News & Features » Cover Story

Who's to Blame?

Homicides. Unlocked cells. Deplorable conditions. In an exclusive interview, Richmond Sheriff Michelle Mitchell says the city should have seen this coming.


Richmond Police had picked up Robinson, 47, that weekend, charging him with aggravated sexual battery in an incident that allegedly occurred weeks before, in which Young's mother accused Robinson of raping her. That Robinson and Young met face to face is being blamed, in part, on faulty locking devices now known to be widespread at the jail.

Four sheriff's deputies have been suspended. Probes into the jail's security are under way. So, too, are talks of privatizing the facility.

Meanwhile, Robinson's family makes funeral arrangements, keeping in mind they must wait the 30 days it takes for an unclaimed body to be buried in order to have the city pay for the burial.

The mood at the jail is harrowingly calm. Last week the sheriff's office, at the prompting of the mayor, issued a press release announcing it would grant no more interviews to the news media in an effort to get back to work and move past the tumult.

But getting back to business promises to be difficult. Summer is nigh, a season that typically brings droves of new inmates to the jail, overstressed electrical systems, regularly broken boilers, heat waves and flaring tempers. And any day now the Virginia Department of Corrections will show up for an unannounced inspection.

In the midst of an election year, Richmond Sheriff Michelle B. Mitchell, vying for a fourth term in office, appears to be facing her toughest battle yet.

Retired Richmond Police homicide detective C.T. Woody will challenge Mitchell for the sheriff's post in the Nov. 8 general election. He says in the wake of Robinson's death and recent public attention to the jail, Mitchell should resign.

A special investigator with the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, Woody is emphatic about the situation: "It did not have to happen. It shouldn't have happened. And it was the result of poor leadership."

He adds: "She's using locks, overcrowding and funding as an excuse. You can't pin it on [the defense that] nobody's cooperating with you."

Mitchell adamantly disagrees. In September 2001 she filed a lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court, asking that the court hold the city accountable for the jail's repairs, if not its ultimate demise.

When Style interviewed her in 2003 about her widely public travails of alleged accounting abuses, she had this to say of the lawsuit, the still unproven accusations and the city's duty to the jail: "After 15 years of dealing with more of the same, there comes a point in time where you realize the city isn't listening. I'm not a priority. … Not only have I filed a lawsuit that hasn't garnered any attention, I can't even get a court date. … I know if I really wanted a new jail I wouldn't even have to go the lawsuit route. I could just stop all maintenance and it would fall down. … I flirt with that all the time. But if something happened to somebody here as a result of that, then I'd have to morally live with that. And that's the fine line that you walk."

Now dealing with Robinson's death, it seems her future as sheriff hinges on whether she'll win her fight — and keep her balance.

In her last interview before imposing a moratorium on media contact with the sheriff's office a week ago, Style spoke with Mitchell.

Style: What do you make of recent public attention to the jail and your staff?

Mitchell: You can't take Richmond's worst and put them behind bars and expect them to be Boy Scouts. This is a very violent place, and I've been saying that for a long time. ... Because of the conditions and the overcrowding, inmates are going to make homemade weapons because they feel the need to defend themselves. They know the physical layout of the building, they know that the deputy has three floors to cover, two rounds to make every hour, and the rest of the time, they're up there on the tier and they have to defend themselves. A lot of people don't understand the nature of jails. But this is what we deal with every single day.

You were talking about the death in July 2004 of [inmate] Bernard Cottman. How is that different from the death of Gregory Robinson?

Bernard Cottman died [inside the jail] from one or two blows to the back of the head. The only difference I can see is the brutality. Mr. Robinson was victim to a repeated beating. Loss of a life is loss of a life. The latter had to do with policy and procedure — maybe somebody not making his rounds — and the other had to do with jail conditions, as far as overcrowding and having to sometimes overpopulate a tier and mix young people with old people. But it still resulted in a fight that took a life. And that one did not get the attention that this one is getting.

Take away the faulty locks and the results were the same?

The results were the same. I can't help but wonder how the Cottman family feels about the fact that when their son was murdered here, it didn't get the coverage or the notoriety of this case. As an African-American, I'm going to say this: I don't want anybody to think that because a Caucasian person died in this jail that that life meant more than an African-American's life. That's the take I'm getting from some people, that because somebody white died here, it's getting the attention it's getting. And people in the African-American community are asking the question: Is it because he was white? I hope that's not the case. It may make it more shocking, like the faulty locking devices make it shocking.

You've had your capital budget to do with what you want. If locks were a priority, wouldn't they top that list rather than be fifth on that list?

There are two points to that. We made that list almost two years ago. It's not like this is something we just did. And of the things on the list, even though the roof was the No. 1 priority, it's taken two-and-a-half years to get that project completed. The next thing on the list is the electrical. ... It's my list. People have to understand, we have been very vigilant about maintaining this facility. But when the locking devices are broken, once we report that and make the city administration aware of the problem, it is really their responsibility and their duty to fix them.

I am not responsible for any physical maintenance on this building. That's why I sued and the point of my lawsuit: The physical infrastructure and maintenance of this building is the locality's — i.e., the city's — responsibility. So when a light bulb goes out, technically, I'm supposed to get on the phone and call the city and say, "We've got a light out, you need to come down here and fix it."

They're just so used to us doing our own stuff that they feel like they're here to assist, instead of to actually perform the maintenance. If you look at the budget and the way the Richmond Sheriff's Office is structured, I have money for treatment physicians and deputy sheriffs. If you look in the code and to the Compensation Board, there are no provisions for sheriffs to have a maintenance staff. That's not our focus. We're here to manage, operate, do policy and procedure, and to maintain security and control. When the boiler breaks down, when the plumbing backs up, when the doors fall off, that's the city's responsibility to come in and fix it.

These maintenance issues, though, have been a clear diversion for you and your staff. And because you have made protocol ...

We've taken on the responsibility, but we did it years ago, not even beginning with my administration but when [former Richmond Sheriff] Andy Winston was here, because we realized that the city didn't have the resources or the manpower to deal with the issues. So we just started doing the stuff ourselves. We've taken on the lion's share, and I guess the city's forgotten what its role is. ... My response, even about the roof and the electrical, is that once it's brought to their attention what these priority items are, it's their job to get the people in here to do it. I'm not trying to shirk my duties or place blame, but I don't think the public understands I just occupy the building.

Do you think the new administration is more in a position to respond to your needs?

Even during his campaign Mayor Wilder has been very upfront in saying we need a new jail, and saying it's a priority for him. He is the only one who has stepped up to the plate and acknowledged there are dire problems with this facility. That has never happened. There have been members of City Council who have been adamant that we don't need a new jail.

What is your position on private jails?

I don't feel comfortable answering that question.

How do they make their money?

We've been told it's three ways, though another group is telling us something different. One is through lower salaries for employees, because there's less training. They're not sworn law enforcement; they're correctional officers. They cut costs in medical because they realize it's a high-ticket item in [prison] facilities. So if you want an aspirin, you pay for an aspirin. If an inmate wants to see a doctor we charge him $5; they might charge $15 or $20, almost like in the real world. ... They come into the locality and most of the agreements are for 30 years. Then they'll say, your cost for the first year of operation is 10 million dollars. Then, with inflation ... they'll go back to the locality and say they need another 2 million. It really leaves the locality in a bind because if they're the only correctional facility or jail in the area, what are you going to do with your inmates? It's not like you can erect another jail just like that. They really hold localities over the barrel. ... But localities also go to private jails over legal issues. If something happens in a private jail, that company is liable; the city has no legal liability.

There are some city officials who are asking whether you realize the liability you have on your hands. What do you say to that?

Let's flip that around. Do they realize the liability that they have? If they truly understood the liability issues, we wouldn't be sitting here having this conversation now because those things would have been addressed years ago. I do think that Doug Wilder is experienced enough that he understands the role of corrections and the sheriff and local jails.

Will the Virginia Department of Corrections be intervening in any way?

We're due for an unannounced inspection sometime in June. We'll see then what their response is going to be. Very rarely will they step in and ask, "Do you need any help?" because it's the state's purview that even if they have inmates in the facility, the bulk of them are locale-responsible, and the locality has to address the issues.

The state is very, very clear. Sixty-seven percent of our funding comes from the state. How we take care of the inmates is left up to the locality and the sheriff. But, once again, if you have private partnership and that project is being financed between two companies or entities and you don't take state money, then you don't have to abide by state specifications. DOC doesn't certify it; they don't do anything. The only way the state becomes involved in that process is if you ask for money to actually help build the facility.

Now you have the revelation that [Paul] Goldman and [Vice Mayor] Manoli Loupassi had conversations about privatization with Corrections Corporation of America predating Robinson's death.

Even if you dispatch a press release saying you now need to step back and do your jobs, the message is, the issues themselves are not new. But if you're not careful in understanding that, it would seem that much of the current attention to the jail is in response to Robinson's death.

We literally haven't had time to do anything but entertain the press. ... I think the mayor realizes it's a no-win situation over here. ... With the kind of people we have to house here, to only have two deaths, as tragic as they are, is pretty amazing considering we had 28,000 admissions last year. ... If you get a private jail, you still house the worst of the worst. And if you don't have good staff who are vigilant, all hell can break loose, even in a new facility.

With DOC's upcoming inspection, clearly they've had access to recent developments. What could happen?

[Lt. Col. Alan Roehm enters the room, hears the question and interjects.]

Roehm: They're not going to close this place down. The reason they're not going to close this place down is where would they put all these inmates?

Mitchell: You say that. DOC only has maybe 200 to 250 inmates they'd be responsible for. It's the city that would be, "Oh my God, what are we going to do?" And they'll be looking at me. But again, I'm just responsible for managing, not for finding where I'm supposed to manage. The city would have to find alternative housing for all the other offenders. The state has beds, so if they had to do an emergency intake, they wouldn't want to, but they could.

Al [Roehm] keeps telling me I worry too much. But I look at the politics of it all. I realize this is an election year. ... It's statewide politics and how would that look if you have to decertify a jail? Even though the city administration's responsible for it, [the mayor] has only been here six months. There are other people seeking office who sat as mayor and on City Council. So is politics now going to come in and rule the day? That's my fear. It would force the city and accelerate everything.

Let's not be naive. If the candidates really wanted to accelerate their agendas and DOC decertified us, then they would have to take emergency measures. ... What could happen is DOC could decertify us, based on the locks or any number of things, and go to the Board of Corrections and say, "These are the conditions that exist at the Richmond City Jail." It would be up to the board to either concur with the inspectors or to ask for something else.

What we're doing now with the locking devices is putting single locks — deadbolt locks — on the doors. That means that if there's an emergency here, we have to go cell by cell by cell by cell by cell to unlock the inmates. If there is a fire here, can you imagine how long it would take to have to open each cell with an individual key?

Mayor Wilder was quoted in a Times-Dispatch article asking why padlocks weren't used in places where it was known the locks didn't work. Is that why?

That's why. With the electrical devices, I go to the panel box and all the locks pop open. But going cell by cell by cell, in a serious emergency like a fire — which could easily happen here given the conditions — somebody's not going to make it. ... With deputies making rounds twice an hour, by the time something happens it could get so out of control, people are yelling fire and you realize smoke's coming and you've got to unlock all these doors — 72 in each building — and get the people out safely. Can you just imagine what that would be like?

The last time Style interviewed you about the jail, you had been battling some allegations about your business practices and your deputies rallied around you. This time around, stemming from Robinson's death, the negativity surrounding the jail is different. But the implication is that, in addition to the locking devices, there was some inattentiveness on the part of your staff. It's resulted in the suspension of two deputies [Editor's note: two more were suspended after this interview], more could follow, and the jail is the focus of an ongoing investigation. A citizen review team is being pulled together to look at the situation. How would you describe the mindset of your sheriff's deputies?

Anytime you have a serious incident, especially one that results in the loss of life, everybody sits back and asks, "Did I play a part in that?" It weighs heavy on your soul. I think now, with all the media attention, they're not only concerned about heightened safety at the back of the jail, but with the replacement of all locking devices with single locks. It's an issue for them. They realize what it means for their safety and the safety of the institution. ... And I think they've been really impacted by the breaking news that the city is in the early stages of looking at privatization. What does that mean to them? A lot of these deputies have invested much of their adult lives working at the Richmond Sheriff's Office. Most of them cannot retire. There's a lot of uncertainty about their future — not just because of talk of privatization but because it is an election year. And they have that to contend with. We're also coming upon summertime, when we get more people. So they're looking at packed conditions at an intensely hot jail. ... All of this feeds together and I have to tell you, their spirits are down.

What are the inmates saying?

When the story first broke about the locking devices, we had a lot of shaking of the bars to see if they could get out. They realize now with the death of inmate Robinson, their safety is being compromised, too. The locking devices that haven't been replaced yet, that still have the electrical devices, where those exist we haven't had as many inmates pop their cell locks and leave the doors open. They understand that while you may be thinking of trying to get to somebody else, somebody else could be thinking about getting to you. ... We get 30 to 40 admissions a day, and you never know who's going to be walking through the doors. Now they realize they need to keep their cell doors closed.

You've said you were going to divert some money from the budget to fix things. What are you doing now?

We have a little over $2 million marked for capital improvement that was supposed to cover the plumbing and electrical. Some of that will now go to replacing the electrical locking devices with single locks that are operated by a key.

If you've known about the lock situation, why didn't you divert that money earlier?

Because our first priority was the leaking roof. With the leaking roof, we had to close off part of the felony end. We didn't have anywhere to place high-custody offenders, people who needed to go to isolation, and we were having to put them in with the general population. We simply can't lose space here.

So the roof was more of a safety risk than the locks?

Yes. You're taking high-risk felons who are known predators and putting them in a situation where they're living with 120 other people in on misdemeanor charges. It's breeding violence. ... The fact is, we've been fixing the locks all along, as soon as we became aware of them. We'd fix them, they'd break them. And we had been responding on a daily basis.

Where do you go from here?

Well, the mayor is going to have this group of people, a citizen committee, come in and look at all the infrastructure problems and overcrowding. They're supposed to make a recommendation back to his administration as to what the best course of action would be. ... We still have to deal with the locks. Once they get here, which takes six to eight weeks sometimes, we still have to make the parts in the locks so we can retrofit them to our cell doors.

This is not an upgrade?

No. We're actually going backward — from electricity to a key.

In any way, does all that we've talked about diminish your drive to do what you do as sheriff?

No. I'm committed. To my jail, to my deputies. It's overwhelming sometimes. But at the end of the day, I'm amazed how these people risk their lives. I truly believe that the staff deserves better and the inmates deserve better. ... The fact that because inmates are poor, and they're the people society doesn't want to deal with, the feeling that we don't have to treat them humanely is something that really disturbs me. If I don't do anything else, I will fight for them. I'll take extreme measures to make sure the staff — and the inmates — get what they deserve.

Not to put a political spin on it, but the public needs to know that, especially if you're going to go down the road of privatization, you're going to need a sheriff here who has some expertise while they're going through that process. If you just leave it up to the private companies to build what they want, without a wealth of knowledge of inmates, God only knows what this community will end up with. S

Letters to the editor may be sent to:

Add a comment