Richmond Sheriff Antionette V. Irving walks into a sixth floor pod at the city jail on a recent weekday evening, and, after a moment's pause, a few dozen men in blue jumpsuits begin to clap. They get up from disparate couches and tables in the sparse, atriumlike space encircled by two floors of sleeping cells, and gather closer.
Irving is deep into her 10th busy day as Richmond's new sheriff, and seems a little surprised by the welcome. But she soon returns the energy, asking the men if they have any questions.
"I just want to know, when are you going to do something about this food?" asks one man.
"You're going to put me on the spot in front of these visitors," Irving says. The guys laugh, but she promises to look into their meals and make sure they're balanced. It's something she heard a lot about on the campaign trail, she says.
Sworn in Dec. 9 and taking the reins at the jail Jan. 1, Irving tackles a large, fraught, but theoretically simple task: keep the 800 to 1,000 people incarcerated on an average day safe, secure and comfortable and, as best as possible, prepare them for a return to the outside.
In an election that surprised some, Irving beat C.T. Woody Jr., a sheriff of 12 years, in the Democratic primary last year. She then handily won the general election in November. It was her third time challenging Woody: She went from getting about 18 percent of the vote in the 2009 primary and the 2013 general — to 51.7 percent of the vote in 2017.
Woody's legacy is mixed. He fought for and oversaw the construction and move to the new jail, officially known as the Richmond City Justice Center and a big step up from the air-conditioning-free and overcrowded former jail. But his terms were marked by allegations of nepotism, lawsuits and controversial decisions in the wake of an inmate death. Shortly before the primary, immigration activists held a rally outside the jail, protesting that Woody's relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, officers was too friendly. They accused the sheriff of having an open door policy toward ICE and holding inmates past their release date as a favor to officers.
The job Irving takes is almost guaranteed not to go smoothly. But, as she takes questions from the men, it's clear that there won't be much of a learning curve. Irving, 53, worked for the Henrico County's Sheriff's Office for more than 26 years, and she has degrees in criminal justice and business administration. This evening, she fields more than a dozen questions about visitation, washer-dryer rights, medical care and work release, offering what she knows, pledging to look into the rest.
"I'm just in the fortunate situation that I've done this and I can answer those questions," she says afterward.
Raised in the public housing of Creighton Court, Irving says she was a nerdy kid, "just trying to have fun and do kid things."
- Scott Elmquist
- On her 10th day as sheriff, Antionette Irving meets with inmates on the sixth floor at the city jail.
That was tempered by an alcoholic father, a veteran of the Korean War, who was violent toward her mother. Later, she came to understand that her father likely was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she says.
"I always wanted to do something that I thought would make a difference," she says. "As a matter of just trying to survive day-by-day."
Irving's mom worked as a nurse at the VA Hospital and encouraged her daughter's attendance and interest in school — at Mosby Middle (now demolished) and what was then Armstrong-Kennedy High School. Even in middle school, Irving was conscious of the need to fund college. She considered the Air Force but didn't want to go to war like her father. So she focused on her basketball skills.
Irving excelled as a shooting guard and point guard — running plays from the outside — and was offered a number of scholarships. She chose Shaw University, a private liberal arts institution and historically black university in Raleigh, North Carolina.
"It wasn't one of my first choices," she recalls. "But one coach just kind of hung around and hung around."
In high school, writing and radio captured her imagination and she considered pursuing journalism. But the demands of basketball steered her toward studying criminal justice. Irving dreamed of being a lawyer, a judge, the president of the United States. "I've always been a kid with a lot of big dreams," she says.
At first, Irving worked toward becoming a canine officer with the police. Cops were a presence growing up in Creighton, she says, and her experiences were positive. She played basketball with local officers and lawyers, and, though her father sometimes interacted with law enforcement, Irving says they tried to make sure he was well.
Back in Richmond by 1987, Irving applied to work for the city, "but I ended up in Henrico because Richmond never called me back," she says, laughing.
She coached basketball and worked a number of part-time jobs at community places like the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club, OAR of Richmond and the Virginia Home for Boys.
She climbed quickly in the Henrico Sheriff's Office, later becoming the first woman promoted to the rank of major in either the Henrico Sheriff's Office or police department.
"There were some females in ranking positions — some of the first female officers that I had the opportunity to interact with," Irving says. One in particular pushed her toward supervisor roles. In five years, Irving earned the rank of lieutenant.
- Scott Elmquist
- Irving was the first woman to be promoted to the rank of major in either the Henrico Sheriff’s Office or police department.
She credits her habit of being a stickler for the day-to-day details.
"I didn't really know anybody that was working, but I did look at a lot of people there and said, 'If they can do this, I know it's something I would like to do,'" she says.
In 1992, she earned a master of science in administration from Central Michigan University, and completed a doctorate in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University not long before she began her latest run for sheriff.
Harold Harris, who's known Irving for more than 30 years, says he considers her like a little sister. Even though she's younger than him, he sought her advice.
"She has a great knowledge of what she wants to do, and she's focused in what she wants to do," Harris says.
Harris coached girls' basketball with Irving at Armstrong High School and now works at the Boys & Girls Club. "She's very committed to the community," he says. "You could tell at an early age she had a lot of drive — very focused and goal-oriented — not just on doing something for her community but for the whole city."
In her leadership abilities, Harris still sees the standout basketball guard.
"The point guard is more an extension of the coach," he says. "They know everyone's position, what everyone's supposed to be doing. She sets the tempo of the game, and that's exactly what she's doing now."
Today, Irving lives around the corner from the Boys & Girls Club between the Oakwood and Chimborazo neighborhoods. She's still there, at least once a week, volunteering.
"I just want to be able to make a difference, to show young people that came up in the same situation that I did that there are a lot of possibilities out there," she says. "Your circumstances don't have to define who you are."
"She has a great heart for the people," says Dorothy Crenshaw, the program director at the Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club. "I've talked to her many times about the needs of the kids, sometimes just a general, informal conversation about what the kids need, and next thing I know, she's right there with it."
In September, Irving spoke at the memorial service for Jenelle Smith, a 26-year-old woman murdered in Gilpin Court. "She was one of the kids in our neighborhood," Irving says. "A pretty good little kid — inquisitive, curious."
Keeping the kids in her community away from the violent elements is a driving force, and there seems to be little distinction in Irving's philosophy toward the youth she mentors and the incarcerated adults she now oversees.
"Everybody makes mistakes and messes up," she says. "A lot of people have done some of the same things [jail residents have] done; they just haven't been placed in the situation to be caught."
Irving is steeped in a model of restorative justice and a focus on rehabilitation, finding the roots of misbehaviors — addictions, suppressed experiences and mental health needs — and starting from there.
"My goal is help them to see what they've done and what their possibilities are — not just to show them the possibilities, but figure out how to get them to those possibilities," Irving says. "We tell people to have hope."
Coming from the same community as many of her charges helps.
"People know I'm from the same type of environment they're from and that, when I'm speaking to them, I'm not speaking down to them," the sheriff says. "They know that I don't take no foolishness off of them. But they know that I know how struggle is."
Clad in her uniform, a pantsuit and sharp-collared shirt, Irving is a steady, even presence in front of the incarcerated men.
- Scott Elmquist
- Irving hugs Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney after his State of the City address at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School on Jan. 23.
"Hi, my name is Mike," one man says.
"Hi, Mike," a chorus of inmates says back.
Another inmate asks about the $2-a-day charge that people accrue in jail — either burdening outside family members or leaving them in debt. Irving campaigned on a plan to end it.
"One of the things about the $2-a-day program is that it's actual revenue we have to generate for the city," she tells them. "So I'm looking at how to replace that revenue."
One man asks about visitation, wondering whether visitors coming from out of town could be given more time. Irving seems to think this is reasonable, but she also shares a plan to look into a video conferencing option. Chesterfield County, she says, has gone full video visitation, and Richmond already has a situation where visitors are on the first floor, video conferencing with residents above. Why burden family and lawyers with the travel at all?
Several questions involve the Recovering from Everyday Addictive Lifestyles program and its continuity. Will the program end? Will it change? Sarah Scarborough, who ran it, left after Woody's loss to run a nonprofit spin-off of the program, which helps released inmates. Irving says later that she wished Scarborough had stayed. But to the men, Irving is upbeat, explaining that the program isn't going anywhere. She even hopes to expand it.
"Anything that we change is going to be for the better," she assures them.
It accepts inmates on a case-by-case basis and commits its members to a four-phase curriculum that aims to prepare them for re-entry and reduce recidivism. They have access to perks along the way. Along with jail programs that already exist, such as civics classes, a recording studio and yoga, Irving wants to add things like meditation and tai chi, as well as mediation opportunities for inmates and their families.
Irving is also keen to engage populations outside the jail that can connect inmates to services and help jail staff members understand what residents are going through.
Veterans, mental health issues, substance abuse, victims and witnesses of abuse and domestic violence — Irving recognizes many common strains of problems for people in jail. To reduce recidivism, she wants to make connections with programs that serve offenders both inside and out.
For example, with veterans "there are certain things that may trigger some of the things that they've experienced [at war]," she says. "So we need to understand what those things may be." Older veterans that come in to talk to them can connect them to services once they're out.
Phil Wilayto, an advocate for incarcerated people and editor of the Virginia Defender, recalls the miserable conditions of the old jail and the 12-year tenure of Sheriff Michelle B. Mitchell. Marred by allegations of corruption, Mitchell was ousted by Woody in an ugly 2005 election that led to Mitchell's withholding access to the jail until court intervention. Irving says Woody was gracious when his turn came to hand over the keys.
Wilayto had high hopes for Woody, he says, and now he's cautiously optimistic about Irving's chances.
"She has a good reputation," he says. "She comes from the public housing and knows the issues people face. And she's always been involved in the community. … If she's willing to keep an open door to the community, she'll do fine."
Wilayto wants access and transparency from Irving, and an outside panel of people with prison expertise who could listen to prisoner complaints privately. He wants to see expanded programs for education in the jail, increased cooperation with outside organizations that work with incarcerated populations, and a commitment to her campaign pledge of ending the $2-a-day charge.
- Scott Elmquist
- Irving says she recently spoke to Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham about using the jail’s public spaces as potential safe zones for homeless people on cold nights.
Wilayto says there are a lot of good officers at the jail but also some "real mean types who've done bad things and are still there." He believes her success includes weeding out those elements.
Staffing is a big part of the task. The jail is set up to have about 480 employees, but there are 80 vacancies now — the majority of them officer positions. Irving says a five-year contract is a deterrent and she plans to shorten it.
Her plans extend beyond services for the men and women in her charge. She says she spoke to Police Chief Alfred Durham about using the jail's public spaces as potential safe zones for homeless people on cold nights. The warm, carpeted room where visitors talk to inmates, for example, would serve well.
"We can feed them when they come in, give them a warm place to stay for the night, and find out what it is that we can do for them during the daytime," she says.
Wilayto is skeptical, noting the relative isolation of the jail in the city and the image of police taking homeless people to jail. But he applauds her for thinking broadly about Richmond's vulnerable populations.
With regard to ICE relations, Wilayto notes that Irving has said she wouldn't hold inmates for immigration officers. But in a recent interview, Irving is circumspect about her relationship with the agency.
"We have to go by what the law is and make sure that people are given a fair opportunity to a fair trial," she says. "But just as any officer that comes in to interview any resident that's here, if an officer needs to interview someone, we're not going to tell people they can't come in. … It's a public facility and we don't want to get to a point where we say people can't come in to do whatever their job is."
Once someone is booked into the jail, their information is automatically sent to federal authorities and can be flagged for immigration violations, but an ICE request to hold someone 48 hours past their release time is, as yet, voluntary.
Today, inmates are polite and respectful, watching their new jailer expectantly.
"They will [introduce themselves] but they're not used to stopping and having a lot of conversation," she says. "Because you know, Sheriff Woody, he did a lot of talking."
In Henrico, Irving says, she engaged in a lot of conversation with residents and she hopes for a similar rapport here soon. "The only way I know what's going on is to talk to them, how they're doing, what it is we need to be able to assist them."
At least one pod of men doesn't seem shy. "Is there anything that you want us to do?" asks an inmate named Bernie.
Irving passes the ball back to him.
"I just want you to do what you're supposed to do, what you need to do to get back to where you came," she replies. "Get back home and be able to take care of your family, take care of your house, get a good job and do whatever it is you need to do.
"It's not for me. This is about you guys." S