Judge orders Portsmouth jail to remain open, overriding City Council’s vote to close the facility

Portsmouth

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A judge has ordered that the Portsmouth jail remain open, nullifying city council’s Tuesday vote to close the building.

Portsmouth Judge Johnny Morrison said Friday that people are “playing games” with the fate of the jail, which needs repairs. He ordered the facility to remain open at least for the next three months.

“Council can pass all the resolutions it wants, but the jail will stay open,” Morrison ordered on Friday.

Morrison took City Attorney Solomon Ashby to task for advising city council’s action that contradicted his January 9 ruling to repair the jail rather than condemn and close it.

“What is it that you don’t understand about my order?” Morrison asked Ashby in Friday’s hearing in Circuit Court.

Ashby then cited language in the ruling that he saw as a possible exception that would enable closing of the jail: So long as the facility is used as a jail by the city.

An exasperated Morrison then quizzed Ashby. “What else did you think it was gonna be used for? A daycare center?”

Morrison did not hold Ashby in contempt, saying the city attorney made an honest mistake of interpretation. Ashby declined to comment on the hearing as he left the courtroom.

The two sides are millions of dollars apart on what it would cost to repair the 51-year-old lockup. The city hired three consultants last year that reached a total cost of $31 million for the jail and surrounding buildings. Attorney Jon Babineau represents Sheriff Michael Moore, and says it won’t cost near that much.

“We have no idea where they’re bringing that number from,” Babineau said outside the courthouse. “We’ve had the jail fully evaluated — structural engineer, HVAC, roofing, electrical contractors.” He said the necessary repairs could be completed for about $300,000.

State Sen. Tommy Norment (R-Williamsburg) will join Babineau as co-counsel representing Moore, for his expertise in state constitutional law. Babineau says the city is “trying to usurp the power of the sheriff.”

Morrison’s order nullifies a 4-3 vote that Portsmouth City Council took Tuesday in favor of closing the jail. Morrison’s order is the latest development in a debate about the fate of the jail.

Portsmouth City Council’s vote came just hours after an attorney for Portsmouth Sheriff Michael Moore filed an emergency injunction to try to stop City Council’s consideration of the matter.

The issue regarding the quality of the jail is years old. City Council said in 2012 that the Civic Center and jail were near the end of their usable lives. The matter flared up again in July 2019 when the city’s building and code official decided to condemn the city jail and the rest of the civic center after finding problems with the fire suppression system and unsanitary conditions.

The sheriff sued the city over the condemnation.

In December, the city filed a petition in court to move the jail’s inmates to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. Portsmouth pays close to $6 million a year to have 250 beds available at that facility for its inmates. Babineau says that number was based on a projected Portsmouth Jail population of 1,200 inmates. Currently it has about 370.

Tuesday’s resolution passed by City Council pointed to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail as an outlet for the displaced inmates should the city jail close.

The two sides agreed to meet Tuesday, March 17 to see if they could come to some sort of agreement, but Babineau says he does not expect any. Morrison set a hearing date of June 16 to make a final ruling.

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