At MRRJ, frustration on both sides of the status quo

Corey Chandler of Virginia Organizing (with microphone) speaks at a protest on Tuesday afternoon outside the Augusta County Government Center, prior to the Middle River Regional Jail Authority Board meeting. Photo by Logan Roddy.

By Logan Roddy, contributor

Gathering in the parking lot of the Augusta County Government Center, prior to the Middle River Regional Jail Authority Board’s Tuesday meeting, speakers at a protest led by Virginia Organizing voiced opposition to the potential expansion of the jail.

Family members and friends of people both currently and previously incarcerated at the jail – and some who have spent time there themselves – shared stories of mistreatment and disregard for the physical and mental health of inmates by jail staff both before and during the board’s meeting.

Connie Zink, a member of Virginia Organizing, said that the group has “learned a lot of unpleasant details of what is going on in that jail.”

“It’s twofold: it’s the conditions that are happening in there and the lack of appropriate treatment for these folks who need to be not locked in a jail cell,” Zink said.

Others shared experiences of neglect from jail staff, self harm and suicide among inmates, and difficulties in having certain mental health needs properly addressed.

In a subsequent phone interview, MRRJ Superintendent Jeffery Newton said he’s confused by what he sees as conflicting demands from the public.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric and inertia and initiative in the community to not increase the level of mental health treatment here at the jail. But we’re complaining about the level of mental health treatment at the jail,” he said. “We don’t like the treatment we’re providing, but don’t do any more. What’s the explanation for that, because I’m struggling to understand the logic there.”

Newton, who has worked as a jail administrator since 1996, said he’s believed since the beginning that people with mental illness should not be in jails.

“I’ve been saying that for damn near 30 years. What do we have? We have the mentally ill in jail,” he said. “So, if we don’t create capacity, where’s that capacity? I don’t see anybody in the community standing up creating that capacity. But they’re in my custody and I’m charged with providing care … So, we’re still going to have people in my custody, that we don’t have the resources to provide the care, so what’s the solution? Continue with the status quo?”

Anna Cubbage, another speaker at the protest, told the audience about a woman whose daughter had been mistreated while incarcerated at MRRJ. Cubbage said the woman’s daughter had difficulty accessing mental health services, that jail staff were resistant to her mother’s attempts to participate in decisions about the daughter’s care, and that the daughter was improperly put on an antidepressant.

“[She] attempted to get answers as to why this was and as always, got nowhere and got no response or help from Middle River staff,” Cubbage said.

In his interview, Newton said he was unable to discuss specifics of individual medical care.

“Nobody is prescribed medication when they haven’t been seen by competent medical authority. Folks are seen by the psychiatrist and medication is prescribed as a result of that.”

Authority board votes to proceed with renovations

During its meeting that followed the protest outside, the jail authority board voted to begin renovations to the jail, including upgrades to the water heater and lighting, and improving the lobby, visitation area, and mental health office space. The total cost is not to exceed $18 million. The motion, by board member and Augusta County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald, was approved with three abstentions.

Speaking during the public comment session of the meeting, Harrisonburg resident Boris Ozuna, said he fears the renovation is a step towards expanding the jail in the future.

“The more money you put into this system, whether it’s for beds, renovations, or any other thing, the more people we are able to incarcerate,” Ozuna said. 

Speaking to The Citizen after the meeting, Ozuna expanded on his concern that the just-approved renovation is a precursor to expansion.

“The renovations that they’re proposing are looking ahead for future expansion projects,” Ozuna said. “The issue is that everyone that has a stake in the jail – the Commonwealth’s attorneys, the sheriffs, the judges – needs to start looking into, ‘How do we start to reduce our jail population?’”

During the protest prior to the jail authority board meeting, Connie Zink of Virginia Organizing said that not enough detail has been released about what the renovations will accomplish.

“How can we as taxpayers support a plan with such a large price tag without hearing one word about exactly how [this investment] would actually make the jail more effective, cleaner, safer, or better equipped to prevent the ongoing trauma that continues to be inflicted upon those nonviolent prisoners incarcerated here?” she said.

From Newton’s perspective, the repeated criticism of conditions in the jail – and the jail staff’s treatment of inmates – are only part of the story.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re perfect… and I’m not telling you that these people that are telling you these stories, that they’re patently untrue, but I’m just telling you that we only ever hear about negative stories,” he said.

“We don’t hear about that incident where we had the individual that passed out in the rec yard and was clinically dead and we did CPR and brought him back to life. We don’t hear those stories. We only hear that people are unhappy with what they’ve received here. That’s a little frustrating I think to my staff, because they get castigated in the public eye,” Newton continued. “I think staff here do an exceptional job on a daily basis with the resources they’ve got. We’ve got a number of folks that come into our custody that are suffering with significant underlying mental health issues or have an exceptionally fragile health system because of the lifestyle they’ve chosen to live, an at-risk lifestyle, and we deal with those on a daily basis. And I think folks when they leave my custody, leave healthier than when we got there. And people miss that.”

Editor’s note: the original version of this story incorrectly identified Anna Cubbage as the mother of an inmate at MRRJ. Cubbage was speaking about someone else’s daughter.

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