Three inmates in Richmond’s new city jail died during a recent 72-hour period, on the eve of the first anniversary of the $134 million Richmond City Justice Center’s opening.
No foul play is expected in the deaths, but Maj. Jerry Baldwin, a Richmond Sheriff’s Office spokesman, declined to provide further details and said it would be “inappropriate to offer speculation or further comment” until a joint investigation with Richmond police is completed.
In response to an inquiry for more information, Baldwin declined to provide the date and time of each inmate’s death; the circumstances in which they were found; their names; and the charges on which they were being held.
In an email news release received Thursday at 1:44 p.m., Baldwin said the three prisoners died “over the last 72 hours” inside the Richmond Justice Center.
Richmond police Maj. Steve Drew, however, said the department was asked to respond to investigate two deaths at the jail, not three, “and in both (cases) there does not appear to be any foul play, and there are no signs of trauma.”
The discrepancy could not be explained immediately.
Baldwin said he likely will issue a news release today that could include the inmates’ names, “pending confirmation of notification to the families of the deceased.”
He did confirm that the deaths are the first to occur at the year-old Richmond Justice Center, which received the old jail’s entire inmate population on July 25, 2014.
The six-story, 430,000-square-foot justice center along Fairfield Way replaced one roughly half its size and built in the 1960s. That facility long suffered from significant maintenance issues and routinely held 1,300 to 1,500 inmates, even though it was built to accommodate 880.
The old jail also was the subject of multiple lawsuits filed by inmates who were injured or family members of inmates who died of heat exposure or other alleged inhumane conditions while in custody.
Unlike the new jail, the old facility had no air conditioning in the men’s tiers.
Earlier this year, the city settled for $2.99 million a lawsuit filed by a former inmate who suffered a heat stroke in 2012 in the old city jail’s medical tier, where temperatures were recorded at 108 degrees.
In a July 2012 Richmond Times-Dispatch article, an expert on medical care at the nation’s jails and prisons said the death rate for the inmates at the overheated and chronically overcrowded old city jail was 2.5 times higher than the average annual death rate at jails of similar size across the country from 2000 through 2007 — at the time the most recent years for which comparable national data were available.
From 2007 to 2012, the average number of Richmond jail deaths per year increased, even as average death rates across the nation declined, according to an analysis by Dr. Marc Stern, a former medical director for prisons in Washington state.
Sixty people died in the custody of the old Richmond jail from 2000 through July 29, 2012. Most of the deaths were from natural causes.
The $134 million cost of the new jail, built in hopes of eliminating many of the old facility’s ills, included demolition and environmental abatement of the old facility; renovation of the woman’s annex; and final site work that included landscaping and parking lot construction.