Hardtime at the Richmond City Jail
These images are from the approximately 2 years reporter Dave Ress and I spent documenting life in the Richmond City Jail for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The project was done in two parts. During the first, we spent nine months looking at the living conditions in the jail, the working conditions for the deputies, women in jail, the school tier and the issue of recidivism as a societal problem. During the second part, Dave and I went back in to look at the conditions of the mentally ill in the jail.
Working on this project was a fascinating experience. The newspaper had not had access to the city jail for years, so we jumped at the opportunity to do the story.
People often ask me what shooting in the jail was like. As challenging as it proved to be both technically and emotionally, I considered it a privilege. In my opinion, what I witnessed was not something photojournalists get to witness every day in this country. I had incredible access and I was documenting issues that mattered both to me and the community I live in.
The Richmond City Jail is extremely overcrowded. At the time of the project it housed approximately 1600 inmates in a space built for about half that number. On any given day there would be about 1400 male inmates and 200 females. Approximately 20,000 men and women filter through the jail every year, many being counted multiple times because they return repeatedly.
On the men’s side, inmates are housed in general population tiers and singles cells. There are three buildings with three general population tiers each. A tier can house up to 150 men in a space built for 50. This meant that more often than not many of the men were sleeping on the floor.
As a woman shooting in the jail it took some time before I could regain my invisible photojournalist status. Because I was the only woman walking onto a tier of 150 male inmates, my invisible status may have been more in my own head than reality. However, after spending many many hours walking the jail with deputies who were making their rounds, I like to believe that people eventually got used to me and went back to life as usual.
As I worked I became more and more amazed that people on the outside often had no idea of even where the city jail was located, much less what life inside it was like. Located at less than two miles from downtown, the jail can be seen as a community, a safe haven, receptacle of all that’s wrong with our society, or simply a collection of individuals, each with a story to tell.
I believe I experienced quite the range of emotions while working on this project. From empathy to compassion, discomfort to a sense of being no different than the men and women around me.
The most difficult aspect was never fear for my safety, but the act of listening to grown men and and women look me dead in the eye and swear this was their last time in jail, tell me they were way too old to keep up that recidivist pattern, and knowing in my core that the realization of that goal would likely never happen.
The most satisfying part of the project was the reaction from the community after the stories were published. Granted the recations weren’t all positive, but the overwhelming majority of readers I spoke with said they had no idea what the conditions were like in the jail before reading the series.
A man sits in a strip cell in the Richmond City Jail. Considered a threat to himself, the man has no mattress or clothes out of fear that he might use them to hang himself and no toilet because he might drown himself. The toilet is replaced by a hole in the floor. The man’s lunch sits next to him on his metal bed.
While a handful of Dr. Bill Rhodes’ psychiatric patients in the Richmond City Jail live in general population, some deemed too dangerous to themselves or others reside in medical isolation. More than 300 inmates receive psychiatric medication in the jail.
Tiers designed to hold fifty inmates in Richmond’s overcrowded city jail often house closer to 150 men, with many forced to sleep on the floor.
Richmond City Jail inmate Eugene Gray, 60, tells the story of his arrest while sitting in the area of the G-3 tier reserved for patients of Dr. Bill Rhodes, the jail’s psychologist. Gray says he suffers from seizures, but has not been taking his seizure medication in the jail. He says he has been taking sleeping and pain medication instead.
The jail’s most difficult, most ill and most troubled stay in one of the single cells. Here, in the jail’s mental-health unit, Franklin Pratt waits for Deputy Kyle Sandlin to do a regular inspection of his cell.
Inmate Leon Anderson (center) was sore. He demanded a painkiller from the nurse distributing medication at an evening pill line. Didn’t get it. He walked back to his cell and grabbed a cup of diluted bleach that he had stashed there. Back in the pill line, he shouted: “Say something. Say something.” Then he threw the bleach and caught Nurse Herbert Anderson in the eyes. The deputies scrambled. Within seconds, they wrestled the inmate to the corridor, on a fast march to isolation. Two days later, he threw feces on a female deputy.
Photos by Eva Russo
All images @ Richmond Times-Dispatch
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