by Kevin Bliss
When the Virginia Board of Local and Regional Jails (BLRJ) met unannounced and in closed session on April 20, 2022—in plain violation of the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—Executive Director Ryan McCord shrugged it off as a “typo” on the calendar.
But BLRJ has an enormously important function, reviewing jail deaths in the Commonwealth for violations of policy or law that possibly could have been contributing factors. Public notice of its meeting had been given, but for the wrong date, April 21, 2022, leading McCord to mount his “typo” defense.
The Board has experienced heavy-handed interference from DOC even as staff turnover churned, two factors that apparently worked together to secure the BLRJ’s top job for McCord. A longtime co-worker of DOC Administrative Compliance Director Dean Ricks, McCord was hired without having passed the state bar and without any experience running a jail.
Just months earlier, in a FOIA case DOC lost to the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, state Circuit Judge Junius Fulton III said that Ricks and McCord, who was responsible for responding to FOIA requests, acted in “bad faith” when they “willingly and knowingly” withheld details about strip-searches in state prisons. See: Harki v. VDOC, 105 Va. Cir. 72 (2020).
So, critics wondered, did DOC install McCord to circumvent jail operations oversight?
Tensions between the two agencies began in 2017, after the suspicious death two years earlier of 24-year-old Jamycheal Mitchell in Hampton Roads Regional Jail (HRRJ), and then-governor Terry McAuliffe (D) created a position of death review investigator to oversee jails and detention centers not under DOC supervision. Retired State Police Commander Steve Goff was hired, and despite holding the position part-time, over the next three years he managed to review 140 deaths in the state’s jail system.
In his first two years Goff closed 47 of the 71 cases assigned to him. In five of those, he found jail policies or personnel directly culpable in a prisoner’s death. In two of the cases, deficiencies were so bad that he recommended closing the jails: HRRJ and Riverside Regional Jail (RRJ). Goff uncovered problems with monitoring, healthcare, record transfer and falsified or missing documents, plus he worked with the FBI to uncover civil rights violations.
After a 2019 audit, the state Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee recommended integrating the investigative teams of DOC and BLRJ and employing an executive director to oversee them. The hiring process was left in the hands of DOC’s Ricks, who gave the position to the man who had worked for him supervising discipline and grievances of state prisoners, as well as FOIA requests: McCord.
McCord ordered Goff to pass everything relating to investigations through his office for approval before going to the BLRJ members, outside agencies or anywhere else, effectively controlling any incriminating findings. After completing the investigation that led to his recommendation to close the two regional jails, Goff submitted a letter of resignation stating he could not do his job with McCord’s restrictions and DOC’s interference.
Since Goff left BLRJ in April 2021, the backlog of jail deaths needing review has not decreased. HRRJ and RRJ were not closed, either; the former entered a consent decree with the federal Department of Justice in August 2020, and RRJ entered one with BLRJ in September 2021 that also paused investigations into three detainee deaths.
BLRJ’s vote on that decree was conducted in a closed session, and the terms were not immediately reported because media representatives were sequestered under armed guard in another room. Since then, BLRJ has released those terms, which include some that were already in place, like new electronic monitoring equipment to ensure guards don’t falsify security checks or documents and a new healthcare contractor, Corizon Health.
Any breach of the two-year agreement by RRJ will reopen those suspended investigations into the July 2019 death of William Antonio Brown, 42, the February 2020 death of Fred Lavigne, 53, and the March 2020 death of Michael Dillon, 29.
Meanwhile DOC effectively retains oversight authority of local and regional jails in Virginia, and its FOIA refusals, impedance of unfavorable inquiries and obstruction of investigations will in all probability continue unchecked.
Additional sources: Chesterfield Observer, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Richmond Times Dispatch, WRIC
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