This op-ed was originally published in The Virginian-Pilot on July 14, 2019. It was written by Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications at the ACLU of Virginia, and James Boyd, president of the Portsmouth NAACP.
On Juneteenth, the oldest annual celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, we attended a regular board meeting of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail Authority. We wanted to urge the board to report what it is doing to comply with a 47-page notice from the U.S. Department of Justice in December that its practices are unconstitutional and must change.
The DOJ’s findings after two years of investigating HRRJ — at the request of our organizations as well as the National Alliance on Mental Health Virginia and Mental Health America Virginia — are significant and alarming.
In the DOJ’s own words: “The Justice Department concluded that there is reason to believe that the conditions at the jail violate the Constitution, specifically rights of prisoners protected by the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments. The department concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the jail fails to provide constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners, and places prisoners with serious mental illness in restrictive housing for prolonged periods of time under conditions that violate the Constitution. The department also concluded that the Jail’s restrictive housing practices discriminate against prisoners with mental health disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
The report states 13 times that jail staff have been “deliberately indifferent” to the constitutional rights, medical care, and other critical needs of the estimated 1,100 people being housed there at any given time.
At least 22 people have died at HRRJ since Jamycheal Mitchell’s tragic death from neglect in 2015. No one has been held accountable for any of these incidents, and the board — comprised of elected sheriffs and city councilors, as well as city hall administrators, from Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Portsmouth — has remained silent.
Previously, we asked the DOJ to investigate, served on a stakeholder advisory panel that interviewed candidates for jail superintendent, toured the facility, met unsatisfactorily with the current superintendent and participated in several status calls with DOJ officials, who also won’t say what progress they may be making to improve conditions at the jail.
We are unaware of any public board discussion about the DOJ report or the jail’s record of troubling deaths. Board minutes only note discussion of a possible public relations strategy to push back against negative press. According to minutes of the board’s May 16 meeting, Chairman Robert Geis stated, “I would get a group together and just go through all the positive things we have done here and do a press release on that or the board can discuss how we should do that. Something to change the dynamic of the dialog.”
Other board members chimed in to “commit our PR” on behalf of their localities. Newport News Sheriff Gabe Morgan demanded a united public front. “Everyone on this board has to speak positive about this facility … We have to stand and say that this place is not worse than anywhere else. This place is really better than most.”
If that’s true and the DOJ report is off the mark, let’s hear some specifics. At the June 19 board meeting, however, Geis, who is deputy city manager in Chesapeake, refused to allow us to request those details, saying it “would not be fruitful” for us to speak. Then the board voted to meet behind closed doors for an hour and a half over our objections that the closure wasn’t legal.
Refusal of accountability in the face of tragedy after tragedy is unacceptable. Every member of this important public body is either an elected or appointed official charged with serving the public interest. Yet they are covering their ears and shutting doors to those advocating on behalf of our community members whose rights are being violated by the hour, while offering no evidence that anything has or will change.
We call on the board to open its posture and hold a public hearing on the DOJ report, explain to stakeholders and the community what it means, and disclose what it is doing to follow the constitution and keep people alive while they are in the jail’s care. The inhumanity at HRRJ must end.