Set Free 

Amid a contentious push for a new jail, Richmond shows its ability to embrace public debate.

Page 3 of 3

Sheriff C.T. Woody told council during Thursday's meeting that the current 1,032-bed jail had received the green light from the Virginia Department of Corrections, which is necessary for the city to receive state funds of up to 25 percent for the project.

That wasn't the case.

"This is a whole new jail, so it has to go through the same steps all over again," said Bill Wilson, local facilities supervisor for the Corrections Department. The plans that had been approved were for a 1,032-bed jail that included a new, five-story building and a renovation of the old jail, with an additional 103 beds for inmates in isolation. The Tompkins proposal was for 1,032 beds that included 108 isolation beds in the overall number, and an entirely new jail.

click to enlarge The Rev. Alonzo Pruitt, chief of chaplains at the jail, eloquently prods council members to vote for the new jail proposal, calling the current facility “a cancer upon the soul of our city.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Rev. Alonzo Pruitt, chief of chaplains at the jail, eloquently prods council members to vote for the new jail proposal, calling the current facility “a cancer upon the soul of our city.”

Chris Beschler, deputy chief administrative officer, said the city was informed Friday that the jail plans would have to come back for state approval, and the city was hastily working to set up a meeting with corrections officials.

"They've given you their interpretation of what was approved in October and the city has a different interpretation," Beschler told Style.

While the state may very well approve the new plans, how quickly the city can win approval is unclear. Going through the process — one of the key reasons Jones cited for remaining with the existing site — could wind up delaying construction.

A potential delay may or may not seriously affect the timing of the overall project, but that the city was unaware of the snafu during Thursday's meeting — Councilman Jewell railed about the project lacking state approval, but was told it wasn't an issue — became proof to some that the city administration isn't nearly as efficient as Jones likes to project.

Overall, the missteps during the jail procurement process speak to a larger problem, Tyler says. It cost each of the four teams bidding on the project between $500,000 and $700,000 to prepare their plans, and if the process is perceived as being unfair, will construction contractors be willing to bid on future projects? If the pool of bidders shrinks in the future, Tyler says, that likely would lead to higher costs for the city.

"You not only have invested capital, you've given up the opportunity to pursue other things," Tyler, who is also an architect, says of construction contractors. "That's not fair to me. And that's critical."

During Thursday's meeting, it was also clear that Tyler and Jewell were in the minority during the discussion. Both wanted more time to vet the city's selection of Tompkins/Ballard. Jones painted them as asking questions with an agenda to derail the project, which he saw as destructive. He saw the constant questioning of Jewell and Tyler, and to mention the frequent tongue-lashings from King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as questioning the integrity of his administration.

click to enlarge Sheriff C.T. Woody and dozens of his deputies fill council chambers Thursday night. The conditions at the overcrowded jail, which can get hotter than 100 degrees in the summer, becomes the most powerful argument in favor of approving the contract during Thursday’s meeting. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Sheriff C.T. Woody and dozens of his deputies fill council chambers Thursday night. The conditions at the overcrowded jail, which can get hotter than 100 degrees in the summer, becomes the most powerful argument in favor of approving the contract during Thursday’s meeting.

Khalfani and Jones held dueling news conferences on July 25, both at 10 a.m. While Khalfani led a rally protesting the jail contract on the steps of City Hall (He implored: "We're asking, is this just incompetence? Or is this corruption?"), Jones shot back in a second-floor conference room inside. "I don't mind disagreement, I don't mind debate. I'm built for that," Jones said. "But I don't really want to have the administration questioned in terms of its integrity. I think that's crossing the line."

The theme was present throughout Thursday's meeting. Council President Kathy Graziano repeatedly told people that she wouldn't allow "derogatory remarks" aimed at elected officials, even though the comments hardly rose to such vitriol.

But there also was hope that the city was turning the corner. The derogatory remarks might not be allowed, but it didn't stop the people from speaking out. One brief exchange with Donnie "Dirtwoman" Corker seemed to capture the spirit of the night:

"We don't need a jail. You need to go back in the pulpit and keep on preaching," Corker told a smiling Mayor Jones. "You're a good preacher."

"Sir, if you would remember that [you] are not to make any personal statements about anybody that is an elected official," Graziano scolded.

"I wasn't talking about nobody," Corker said. "Mayor, you a good preacher, you need to go back to the pulpit and you [pointing to Graziano] need to retire. You a troublemaker."

The room erupted in laughter. S

Staff reporters Melissa Scott Sinclair and Vernal Coleman contributed to this story.

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