The Jail Keeper 

Controversial Sheriff Michelle Mitchell speaks out about her fight with the city, her public persona and her latest decision.

Inside Mitchell’s office at the jail hangs a large framed picture of a lighthouse. Beneath the image is the word “vision,” and the adage, “We need to learn to set our course by the stars, not by every passing ship.” Mitchell paid about $250 for the picture and gave it to Richmond Circuit Court Judge Learned Barry when he first became a judge. He returned it when the news broke that the money to purchase the gift came from jail store revenue, which is public money. Months later Barry was arrested for shoplifting. He resigned as judge and now is working for the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Mitchell keeps the lighthouse picture as a reminder, she says, of how ironic the world can be.

Mitchell, 40, has had her own beacon in her father, Art Burton, who steered her away from potential trouble 16 years ago.

They both worked at the Virginia Department of Corrections. Ready to quit, Mitchell fired off a nasty e-mail resignation to her superiors. Without her knowing it, Burton, a computer specialist, eyed and quickly intercepted the missive before it reached Mitchell’s bosses. He cautioned her to tone it down. She did. And she credits the move with saving her the embarrassment and reputation a young woman might invite when her actions — however justified — are stirred by emotion and impulse. It taught her a valuable lesson. “Michelle has strong opinions and the work ethic to back them up,” her father says.

Since then, Mitchell — Virginia’s first female sheriff, one of only a handful in the country and youngest among them — says she’s grown in untold ways. To hear her tell it, she’s emerged world-wise and low-key.

Many of the crucial turns in her career derive from youthful experiences in which her sense of naiveté was tested, then tightened. There was the time, for instance, when she corrected a classmate in elementary school for pronouncing a word wrong. The kid cut her ponytail off. Or the time when her best friend, who was white, announced one day that he couldn’t play with her anymore because she was black. There were flute lessons her parents insisted on and performances in which she’d be so nervous she couldn’t wet her lips to play. And then there are incidents when, as a budding professional, she was told she smiled too much and took too much initiative in a workplace with otherwise conventional standards for fitting in.

If such episodes show anything, it’s that Mitchell must have learned to adapt to the world by recoiling from it. “I would tell myself: ‘You’re different. You’re going to have to sit back and keep to yourself,’” she says. It’s a pointed remark for a woman who oversees 1,564 inmates, 465 employees, and who arguably is one of the region’s most powerful public servants.

On the job, Mitchell seems organized and prepared, with a great mass of detail in her head — numbers, names, dates — which she shoots off verbally or else produces on paper. She is poised and professional and doesn’t appear puffed up by her position.

For the past three years, she has been at the center of a sheriff’s office marked by tumult, and not for the usual reasons like overcrowding or the dozen or so inmate escapes that occurred in the few years prior to Mitchell’s election in 1993. (There have been no escapes since Mitchell became sheriff.) Mitchell’s policies have been the subject of reviews by city and state auditors, probes by Virginia State Police and the FBI, and an ongoing federal investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. At least 35 people who know her well have testified about her or her office before a grand jury.

Most of the inquiry stems from the discovery in November 2000 that Mitchell had billed the city $28,000 for 19 weeks of vacation time she says she had earned since 1994 but hadn’t taken. As a constitutional officer, Mitchell’s salary of $107,175 is paid by the state. The city contributes an additional $13,557. Mitchell had applied the same unwritten policy regarding unused vacation pay to her employees. And, she says, she had been submitting such requests for payment to the city for years without question of their validity or appropriateness.

According to Mitchell, City Manager Calvin Jamison called her late one night in November 2000 to ask her to meet with him. “I’m thinking finally, he’s going to talk to me about the jail,” she recalls. Mitchell had been threatening to sue the city for myriad repairs. Instead, she says, when she arrived, Lee Dumbauld, who was then a deputy city manager charged with cleaning up city finances, was in Jamison’s office, and the two informed Mitchell there was a problem: She had been committing fraud. Mitchell says she was “blown away by the accusation” and offered to pay the money back the next day — and even had her husband get a cashier’s check on Nov. 11, 2000, for the $28,140.33 amount in question. But when she tried to give it, she says she was told the city wouldn’t accept it, that the city would instead have the state auditor look into the matter and possibly pursue her criminally.

“Why is it that everything I do is looked at with some degree of criminality? I do not understand it,” she says. “It’s never, ‘Oh Michelle, I think your accounting practices need tweaking, you need to work on it or they need to be structured in a different way.’ It’s always, ‘You broke the law, you did this and we’re going to investigate you to death until we find some degree of criminality in what you’ve done.’”

Dumbauld, reached by phone from her office in Portsmouth where she recently took a job as that city’s chief financial officer, doesn’t remember the meeting with the same incredulity as Mitchell. “It was no witch hunt,” she says, citing what would become Mitchell’s public allegation that city officials were trying to dismantle her 2001 re-election bid. Dumbauld says a city payroll clerk had been suspicious of the vacation payouts and had prompted her to look into them. “Our point was that it’s the city’s money,” she says emphatically. Dumbauld argues Mitchell never offered full reimbursement: “I’m not convinced it’s in escrow, that there’s an actual check.”

There is. It has been in the custody of the Richmond Circuit Court Clerk’s Office for two-and-a-half years. But neither the city nor a judge has moved to process it.

The entire affair left the city lukewarm to the sheriff, Dumbauld says, because the situation escalated. “They wanted it to blow over,” she says of both sides involved, especially the city. “Instead it became this big ordeal with huge coverage.”

Mitchell filed suit in Richmond Circuit Court for a judge to determine whether she had to pay back the money. At the same time it was discovered that Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney David Hicks, also a constitutional officer not solely bound by city or state guidelines, had paid himself $40,000 in bonus pay over a period of a few years. But whereas Hicks repaid the money and was publicly applauded for it, Mitchell was widely rebuked by city administrators and the press. She became a favorite target, for example, in Richmond Times-Dispatch columns and its editorial pages with headlines such as “Michelle: Our Enron of Officials” and a comment on how Mitchell might defend herself, “Marie Antoinette could not have said it better.”

In mid-January 2001, the state auditor determined that Mitchell had followed her unwritten policies and applied them routinely to her staff and was, therefore, not required to return the money. However, the auditor stressed that the policies were not consistent with city or state code and recommended more oversight by the city on how its funds to the jail were paid out. Despite the auditor’s determination, city officials called for Mitchell to refund the money. Mitchell maintains she was denied the chance.

Today, with the vacation pay matter unsettled, the rift between the sheriff’s office and the city administration has deepened and expanded. In January 2001, City Council approved a measure to make constitutional officers provide detailed accounts of how they spend city money. While the state police investigators dropped their probe following the state auditor’s clearance of Mitchell, in August 2001 the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported the launch of a federal investigation of the sheriff’s expenditures. The next month Mitchell sued the city for failing to adequately maintain its jail and make essential repairs. In November 2001, Mitchell was re-elected to a third term. On January 16, 2002, the daily paper flagged widespread misuse by the sheriff of the jail’s canteen or jail-store funds, citing purchases of gifts to employees and others, a club membership, dinners, photos and more. The next day Mitchell wrote a letter to the Virginia Sheriff’s Association withdrawing her membership and expressing dismay that “comments would be made without regard for an ongoing investigation or without asking for a presentation of all of the facts by the party involved.” Then in March 2002, Gov. Mark Warner refunded a check to the city for $10,000 after news broke that Mitchell had donated the money for herself and three others to attend inaugural events — and that it had come from collect-telephone commissions received by the jail for inmates’ calls.

How do you recover from that?” Mitchell says when asked about the mess. She’s spent countless amounts of time, energy and more than $25,000 on lawyers to get it straight. But so far, for a series of events that prompted so many headlines and stressed the inappropriateness of Mitchell’s actions, there’s been no resolution for Mitchell. “This investigation has not been closed or acted on or broadened,” says Claire Cardwell, a former chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney in Richmond who represents Mitchell in the federal investigation into the canteen and telephone commission practices. “There’s been no progress,” she says. Cardwell maintains Mitchell was individually targeted and that investigators and the press have “ignored what doesn’t fit their theory.” Almost three years have passed since the vacation pay issue arose — two since the canteen and telephone commission accusations. Yet Mitchell hasn’t been charged on a single count, she points out.

To spend time with Mitchell is to see instantly how she has an effect on people. She says she is “loyal to a fault,” and when it comes to her colleagues in the sheriff’s office, it appears true. They resemble a team of defensive linemen ready to pounce on anyone who might make her vulnerable. “This has been real difficult for her,” says Irvin Carter, Mitchell’s budget director. “Folks on the other side are wondering, why are you so defensive? Well, you wouldn’t be anything but defensive. You’re doing things like they’ve always been done. Now, all of a sudden, we’re being brought under fire for doing them, when this is the way we’ve been trained.”

“I’ll tell you one thing — and this is what kills me,” says Lt. Col.Alan E. Roehme, Mitchell’s chief deputy, who has worked at the jail for 20 years. “The sheriff is probably one of the most articulate and intelligent people in this community, and it shocks me that she comes off like a dumb blonde with the media.” Mitchell interjects: “I’m the Vanna White of the jail,” then flashes a pageantlike smile. For a moment Roehme continues the play. “She can’t do books, and her record keeping,” he says, rolling his eyes. Then he stops abruptly and turns serious: “Come work here. Work eight hours in our shoes. And then tell me what you can and can’t do.”

Now Mitchell says the city administration soon will have an unprecedented catastrophe on its hands: The 40-year-old jail will, quite literally, fall apart.

It could happen any number of ways. It wouldn’t take much, she says — a power outage, a final boiler break or an inmate riot. She details the jail’s outdated facility — citing repair costs — and its potential for collapse by flipping through a three-ring binder full of dozens of photos that show trouble within the structure. Mitchell wants a brand new jail. And she thinks it’s time the city antes up its share of the $200 million to $300 million to build one. The budget for the jail is $22.5 million with $18 million provided by the state and $4.5 million by the city.

Mitchell has pursued jail repairs for years. In September 2001, she sued the Richmond government in Circuit Court to hold it accountable for the jail’s repair, if not its ultimate demise. But she says her efforts have failed to garner the kind of attention they deserve. She describes it this way:

“After 15 years of dealing with more of the same, there comes a point in time where you realize the city isn’t listening. I’m not a priority. … The problem that I’m having is, not only have I filed a lawsuit that hasn’t garnered any attention, I can’t even get a court date. ... Maybe the next sheriff will be like me and take 10 years to discover the building is falling down. I know if I really wanted a new jail I wouldn’t even have to go the lawsuit route. I could just stop all maintenance and it would fall down. It would be the fastest way for me to get my jail. I flirt with that all the time. But if something happened to somebody here as a result of that, then I’d have to morally live with that. And that’s the fine line that you walk.”

It’s a line she declines to walk with the media. Since her troubles, she deals with reporters only when she must, like when they request public documents through Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, or when they agree to questions in writing that she can respond to likewise. She thwarts face-to-face interviews. If her predecessor, retired Sheriff Andrew J. Winston applied an “open door” approach to media inquiries, as he recalls, Mitchell’s style is closemouthed. Given the 40-year life of the jail — it’s the same age as Mitchell — the sour relationship between the media and the city’s sheriff is relatively new. The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial pages endorsed Mitchell on her first run as Richmond’s sheriff in 1993 as the protégé and choice of then-retiring Sheriff Winston. It backed her again in 1997.

Mitchell never wanted to become sheriff, she says. From the time she was a little girl growing up in Richmond, all she wanted to do was get married and be a marriage counselor. “Relationships intrigue me,” she says. She fell in love with the first and only man she ever dated, William Thomas Mitchell — she calls him W.T. — and they married on her 21st birthday. They built a house in Church Hill, and until they moved there in 1984 Mitchell says she didn’t even know there was a city jail nearby. Equipped with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University, Mitchell hoped she’d get a job somewhere as a counselor. “I applied for everything,” she says. But no offers came.

After a series of yearlong stints at entry-level jobs, Mitchell finally found one she liked at the Virginia Department of Corrections, classifying felons and giving them state numbers. She worked with them face-to-face from a tiny makeshift office in the basement of the Richmond City Jail. “I loved that job but it was the hardest job of my life,” she recalls. “But I talked with inmates every day. I’ve never felt that fear or dread around them.”

After two years, she left the jail for a management position with the Corrections Department. Her stint at the jail had so impressed former Richmond Sheriff Andrew J. Winston that when she quit her state job out of frustration, he offered to make her director of correctional services back at the jail.

A coincidental set of circumstances accelerated Mitchell’s career. Sheriff Winston, who had held the post for 23 years, was nearing retirement. His chief deputy was fired after an allegation of sexual harassment, Winston says. So he started grooming Mitchell. She was quickly trained in firearms, security and control, and was promoted at 28 to the position of major, second in command at the jail.

One day Winston — whom Mitchell says she admired then — approached her and asked if she’d ever considered being sheriff. She hadn’t. He asked her to think about it. A few weeks later, he approached her again and asked her to take a drive with him around the city. “I got this speech about destiny and responsibility, and what I’m supposed to do,” Mitchell recalls.

“I guess she didn’t take my advice,” Winston says today about the ride a decade ago. “She was about the only person [at the jail] I thought would protect the employees when I retired,” he says. “I selected her. She just happened to be there at the right time.” Winston says he’s been deeply disappointed by news reports of Mitchell’s business practices, especially because her steadfast justification for them has been that she learned them under his tutelage. He emphatically denies this. “She didn’t learn them from me,” he asserts. “I never received the first telephone call from her,” he says, “and I remember distinctly telling her to call me with any question she may have.”

Just before Christmas 2002, Mitchell says she received anonymously checks that, she says, correspond to Winston’s jail-store expenditures for the years 1992 and 1993 when Winston was sheriff. She shows them to a reporter, along with copies of audits from the same years, explaining that what Winston purchased with canteen funds — bakery items, lawn-care services, car services, flowers, ministry contributions — is in line with her own purchases. That shows she has followed protocol, she says. When asked about the checks, Winston says simply: “Well, I’m not going to get into that unless I’m summoned to court, and I’ve already been before a grand jury once.”

Mitchell contends the incident is another example of being treated unfairly by news media. In the spring, Mitchell had told a Times-Dispatch reporter about the existence of checks detailing Winston’s jail-store expenditures and that she could back them up. In March, the T-D reporter requested through the state’s open records law public documents that show Winston’s expenditures. No story ever appeared.

When told of this profile by a Style reporter and asked why the daily paper did not publish the news when it had exhaustively covered the allegations against Mitchell, the T-D’s Senior Vice President and Executive Editor William H. Millsaps Jr. says, “I will not discuss with you our reporting methods.”

Two days later, Sept. 14, the Times-Dispatch ran a story on Winston’s practices.

In the 15 years she’s been at the jail, Mitchell says, Bill Johnson has been the only City Council member to tour the facility, and that happened only recently.

“We’ve got to start fighting crime not only on the street corners but at the jail,” Johnson says about his push to improve the city’s relationship with the sheriff’s office to streamline resources and reduce repeat offenders. He calls the jail “obsolete” but says his colleagues on City Council are reluctant to address it. “Everybody’s hiding behind the lawsuit. And the sheriff hasn’t been back on her heels taking the offense.”

Mitchell leads a guided tour for a reporter and a photographer through nearly every nook of the sprawling mazelike jail. “As you walk around you’ll see we’ve just about maxed out the life of this building,” she says. It was built in 1964 to house 629 inmates. Today it holds 1,564. But overcrowding isn’t the most pressing concern. It’s the physical dilapidation and overloaded systems — steam heating, plumbing, electrical circuits — that every one of the sheriff’s deputies interviewed says makes working there miserable.

“If it weren’t for the deputies that come here with skills as plumbers, electricians, welders, those types of experiences, a lot of the things that get fixed here wouldn’t get fixed,” says Lt. James Eckenrode, who is in charge of recruiting employees. “When you peel off the paint and get to the real dirt, you’ll see what this facility really looks like. It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

It seems fear that this could happen sooner than later unites them and compels them to speak out. When asked about the feeling among staff about publicity of the operations here, the deputies jump in. “We do circle the wagons when somebody’s attacking one of our own,” Eckenrode says. “We’re a very tight family. We always depend on each other to make sure we walk out of that door the same way we came in, on our own two feet, and not be carried out.”

Whenever Mitchell makes inmate rounds – about once a month – she is accompanied by at least one sheriff’s deputy. Today, she is escorted by two — Sgt. Kevin Hall and Lt. Brian Michaels. As always, they are unarmed. The rounds begin with Mitchell reading letters from inmates, handwritten on folded pieces of paper. One states he wants to take part in the jail’s new culinary program that provides job skills and a chance to get off the tier. Mitchell carries this one with her as she walks briskly in her high-heeled white pumps into the male side of the jail. She will deliver it to the head of the kitchen staff. She strides down the shiny-floored corridor with ease. And at each barred entrance she smiles and tells the deputy on guard: “They’re with me.” The place feels and sounds like a dungeon, with doors clamoring open and shut against the low and constant choir of inmates.

In a high-custody, 12-person dormitory-style cell, Mitchell is talking to an inmate who was brought in with multiple contusions. He tells Mitchell his liquid diet – he sustained much damage to his teeth and jaw – isn’t enough and that he needs more medication for pain. “If you saw the before-and-after pictures you look a hundred percent better than when those boys almost beat you to death,” Hall tells him. After a few minutes Mitchell is ready to exit. The deputies – always at her side or watching her back, let her out.

She proceeds to the handicapped tier. It’s on the third floor and there are no ramps in the building. A handful of the inmates watch a soap opera on TV. Some are in wheelchairs; others prop themselves up with crutches or walkers and just stand, waiting for their gunshot wounds to heal. One, who says the huge scar across his belly is the result of a “spleenectomy,” insists this is the worse jail he’s ever been in. Mitchell introduces herself. “If I knew you were the sheriff I would not be talking about your jail like that,” he says. She laughs and tells him it’s OK, that she agrees.

Next, the sheriff moves to a general population tier, one of nine large, caged-in areas each holding 130 men dressed or half-dressed in brown, low-custody uniforms. The emanating smell at the jail is something like a combination of sweat and sanitizer. But here, the sweat is inescapably pungent. The men mill about or else lie on bunked cots or the floor. Twenty-two thousand people come in and out of this jail every year and most of them are cooped up like this.

It’s hot inside the jail, and everyone who enters it displays the sheen of perspiration. After more than an hour spent with inmates, Mitchell proceeds to the administrative offices where employees routinely are cramped among equipment and stacks of paperwork. Like a portion of the inmate side, several offices are uninhabitable because of pervasive water damage from the sagging roof.

Mitchell ends the second five-hour interview by sinking herself in a chair in Roehme’s office. This is where she spends most of her time, she says, working with Roehme and strategizing ways to improve the jail. Their conversation has that quality of ease that comes when people who have worked together for years.

“If the sheriff weren’t so misunderstood things could be different,” Roehme says. “We might not be as protective. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. And I don’t like people attacking the sheriff for things they know nothing about. Behind my desk there is everything that’s been written in the last several years. It’s for litigation purposes. We know what the real truth is. There are some of our people out there defending the sheriff and then there are some out there that question: ‘God, did she do it?’ You do what you’re taught. And what you learn is what you do,” Roehme says.

“You should have been here yesterday, it was not a good day,” Mitchell says. Then she explains: “We’re involved in a federal lawsuit with a former employee over alleged discrimination in the workplace. Our attorney was in federal court arguing for a summary judgement. The judge, who will remain nameless until I get the transcripts, made a comment that my record-keeping ability in the case was reflective of my record-keeping ability with the canteen. This was a federal judge. The whole point is his perception. My record-keeping abilities with the canteen have never been in question.”

“They’re impeccable,” Roehme interjects. Mitchell continues: “My business practices were what were called into question. It speaks volumes about how I’m perceived in this community. It’s this fascination with me as a person. I’m a hard person to get to know, but I’m the kind of person who’ll do anything for anybody. But there’s this perception that I’m this overspending dumb blond bitch who runs the jail that people can’t figure out how I get elected. And they scratch their heads,” she says adding: “But people who really know me know I’m not like that.”

Mitchell says she’s trying to move past the events of the last three years and focus on the jail. She’s dismissed thoughts of running for a higher public office, although her family still encourages it. “My reputation is so sullied and so damaged,” she says. But Maya Angelou’s themes of forgiveness and strength in the face of adversity inspire her work now, she says. “I am going to run again for sheriff,” she announces. After that, she’d like to get out of the public eye. “I want to get back to the program side and really, really impact offenders’ lives,” she says. “I’m looking at going back to my roots.” S



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