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The Richmond Justice Center: What's Behind the New Jail’s Name?



Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody had to pause to correct himself while leading reporters on a tour of the new, well, in his words, "Richmond city jail — uh, justice center."

The slip is understandable. Woody's worked for nearly 10 years in the current jail, which is called what it is: the Richmond City Jail. The new facility he'll preside over? Not a jail. It's the Richmond Justice Center.

What's different? Well, its features. But otherwise, the new building is meant to serve the same function as its predecessor: a warehouse of cells for keeping people sentenced to jail terms in city courts. When it opens — and it was supposed to be open by now — the $134 million jail will hold a little more than 1,000 inmates.

Depending on your outlook, the new name could come off as an insidious bit of Orwellian newspeak. To University of Richmond linguistics professor Thomas P. Bonfiglio, it's more than a little euphemistic.

"It neutralizes what's going on," he says. "That's what euphemisms do. Like 'little boys' room' for bathroom. It makes it less offensive. … There's definitely an avoidance of what's really going on: The entire incarceration system with the unequal distribution by race and class is a scandal unto itself."

Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones says the new name is a nod to the city's attempt to reduce the jail population through alternative sentencing programs. It's worth noting, however, that none of those programs are housed in the new jail, which officials made clear when they highlighted new cells, housing blocks and visitation rooms last week.

"I think the linguistics professor might be a little more in tune to the language than the citizens who are excited about the newness of this facility," Jones says, "… excited about the fact that this state-of-the-art building is going to be something they can be proud of instead of something they're ashamed of."

Bonfiglio, not unlike the mayor, says the importance comes down to how people interpret the name. So he proposed an experiment: Ask random people what they think a justice center is.

A handful of people asked by Style Weekly aren't quite sure. Richmonder Lindsey Allen pauses and offers an apologetic look: "I think of a court? Yeah, court. I don't know. I guess I don't really understand."

Neither does Elisa Cline: "I would think that it would be a government building where — I don't know — centered around justice?" Her husband, Kevin, isn't much more confident. "The first thing that pops to my head would be a courthouse."

Lacy Olson declines to venture a guess. "Nothing comes to mind," she says. "I have no idea." But she doesn't hesitate when asked what she thinks a jail is: "Not a justice center. It's where people are locked up."

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