State jail board approves agreement that would allow Riverside Regional Jail to remain open with conditions

State jail board approves agreement that would allow Riverside Regional Jail to remain open with conditions

Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Virginia Board of Local and Regional Jails voted Wednesday to approve an agreement with the governing body of Riverside Regional Jail that would avert decertification of the facility and allow it to continue operating under certain conditions that so far have been kept secret.

After a closed-door session of about an hour, during which Riverside officials briefly were allowed inside, the jail board unanimously approved the yet-to-be-finalized agreement. The Riverside Regional Jail Authority will vote on the agreement during its regularly scheduled meeting Thursday.

Vernie Francis, the board’s chairperson, declined to release a copy of the agreement after the meeting, saying that until it is signed by both parties, “it’s still in pending litigation at this point.” No lawsuit has been filed.

“The board voted on the agreement subject to technical changes that need to be done,” Francis said. “We can’t release anything until it’s signed.”

“Once this agreement is signed, I think the agreement will speak for itself, and we’re looking forward to working with [Riverside] to make things better,” he added.


Wednesday’s vote means there won’t be a hearing to close Riverside — an action recommended by a jail review committee after an investigation found that jail staff may have been directly or indirectly responsible for three prisoner deaths in 2019 and 2020 and failed to comply within minimum correctional standards set by the state.

The jail review committee, which is the investigative arm of the state jail board, said at the time that conditions in the jail “represent a clear and present danger to the health and safety of the inmates.” The committee voted unanimously that Riverside be decertified and closed, and that all inmates be transferred back to their jurisdictions of origin.

Riverside is one of the largest jails in central Virginia and houses roughly 1,300 inmates for Petersburg, Colonial Heights, Hopewell and the counties of Chesterfield, Charles City, Surry and Prince George. The facility in Prince George is governed by a regional authority consisting of representatives from each locality.

In April, the Riverside Jail Authority immediately took issue with the jail committee’s findings, calling them unwarranted and “particularly shocking, given that over the past year the jail passed its unannounced Department of Corrections audits related to health care and mental health screening and services, as well as three comprehensive federal agency audits.”

The authority also noted that since it hired Larry Leabough, a retired DOC administrator, as superintendent in June 2020, “great strides have been made to improve all facets of the facility, from inmate care and mental health services to inmate safety and programming.”

An inmate died of a fentanyl overdose in the jail on March 26, two days after being transferred there from the Chesterfield Jail and a month after new concerns were raised about a security breach that allowed outside smugglers to break exterior windows of the jail and throw contraband inside. A section of security fencing costing $260,000 subsequently was installed, and fencing now surrounds the entire facility.

The jail review committee findings came as Riverside remained on state probation, which was imposed in July 2019 after the same committee found staff failings that may have contributed to the deaths of two other inmates who killed themselves in 2017. In one of those deaths, a corrections officer resigned after an internal investigation.

During the past five months, Riverside officials and their legal counsel have been negotiating with the state jail board in hopes of reaching an agreement that would prevent a formal hearing and decertification. The talks were not held publicly.

“I’d just like to say thank you for working with us, there’s been a lot of effort,” the jail authority’s attorney Jeff Gore told the board. He was accompanied by Leabough and Percy Ashcraft, the authority’s chairperson. “I think very robust processes will be required and I think it fits with the direction that the Riverside board has been going in, and it’s going to be a very positive result.”

Riverside officials say the jail already has taken several steps to improve its operations and recruit and retain new jail officers to fill more than 80 vacancies. The jail authority approved funding in May to fill 40 of the positions and is developing a plan to reach full staffing.

The measures also include increasing jail officer starting salaries from $36,000 to $40,000 and boosting the pay of existing employees by 5% as of July 1. That is on top of 4% increases that went into effect on Jan. 1.

In addition, the board awarded a contract to the consulting firm CGL Inc. to perform a comprehensive study and needs assessment of Riverside Regional Jail’s operations and organization, which will include inmate health care and mental health services, staffing, inmate classification and the facility’s physical plant. CGL plans to make a presentation of its final draft report to the Riverside authority on Thursday.

The state jail board on Wednesday also announced two new jail death investigators. They are John Rock, a retired Newport News homicide detective, and Alison Lautz, a former forensic autopsy technician in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Steve Goff, the board’s investigator who began work in 2018, resigned in April.

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Staff writer Patrick Wilson contributed to this report.