Cops, Courts & Prisons


Originally published in the Autumn 2020 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 63, printed October 29. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2020 issue or download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Many individuals and organizations have been concerned about how the Richmond city jail has been handling the threat of COVID-19. Recently there have been some major improvements in the number of active cases in the jail, but little has been done to address the issue of trust. The following Open Letter to Sheriff Antionette Irving was initiated by The Virginia Defender, which has been following this issue since early spring.

Dear Sheriff Irving,

As you know, concern is mounting in the Richmond area over the COVID-19 crisis in the Richmond city jail. On Oct. 22 your office reported that there were no active cases in the Richmond jail, down from the 81 active cases you reported on Sept. 2. We congratulate you on this progress, but we note that the previous high number of cases may have been avoided if the jail had conducted testing much earlier, as outside advocates had urged.

In addition to the active cases, many rumors are circulating that, whether true or not, are creating an atmosphere of near-panic among relatives and friends of those confined in the jail. These include reports of incarcerated individuals being made to clean COVID-19 pods without proper PPE and then being “compensated” with bags of noodles; some being tear gassed after raising their concerns about health safety; and the rumor, which you have denied, of at least one COVID-19-related death in the jail.

After listening to the grievances being raised by numerous confined individuals and their relatives and examining the practices of other jails and prisons in the state, we the undersigned would like to raise the following suggestions. We are aware that the jail administration has stated that it is already implementing some of these suggestions. However, some individuals have reported that the implementation, when it happens, is less than consistent.

  1. It is our understanding that you have the authority to release people into home electronic incarceration without needing the approval of Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin. In light of the ongoing threat of COVOD-19, we urge you to increase the number of early releases, as other Virginia jails have done.
  2. In the interests of transparency, the jail administration should establish a daily online report of the number of confined persons and employees in the jail; the number of active COVID-19 cases; the number presently hospitalized; the total number of cases since the beginning of the pandemic; and the number of deaths, if any. This is the practice followed by the Virginia Department of Corrections.
  3. Every confined individual, jail employee and contractor should be tested immediately. As you have reported, the vast majority of active cases in the jail are asymptomatic, so this is really the only way to determine the actual present spread of COVID-19 in the jail.
  4. We are not suggesting that anyone be forced to be tested, but if they decline, they should be isolated from the rest of the jail population.
  5. All jail employees should be tested as often as possible, since they are the most likely carriers of the disease into the jail. Simple daily questionnaires and temperature checks are not enough.
  6. Any employee or contractor who refuses to be tested should not be allowed into the jail.
  7. All employees and contractors must be required to wear masks whenever they are close proximity to the jail population.
  8. Hand soap should be made available at no cost to the jail population.
  9. Hand sanitizer stations should be established in all areas of the jail.
  10. Protective masks should be made available at no cost to all individuals willing to wear them.
  11. Incarcerated people should have regular access to water and meals and at least one shower per day.
  12. Every person scheduled for release must be tested or else quarantined for two weeks before their scheduled release date.
  13. Incarcerated persons should not be asked to clean areas of the jail infected with COVID-19. The jail should be contracting with professional outside services.
  14. Daily lines of communication should be open between incarcerated people and their loved ones, legal representation and outside advocates.
  15. Administrative staff should be available to meet with relatives concerned about the safety of their family members.
  16. Chemical agents such as tear gas should not be used inside the jail as means of control.
  17. In order to move forward with these suggestions, we are requesting that you agree to meet with a delegation of the signers of this letter. We would ask that this meeting take place as soon as possible.
  18. We also request permission to meet with any incarcerated individual willing to speak with this delegation, with that discussion taking place in private.

We look forward to your speedy response.


Phil Wilayto

Editor, The Virginia Defender

Yohance Whittaker

Organizer, Legal Aid Justice Center


Princess Blanding – Justice and Reformation for Marcus-David Peters

Allan-Charles Chipman – Candidate for 6th District Richmond City Council

Coalition for Justice (Blacksburg)

Ana Edwards – Chair, Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project

Charles Feinberg – Executive Director, Interfaith Action for Human Rights

Rev. Rodney Hunter– Pastor, Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church

Richmond Community Bail Fund

Richmond For All

Joseph S.H. Rogers – Candidate for 7th District Richmond City Council


Santos en Virginia

Rebecca Keel – Va. Statewide Organizer, Southerners On New Ground

Lynetta Thompson – Immediate Past President, Richmond Branch NAACP

Virginia Poor People’s Campaign

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