No room at the . . . jail

The Rappahannock County Jail is full.

As of yesterday, there were 35 inmates serving time – and cells for the general inmate population are meant to hold 16 prisoners, according to Sheriff Connie Smith. Adding to the problem, there will be a total of 38 inmates under one roof when three people serving weekend sentences arrive at 8 p.m. Friday to begin their weekly check-in process.

“That’s just too much,” Smith said, adding that there were recently as many as eight “weekenders” (serving their sentences from 8 Friday night to 8 Sunday night, a term that allows inmates to continue working during the week). “You have to book ’em in Friday night and book ’em out Sunday night, and that takes a long time. You give them a shower when they get here, you give them a basket of laundry that contains a jail uniform, a towel and washcloths, sheets and toiletries, and that all has to be returned and washed Sunday night. And sometimes it’s almost 1 o’clock in the morning when we finish checking inmates in on Fridays.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Peter Luke said that there aren’t going to be many more weekend sentences in Rappahannock.

“As a general rule, people that request weekends are going to be denied; it’s an extra load on the Sheriff’s Office,” Luke said. “The other problem is that the jail has too many prisoners. They’re getting too full, and that’s not a good situation.”

Though there will be other issues, overcrowding won’t be one of them once construction of the Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren (RSW) Regional Jail in Warren County is complete in 2014. Through a partnership among the three counties, Rappahannock will send its inmates to the regional jail to await trial and sentencing – and, in many cases, to serve out sentences. However, neither Luke nor Smith support the idea of sending our prisoners to a much larger jail outside the county.

“Basically you’re going from a local jail atmosphere to a small prison atmosphere,” Luke said. “It goes from a jail system of local offenders to a prison-like system with hundreds from several jurisdictions, because they’re going to have to take prisoners from outside the three counties to bring in money.

“And as Commonwealth’s Attorney, I like to keep the prisoners local, that way they’re close by the court, they don’t have to be transported a long distance,” said Luke, who is leaving the post after more than 30 years on Dec. 31, when Commonwealth’s Attorney-elect Art Goff takes over. “Plus I’ve gotten a lot of information regarding open investigations from prisoners here. Sometimes they’ll want to talk to Connie [Smith] or J.C. [Welch], and they’re both right next door.”

Smith said that there are more inmates in the jail now partly because a number of state corrections-bound offenders are being held here until the conclusion of their cases in the county.

“We have a number of cases where we’re holding people for trial – like the rape, the Grand View arsonists, Benkleman on the child porn and molestation,” Smith said. “Because of overcrowding, most of the inmates sleep on mattresses on the floor. When we’re unlocked [when the cells are open], they usually sit around playing cards or board games. There’re a few excercise machines in the day room, and a TV.”

Luke said Rappahannock’s jail has been in use since 1835, and that once the RSW Regional Jail opens, the Rappahannock Jail will become a holding cell. “People are going to lose jobs here because of it,” Luke said. Some expect the regional jail positions will be filled in part by those now working in local jails (in Rappahannock’s case, at some likely increase in salary).

“I don’t like it,” Smith said, “but when the Department of Corrections says they’re going to shut you down, there’s nothing you can do about it. The demands keep getting greater and greater and we just can’t keep up.”