Low Bars 

Opinion: We are the population in Richmond for whom the jail is terrifying because there is the fear: They will let me die there.

click to enlarge back30_jail.jpg

My summer plans this year, like every year, do not include going to jail. For so many reasons.

Am I a law-loving resident who has the Code of Virginia on my nightstand for a little "get right with the Commonwealth" inspirational reading before bed each night? No. Have I been in the big house before and don't want to be reunited with my posse who looked less like the "Orange Is the New Black" cast than the cheap beer aisle at Wal-Mart before the snow rolls in? Also no.

I don't want to get locked up because I roll in the city, am most likely to get nabbed in the city, and thus tossed in the pokey in the city. After following the history of the city jail under Sheriff C.T. Woody, I can't think of a more dangerous place in Richmond for me and my kind. The city jail is no place for us. We fear for our lives at the mention of it.

What comes to mind when I say "My Kind"? Race? Gender? Sexual orientation? Coming from the wrong 'hood? Did my seminary degree come at the price of becoming a meth cooker to buy my special Biblical Hebrew textbooks?

No, my kind are those who live with chronic illness. Those who know their pharmacist is named Dan and meet their health insurance deductible in the first quarter every year. We who have cellphone alarms for when to take our meds, clinic receptionists who know our whole family, MedicAlert bracelets, pockets with inhalers, purses with insulin and needles. We are the population in Richmond for whom the jail is terrifying because there is the fear: They will let me die there.

Thousands of people are processed through the jail and live. Through the years I've met deputies there who have changed lives through teaching gratitude, self-respect and simple kindness. I was with a deputy in the hospital once when a man came and hugged him and called him by a kind nickname. I assumed they were cousins only to find out the other man had been locked up and knew the deputy from the jail. It isn't a place of monsters on either side of the bars.

But since Sheriff Woody has ruled the roost, there's been a steady trickle of alarming stories in this and other news outlets. Years ago the sheriff seemed to not understand that his rampant nepotism was a concern not only of funds and accountability, with nearly $400,000 annually being paid to Woody family employees, but also of qualification. I come from a big family, too, but if I tried to hire 10 of them to do anything in one career, most of us would be recklessly out of our competency.

There was the 2010 jail death by heat stroke of Grant Sleeper and the case of Stefan Woodson who also suffered a near deadly heat stroke in 2012 and recently was awarded nearly $3 million in a settlement with the City of Richmond. The state of the decrepit former jail, which Sheriff Woody fought adamantly to be torn down, was certainly a concern, but Woodson's case included the neglect from lack of water provided to inmates on the medical tier.

As the Times-Dispatch reported, recently three men — Zachary Emanuel Tuggle, Shaun Samuel Jr. and Javon Antoine Morris — died in the span of 72 hours in the brand new jail — the physical representation of a new era where deaths like Sleeper's and tragedies like Woodson's weren't supposed to happen. Foul play isn't expected. The word "natural" keeps coming up. But Tuggle's lawyer asserts that his client wasn't getting his anticonvulsants and my subsequent interviews with local defense lawyers suggest he isn't alone in having life-sustaining medicine compromised at the jail. Little is known about Samuel's death, but Morris died on the medical tier, a location that because of the negligence of the Woodson case sounds ominous instead of logical.

The most likely death of unnatural causes while incarcerated is not being shivved or shot by a deputy, but suicide. As with the death of Sandra Bland while in a Texas jail, suicide in its many subtleties will have to be considered in the Richmond men's autopsies. Inmates, particularly those with minor offenses, are at a significantly higher risk of suicide.

We are nine times more likely to die of natural causes in prisons and jails than by violence. But a 2007 Bureau of Justice report on leading causes of natural death in inmates listed, with the exception of a much higher rate of AIDS, the same illnesses that we all die from in about the same percentages. Americans die by the tens of thousands of heart, lung and liver disease annually, but we also live with it for decades with medication under the supervision of doctors and pharmacists. The question becomes not one of nature but of timeliness.

There is a significant public record that the jail is inconsistent with how it responds to its chronically ill patients requiring life-sustaining medication. We don't know the answers to how Tuggle, Samuel and Morris died. But the lack of transparency, the history of jail deaths and complaints undermine the trust we as residents need to have — for without trust the whole system begins to unravel.

Unless these concerns are addressed openly and the results of these deaths are publicly and extensively aired, I know that the next time I serve jury duty my decision will be compromised. I'll be looking for edema, discoloration of anemia, and other signs of chronic illness in the defendant — signs that they are my kind. Because I couldn't live with taking part in a process where an 18-month sentence could become a death penalty. S

Alane Miles is an ordained minister, freelance teacher, writer, and grief and bereavement counselor.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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