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Hard Times

Inmate escapes, claims of racially motivated firings and suicide: The turmoil facing the Richmond City Jail.

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A Richmond sheriff's deputy, dismissed after this month's accidental prisoner release, claims that dismissal from his job was racially motivated. Eric Aycock, who is white, says he plans to sue Sheriff C.T. Woody, who is black.

The deputy's charge, and the prisoner release that precipitated it, is the latest in a series of hiccups, embarrassments and prisoner escapes that have plagued Woody's administration in recent months. Also this month, an inmate committed suicide at the jail, and the family of another former inmate who died at the jail filed a separate lawsuit accusing medical personnel of negligence.

"I'm suing for the fact that I was racially discriminated against," says Aycock, who also alleges that the recent problems at the jail are just scratching the surface.

Aycock is the second deputy Woody has fired this year for improperly releasing a prisoner, though both Aycock and the other fired deputy, Robert Garrett, say they are not the only deputies to have committed the offense under Woody's watch.

Woody denies charges of racism. "I don't see color," he says. "Anyone that did the same thing that [Aycock and Garrett] did, I would fire them, because of the safety of the community, the safety of the deputies and the safety of the other people that work at Richmond City Jail."

A discrimination lawsuit previously filed by Garrett names four other instances involving three other officers in which inmates were prematurely released from the jail. None of the other officers, all black, were fired, according to Sheriff Woody, who told Style that all such incidents are handled on a case-by-case basis. In Garrett's case, he says, prior marks against the former deputy contributed to his dismissal.

Aycock says that he's never been disciplined for poor job performance and that the incident that led to his firing was an anomaly he didn't believe would end his law-enforcement career.

In fact, his first notice of termination came via a headline in The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

"I asked them, Why is it nobody told me I was fired and that I had to read about it in the paper?" Aycock says. "I spoke with a higher-ranking official that was black, and he told me it was not so much the incident. They knew I was friends with Garrett, and they felt I was a threat."

As with Garrett's firing, Woody expresses no sympathy for Aycock.

"He was fired because he was negligent," Woody says, accusing Aycock of collusion with Garrett. "He's a personal friend of Garrett — whether it's a conspiracy, I don't know, whether they're trying to embarrass the sheriff's department, I don't know."

Woody says he's uncertain exactly how many inmates have been prematurely released since he took office. According to the jail, prematurely released inmates are reported as escapees.

Woody previously told Style that Garrett's claims of racial discrimination are bunk. Saying the former deputy "blew it," Woody questioned Garrett's "integrity and loyalty" to his job.

Meanwhile, Garrett says his former employer has also informed him that he's banned from the jail and the sheriff's office property on threat of arrest. The news came in a certified letter sent a week after he was fired.

Garrett says the letter gave as reason for his banishment the discovery of a hunting knife among the uniforms he returned to the jail after his dismissal.

But Woody tells a different story: "He didn't turn [the knife] in. It was taken from him when he came down here. He had an illegal weapon on his person, yes."

Woody says the knife was confiscated, but Garrett was not arrested at the time.

Garrett says the alleged knife does not exist and accuses the sheriff's office of planting it as a reason to ban him from the property.

Aycock, who was a three-year veteran of the sheriff's office, says he also filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigates claims of racial bias in the workplace.

The EEOC could not confirm that Aycock had filed a complaint, citing confidentiality issues, but a spokesperson says that within 10 days of the filing, a notice of the charges will be forwarded to the sheriff's office.

Should the EEOC find wrongdoing, Aycock could receive a notice of the right to sue the sheriff's office in federal court.

The discrimination charges and escapes come amid a tough week. The most recent inmate to escape, Giorgio Fulton, was on the loose for about four hours, according to a press release issued by the sheriff's office. After being released, deputies found that Fulton still had three outstanding felony warrants for his arrest: for allegedly attempting to commit first-degree murder, shooting into a house or dwelling, and using a firearm while committing a felony.

The inmate who committed suicide Jan. 22, Homer Jones, was found hanging in his cell from a noose made from a bedsheet. S

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