PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A long-running battle between the Portsmouth sheriff and the city over the fate of the Portsmouth City Jail is expected to take another turn by Sept. 1.
A Portsmouth judge said Tuesday that he will make a ruling by Sept. 1 on whether the city must move inmates to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail.
The debate over whether the city jail should be closed has been going on for nearly a year, since the city condemned the facility in July 2019 with little notice.
Sheriff Michael Moore has fought to keep the jail open and housing inmates, while the city has been working to close it and move the inmates to the HRRJ — which the city has paid nearly $6 million a year to have available.
Several people, including Moore, Board of Corrections Chair Bernie Francis and Mayor John Rowe, testified Tuesday in court.
Moore testified that he has a sworn duty to serve and protect the people of Portsmouth, and that includes the ones who are incarcerated. For that reason he doesn’t want his inmates going to the regional jail because he feels the quality of care there is substandard.
“I did not run for sheriff as a hobby,” Moore testified. “In good conscience I can’t put inmates in harm’s way.”
But Assistant City Attorney Jim Cales says Moore is not required to be that conscientious about inmate safety, and there’s no indication that inmates are in more danger at the regional jail.
As one of five cities that use the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, Portsmouth pays for the use of 250 beds there. But, as of Tuesday, it uses just 20 of those beds, at a daily cost that will rise to $72.45 per bed on July 1. At that rate, it will be paying more than $6 million annually for unused beds.
Portsmouth currently has no more than 142 inmates in the city jail.
Moore hasn’t sent any inmates to the regional jail since January 2019. He said the 50-year-old city jail is a safe lockup for city inmates, contrary to engineering reports commissioned last year by the city.
Morrison asked pointed questions of both attorneys.
“Why hasn’t the city asked the Regional Jail Authority to renegotiate its agreement?” he posed to Cales, wondering if Portsmouth could lower the number of beds it would be required to pay for. In fact, Morrison says he’s waiting at least 60 days to give the city a chance to do that.
Morrison also wanted to know how broad a sheriff’s latitude should be when it comes to where inmates are to be housed.
“Does a sheriff have the right to disobey my order if I sentence someone to a facility he feels is unsafe?” he asked of Moore’s attorney, Jon Babineau.
A U.S. Department of Justice report released in late 2018 found that the regional jail was deficient in its medical and mental health care, and violated inmates’ 8th and 14th Amendment rights.
- RELATED: DOJ: Hampton Roads Regional Jail in violation of inmates’ constitutional rights, federal law
The chairman of the Virginia Board of Corrections testified that a recent review of 15 inmate deaths at Hampton Roads Regional Jail Found that it complied with regulations on nine of those, five are pending and one is under appeal.
Because HRRJ gets some of the worst medical cases among the Hampton Roads inmate population, interim Superintendent Chris Walz says a lot of the deaths can be attributed to the “acuity level of the inmates’ conditions.”
State Sen. Louise Lucas was a lawmaker back in 1998 when regional jails began. She testified Tuesday that the intent of regional jails was to handle overflow, and not to serve as a city’s only lockup.
If the judge rules in favor of moving the inmates to the HRRJ, the decision would follow the request of City Council, which filed a petition asking a court to order the sheriff to move the jail’s inmates to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail.
In March, a judge ordered the jail to stay open, overriding the council’s attempts to move the inmates.
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