Portsmouth City Council narrowly passes resolution to close city jail

Posted at 11:03 PM, Mar 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-10 23:29:37-04

PORTSMOUTH, Va. - On Tuesday, Portsmouth City Council members voted on the future of the city jail.

The council voted to pass a resolution to close the jail on or before August 15, 2020. The resolution narrowly passed with a vote of 4-3.

The issue has been a hot topic for months after the city tried to condemn the Civic Center Complex, including the jail, in July of 2019.

City staffers placed condemned signs on the building, citing unsafe conditions. Sheriff Michael Moore then sued Portsmouth, later testifying in court that the jail was safe for inmates and staff.

After a court hearing, the judge ultimately denied the move to condemn the jail, ordering the city to properly upkeep the facility.

According to the city, at the conclusion of two civil actions, Portsmouth Circuit Court ruled, "The condemnation of the Civic Center Jail is denied. The City is ordered to maintain the Portsmouth City Jail in a manner that is secure and adequate for housing inmates so long as the facility is used as a jail by the City."

City Attorney, Solomon Ashby quoted the court, "In this case the court directs the city of Portsmouth to maintain a city jail in a manner that is secure and adequate for housing of inmates so long as the facility is used as a jail."

The city had a few options on how they want to proceed.

They can make the required repairs to the existing jail or build a new one. If they were to go ahead with either option:

  • City Council would have to act before the budget is established to approve a tax rate increase up to $0.61 in a single year
  • City Council would have to act before the budget is established to authorize a deb issuance of #31 million to $47+ million in violation of debt policy and debt capacity

Ashby said violating the debt capacity is not in the best interest of the future of the city. Mayor John Rowe agrees, saying, "Is that the best use of money? I don't think so. A 1972 jail doesn't have all of the safety features that you would get out of a 2020 and a 2022 and a 2023 jail."

A third option included closing the jail and transferring the inmates to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, which is already located in Portsmouth.

Ashby says, "Utilizing the HRRJ is an opportunity to address the city needs with regards to incarceration without violating the city's debt policy."

Rowe says they are paying for more than 200 beds that are not being used. In the past, attorney's have argued the city is wasting more than $16,000 a day because they're not using all of the slots they pay for.

There are also concerns of layoffs for deputies who currently work in the jail. Mayor Rowe wouldn't say whether or not the sheriff's budget would be cut in the process, but he isn't worried about layoffs.

If the inmates are moved to the HRRJ, Rowe implied the deputies may follow them there.

"It would make a lot of sense that they would turn to people who are already certified to meet their staffing needs."

While he hears the staffing concerns, he says the inmate's safety is the top priority. He tells News 3, "None of us want to put anybody that's incarcerated in an environment that's unsafe."

The city council voted on the resolution on Tuesday despite concerns from Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas-Burke suggesting otherwise.

On Wednesday, Col. Marvin Waters from the sheriff's oiffice said the city had exaggerated the true cost of repairs, saying they would be just around $300,000. "Basically this is just them throwing out any scare tactics to the citizens to say, 'Hey, we need to close this facility,'" said Waters.

Several legal issues are also outstanding in the case, which could ultimately decide what happens in the case. Those will be hashed out at a later date.

There is also a court date for the issue scheduled for Friday.