Sheriff’s attorney plans to ask judge to hold Portsmouth city leaders in contempt of court ahead of vote to close jail


PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — The attorney for Portsmouth Sheriff Michael Moore will be asking a judge to hold the city in contempt of court if the council goes forward with a plan to close the jail.

Attorney Jon Babineau told 10 On Your Side if the Judge Johnny Morrison doesn’t find that appropriate, he will also request an order that a new city jail be built outright.

“I would guess Judge Morrison is going to be offended,” Babineau said.

Babineau is referring to a resolution submitted by a council member and placed on Tuesday’s City Council agenda proposes closing the city jail by Aug. 15.

Monday evening, City Attorney Solomon Ashby gave a nearly hour-long presentation to council on why the city believes it has the right to still close the jail.

Ashby focused on language in a January court order that read: “The condemnation of the Civic Center Jail is denied. The City is ordered to maintain the Portsmouth City Jail in a manner that is secure and adequate for housing inmates so long as the facility is used as a jail by the City.”

Ashby indicated that does not require the city to keep the jail open in that spot.

The resolution in Tuesday’s agenda says the jail has “significantly deteriorated over time” since it was constructed in 1969.

“… [I]ndependent consultants have reviewed the condition of the Crawford Jail
and it has been estimated that the cost of maintaining the Jail as habitable in the near term will
likely exceed $31 million,” the resolution reads.

The city said it does have have the financial resources to fix the jail and also fund other necessary services like education.

Their solution is for inmates to go to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail.

Monday night, Portsmouth Mayor John Rowe suggested some deputies currently working the jail may have to move there as well.

“The regional jail would have to staff up…I think its a conclusion that one could get to pretty easily and pretty quickly and pretty sound…those candidates would come from the Portsmouth Sheriff,” Rowe said.

The resolution is the latest in a back-and-forth battle between Sheriff Moore and other city officials over the fate of the jail.

In July 2019, the city’s building and code official decided to condemn the city jail and the rest of the civic center after reportedly finding problems with the fire suppression system and unsanitary conditions.

The sheriff sued the city over the condemnation.

Months later, 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.

This January, a Portsmouth judge ruled the city jail cannot be condemned and the city needed to complete repairs. At the conclusion of previous hearings, a judge urged both sides to try to work things out outside of court.

Tuesday’s resolution says the Hampton Roads Regional Jail was constructed decades later, in 1996, is in much better condition, and is “better suited” to house and care for inmates.

The resolution also echoes what was said in the court petition in December: Portsmouth is not using much of its share of beds at the HRRJ, despite paying for it.

In an August 2012 resolution, City Council also said the Civic Center, and by association, the jail, is badly deteriorated and at of past the end of its usable life. Also in that resolution, City Council said it was in the public interest to demolish the Civic Center as soon as it’s practical to do so.

Stay with for the latest on this ongoing story.

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