisdictions of origin.

The jail, which is located in Prince George County just outside the city of Hopewell, has served Surry County and six other localities since it opened in 1997. The Petersburg-based Progress Index reports it was built to house 800 inmates but by 2003 had grown in average daily population to more than 1,000. According to Surry’s resolution in support of keeping the jail open, the facility’s average daily number of local, state and federal inmates now totals more than 1,300.

According to Lt. Charlene Jones, a spokeswoman for the jail, only 10 of the jail’s current inmates are from Surry County. On June 4, the jail filed a notice of objections to the committee’s preliminary findings, but Jones said a hearing date for those objections hasn’t been set.

An April 30 press release from the facility argues the decertification recommendation “appears to be misplacing the responsibility for systemic criminal justice and mental health failures on Riverside, which like most large jails has sadly become a de facto health and mental health institution.” It states nearly half of Riverside’s inmates have serious mental health conditions and over two-thirds are on physician-prescribed medications, costing over $6 million in local funds annually in inmate medical and mental health services.

It further states Leabough has only been the jail’s superintendent since June 2020 and in that time “has made great strides to improve all facets of the facility, from inmate health care and mental health services to inmate safety and programming.” This phrase is repeated in Surry County’s resolution.

“If the Riverside Regional Jail was to close, it would put us in a pinch … I’m sure it would be a great expense on the county,” said Board Chairman and Claremont District Supervisor Robert Elliott.

“I certainly wouldn’t want our county to have to get involved in housing our inmates, so I support this resolution wholeheartedly,” said Bacon’s Castle District Supervisor Judy Lyttle. “The Riverside jail, for us, has been a benefit that hasn’t cost us what it would cost us if we had to house them in Surry.”

County Administrator Melissa Rollins agreed that Riverside’s closure would place an “undue burden” on smaller jurisdictions that presently utilize the Riverside Jail like Surry, Charles City and Prince George counties, and that housing the county’s inmates at a different regional jail would likely come at a much higher cost.