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Will Jail Report Bolster Inmate Lawsuits?


Richardson, who is serving time for a parole violation, describes varied mistreatment at the jail in his handwritten suit. Primarily, he alleges that officials placed him on a "hostile, unruly, roguish tier," where he was assaulted by "wild, rambunctious youth"; that he was denied hearings before and after he was placed in isolation; and that he received perfunctory medical care. The suit names the city of Richmond, former Sheriff Michelle B. Mitchell and various jail employees as defendants.

Richardson's not the only inmate to sue over problems at the jail. During Mitchell's 12-year reign, more than 65 lawsuits were filed against her, most from city jail inmates. Virtually all were dismissed early in the judicial process.

Every sheriff will eventually become the target of "frivolous lawsuits," says John W. Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs' Association and Institute. Inmates will sue for any reason, he says, "because they don't have anything else to do."

But are these suits really frivolous — especially now that the jail commission's findings seem to back up many of the inmates' allegations?

Good question, says former Common-wealth's Attorney David Hicks, now in private practice. Hicks says he's curious to see how inmates may use the commission's report to support future suits against the jail. There are "some brilliant legal minds" behind bars, he says.

The commission's report also begs the question of why previous suits were dismissed when some inmates' allegations were probably legitimate, Hicks says: "It's going to have some interesting legal ramifications."

In his suit, Richardson charges that a deputy dismissed his concerns as "bitching" and "gibbering." He demands that jail conditions be improved and asks for $250,000, with interest, in damages.

The state Division of Risk Management handles sheriffs' legal expenses. "We spend a lot of money defending these things," Jones says. As of Jan. 13, no inmates had filed suits against new Sheriff C.T. Woody.

Inmates have a constitutional right to certain amenities, Jones says, just as they have a constitutional right to file suit. But inmates would sue "even if they were in the Taj Mahal," he opines.

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