PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — The Hampton Roads Regional Jail Authority voted unanimously Wednesday afternoon to close the 25-year-old lockup.

It has served as extra capacity for five local cities, as well as the go-to jail for complex medical cases, but authorities here say there weren’t enough inmates to keep it going.

At the end, they were almost as many staff — 150 — as there were inmates, about 200.
The HRRJ Authority will close the facility on or before April 1, 2024.

Cities like Portsmouth were paying for beds they were not using.

“We’ve suffered from staffing challenges and decreased inmate populations over the years,” said HRRJ vice chair Peter Buryk. “The five jurisdictions felt that it was no longer in all of our best interest to sustain the operations.”

Authority Chairman Robert Geis said in a press release that HRRJ never really recovered from the days of the pandemic. “During the pandemic, staff levels dropped by almost 50%, which also lowered the Regional Jail’s capacity from 1,000 to 350 inmates. The Regional Jail’s mission is no longer sustainable.”

“The closing of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail will be an end to decades of inhumanity, mistreatment, unfairness, unconstitutional conduct and civil rights violations that caused cruel punishment and death for far too long,” the Portsmouth NAACP said in a statement. “Though the jail is closing, accountability for inhumane and unconstitutional acts must still be reviewed and the Department of Justice, the US attorney’s office for the Eastern District and the VA Attorney Generals Office should review every death that has occurred in that jail to bring to Justice those who potentially violated the law. “

In 2016, the Department of Justice investigated the jail. The investigation claimed the jail violated mentally ill and disabled prisoners’ rights because of restrictive housing practices.

Several inmates have died at the facility, some from alleged lack of treatment. This October, an inmate died by apparent suicide.

In 2018, a former inmate accused a former jail officer who choked him until he passed out. The former officer faced assault charges but those were later dismissed.  

Leading up to the DOJ probe and its scathing report, families demanded answers in the mysterious deaths of JaMychal Mitchell and Henry Stewart.

Portsmouth Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas-Burke said HRRJ did respond appropriately to that investigation.

“I think they did an awesome job,” Lucas-Burke said following the decision to close. “I think they did everything in their will to be compliant and try to comply with what was being requested.”

HRRJ also filled a specific need, being able to accommodate complex medical cases in the five participating cities. During Wednesday’s meeting, staff members listed 154 of the 198 current inmates who were taking psychiatric medication.

Buryk says the local jurisdictions — Portsmouth, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Hampton and Newport News — will be able to provide the needed care.

“We’ve had conversations with all the sheriffs, and all of them feel that they can meet the needs of the inmates that are coming back to their custody,” Buryk said.

Lucas-Burke said the current HRRJ employees will get other opportunities through a job fair.

“I think the job fair will provide an opportunity for those employees and we hope that they will choose Portsmouth,” she said.

It’s unclear what will happen with the jail on Elmhurst Lane. The HRRJ Authority will look into the possibility of selling the property.