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River City Showdown

In a heated election season, Sheriff Michelle Mitchell faces two tough cowboys.


Why do these three want so badly to be sheriff? The salary isn't bad: about $113,000 annually. But is that worth a job running an overcrowded, decrepit city jail, notorious for a recent murder and for inmates opening their own cell doors and wandering around?

Both Woody and Jafari declare they want to help the community by cleaning up the jail. Mitchell has had her chance, they say, and has failed.

Since her election as sheriff in 1993, Mitchell's 12-year tenure has been a rocky one. She's made headlines for billing the city $28,000 for 19 weeks of vacation time she said she earned but didn't take (Mitchell repaid the money, which the city later returned to her); for suing the city to force it to repair and maintain the jail; for spending city money on personal and political purposes; and for painting her name on deputies' official vehicles. Recently, she came under fire after an inmate escaped from his cell as a result of a broken lock and beat another inmate to death.

Mitchell insists that her management of the jail is not to blame, but rather the city government's failure to respond to her demands for assistance. Although she's voluntarily taken on the task of trying to fix the building's many problems, she says, the city has the legal responsibility to pay for repairs. Many of the faulty locks have since been fixed by city personnel, and the city has pledged to pay $2 million to replace them all, Mitchell says. "So we're going to hold them to that."

Yet neither Jafari nor Woody has any qualms about pinning the responsibility for the jail's problems squarely on Mitchell.

"I don't have anything negative to say about the sheriff," Woody says. Except: She knew about the broken-lock problem for years, he says. And she called him a "rookie in training," Woody says. Mitchell tried unsuccessfully to have his policing powers revoked, Woody says, and allegedly issued a memo titled "Operation Blue Dog" that, among other things, instructs campaign workers and sheriff's deputies, "If opportunity permitts [sic], discard C.T. Woody fliers and banners."

Mitchell says she never tried to revoke Woody's policing powers and never gave an order to discard his signs. She said she was appalled at the accusation when alerted by Style in September. Mitchell says her signs have been taken too. Jafari says the same. Now he has only one, which he moves strategically to secret locations.

Then there was Bunsgate. Jafari and Woody chortled at the recent revelation that the e-mail address Mitchell initially registered with the State Board of Elections was "I would be embarrassed," Woody says. What if his e-mail were he posits. Jafari says the matter may lessen inmates' respect for Mitchell and her deputies: "Inmates are an isolated population, starving for information. So when they get that information, especially when it's negative like that, they're going to use it."

Mini-scandals aside, both men say they're convinced that Richmond residents are tired of the way things are being run at the Richmond City Jail. "The citizens are clamoring for something else down there," Jafari says. The challengers' solutions, however, are quite different.

Woody, 60, spent 38 years in the Richmond Police Department. He began as a uniformed patrolman and later became a narcotics detective and then a homicide investigator, well-known for taking on high-profile murder cases like those of the Briley brothers and the Newtown gang.

Now he's a special investigator and consultant in the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's office. (Outgoing Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks has publicly endorsed Mitchell.) "I'm not a politician," Woody says often. "Investigating a hard homicide," he also says, "is easy compared to being in politics." But Woody says he knows law enforcement and thus can solve the problems at the Richmond City Jail.

"I don't sit down very well," Jafari says apologetically as he paces around the small garage that serves as his office at his home off Belmont Road. Besides running for sheriff, Jafari conducts tours of local African-American history sites; serves as a liaison to the homeless through Virginia Supportive Housing; and makes elaborate metal wall sculptures, called Jaynots. One, a bald eagle with broken wings, lies on a table at his home awaiting repairs.

Jafari, 51, began working in corrections 30 years ago, he says, first at a state penitentiary and then at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center. On his Web site, Jafari has posted a photograph of himself looking stern in his law library, his father's .44-caliber Magnum on his lap. His father was a cowboy nut, he says, and loved to watch old Westerns. "He's the one that told me I'd either make a good sheriff or a preacher." Jafari married a preacher (like Woody, he has three daughters and one son), so he knew, he says, that he'd have to be sheriff. He has run for the office twice before and lost.

If elected sheriff, Woody says he would assign his most experienced deputies to the tier holding the most dangerous inmates, he says, and would ensure that inmates go nowhere unescorted. "You come out your cell, whether the cell is locked or unlocked, you will be charged with escape," he says.

Woody also says he would move to grant deputies the powers of full-fledged law enforcement officers and would also appoint deputies to take a paddy wagon out on the city streets every night. That way, he says, they could assist police by taking offenders to jail and processing them, instead of forcing officers on duty to waste time chauffeuring criminals themselves.

Jafari says Woody has it all wrong. Don't turn deputies into police officers, he says. Their job is to keep order in the jail, he contends, not to police the streets. He knows the abuse deputies endure and how to make their jobs easier, Jafari says. "I'm the only candidate who is running who has actually front-line, entry-level correctional experience and who has worked his way up," he says. "... I know what they're subjected to when they're up on the floor."

Jafari says he intends to stop the "warehousing" of inmates at the jail and will instead emphasize traditional, secure and no-nonsense corrections policies, such as visual inspections of locks to make sure they're fastened. He'll hire a deputy who specializes in facility inspections, he says, whose sole job will be to make sure the jail remains secure. "The first thing I want to do," he says, "is remove the excuses."

For her part, Mitchell says they're both wrong in their assessments. Neither Woody nor Jafari understands the duties and powers of a sheriff, she says. And "if you can't talk about that, then the next best thing to do is talk about your opponent."

It is not possible, she says, to obtain grants to fix a jail, as Woody has suggested. It is not possible, she says, to ensure that inmates are individually escorted by a deputy. With 1,500 inmates (in a jail built for 869) and about 200 deputies guarding them, the math doesn't work out. The state, not the sheriff, determines how many deputies are hired, what they're paid and how they're trained, Mitchell says.

So why does she want to keep her job, when she is facing so many problems she says she can't fix alone? "Crazy," Mitchell says, and laughs. Seriously, she says, she wants to get the jail fixed and begin new programs to help offenders get their lives on track once they're released. "I really want to see a change in inmates' lives," she says. S

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