Sussex ‘dodged bullet’ as nearby regional jail faces struggles

By: Terry Harris | Email: Click Here
Posted: April 8, 2019 | 3:15 p.m.

SUSSEX – According to a statement by Sussex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Susan Seward, recent reports of troubling inmate welfare situations as well as financial issues with the Riverside Regional Jail prompted her comment at the March BOS meeting, “Aren’t we smart?” 

In an interview following the meeting, Seward explained that her comment stemmed from reports which have received attention from sources as far away as the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, and the board decision last year not to join forces with the institution and move Sussex County inmates to Riverside.  She then went on to elaborate on the history leading up to her comment.  

“In 2016 and 17, the board took a number of months looking at the feasibility of Sussex County closing our local jail and joining one of the area’s three regional jails – Riverside Regional Jail in Prince George, Meherrin River Regional Jail in Lawrenceville, and Southside Regional Jail in Emporia,” Seward explained. “This examination was done at the request of a board member who wanted to look at the cost of maintaining prisoners in our local jail at the courthouse vs. the cost of housing them at one of these regional jails. For various reasons, Riverside was the frontrunner among those in favor of the move.”

“During our research,” she continued, “we were told by regional jails that every June there is what is called a ‘true-up.’  The end of the fiscal year true-up is where the regional jail looks at its budget for the year and the amount of any shortfall is immediately assessed and divided up among the jail’s member localities. This accounting practice was of particular concern to me, because I had talked to other localities that had been assessed staggering fees in the year-end true-up.  After much research and conversation with the sheriff, all three regional jails, and the state department of corrections, our board realized that the county had more control over their costs and better supervision of our prisoners with remaining in the Sussex jail.  Further, Sussex County received a letter from the state department of corrections stating that our local jail still had at least 15 years life span.”

Seward said, “And now we’re hearing that Riverside Regional Jail is expected to operate next year with a projected $2.4 million budget deficit, which burden we would have had to share with Hopewell, Colonial Heights, Petersburg, and the counties of Charles City, Chesterfield, Prince George and Surry, had we joined the group. That’s not to mention the even more concerning reports of prisoner welfare issues, falsified walk arounds checking on prisoners, and most disturbingly, deaths among inmates.  The combination has made me even more thankful that the board ultimately decided not to join with other localities in using Riverside’s services.”

Riverside Regional Jail, seen from above. (Source: Riverside Regional Jail)

Sheriff Giles said that he was very glad for several reasons that the board made the decision to keep the Sussex County jail open. He said one of the strongest reasons he felt it was important might be surprising to many.  He was concerned that closing the Sussex facility would have meant losing county deputies that the department needs for many other things as well.  

“Not only do we utilize deputies who work in the jail at the jail itself,” he said, “but a lot of people don’t realize how much our deputies do. There’s no such thing as having one function in our department, and a significant portion of their salaries comes from the Virginia Compensation Board for our housing inmates here. These deputies work hard, and the jail has passed all inspections and passed an audit just last week at 100 percent no discrepancies. These same deputies that work in the jail also perform functions in the courts, in the community, and now they’re providing security at the elementary school of the Sussex County Public School System.  I felt that the Sussex board made the right decision to keep our jail open not only for that reason, but also there is basically no additional overhead expense as far as operations go. Inmate labor has saved the taxpayers thousands of dollars with helping the county maintenance in their daily operations. They help set up and clean up for public events.  They help the food pantries throughout the county, and we also contract for VDOT cleanup.  Plus most of our inmates are local, and I felt that their families should have the opportunity to come and visit them within our county due to lack of transportation of the family members. I just really appreciate the board of supervisors understanding the logic – the less cost expense to our taxpayers because of the utilization of our correction deputies/dispatch and of housing the inmates detained here at Sussex county jail.”    

“Here in Sussex we have great confidence in our sheriff,” Seward said. “And even though our jail is small, we feel that our ability to care for and keep an eye on our prisoners is much greater than that of these large regional jails. Plus, had we joined Riverside, we could be facing a true-up in June of a couple of hundred thousand dollars that, as a locality, we would not have budget for.  I truly feel like The board of supervisors dodged a bullet on this one.” 

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