MARK HOLMBERG: Troubled juvenile detention center shuts down immediately

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)–On Thursday, after months of saying persistent problems at Richmond’s Juvenile Detention Center were being addressed, the mayor’s office made the surprising announcement it was surrendering the center’s state permit and closing the facility for as long as a year.

The announcement marks the first time in many officials’ memories that the city just shut down one branch of its operations.

“I’ve been here 35 years, and I’ve never heard anything like this,” said 1st District City Councilman Bruce Tyler. “It’s extraordinary, but, again, I appreciate the fact that they finally stepped forward and said we do have a problem here, and we need to fix it.”

The center remained on probation with the state’s department of juvenile justice, and that department’s board contemplated shutting the center down earlier this month because of persistent problems with computerized locks and allegations that training records were fudged and, in at least one case, a charge that staff had unprofessional contact with an inmate.

Richmond’s Commonwealth’s attorney is investigating the doctored training records allegation.

Problems at the facility first put it on probation in 2009. City council members, the city auditor and the local NAACP have been pushing for reforms after fresh problems and accusations surfaced last year.

City officials have said in recent months said that most of the problems have been fixed and the rest were being addressed. The director was fired.

Richmond Chief Administrative Officer  Byron Marshall said the mayor decided that “because of the ongoing issues with the juvenile detention center, that it was best to close it down, and then sort it out, and figure out what we do next with the facility.”

City Councilman Charles Samuels, a juvenile and domestic and relations attorney, was livid that the mayor took so long to address the problems so many have been pointing out, while his handpicked fixers were saying they had everything under control.

“I was furious,” he said. “You know, the allegations that caused the mayor to close this today occurred in August, two months before the NAACP brought attention to it . . .”

City Councilman Chris Hilbert called it “an embarrassment for the city.”

“Those allegations had been made numerous times,” Hilbert said. “And we thought we had some solutions to those and something else would come out. So the drip-drip-drip is over.”

When asked why this announcement came after assurances that problems were being addressed, Marshall said “while we had been able to address the bricks and mortar issues, there are some management and operational issues and some work culture issues that we have not been able to fix.”

Marshall said they started moving the 40 or so juvenile inmates, male and female, to other detention facilities in central Virginia. “We’ll conclude it tomorrow,” Marshall said Thursday afternoon. “That’s the plan.” He believes most will be housed within an hour of Richmond.

Some of the 72 staff will be laid off moved to other agencies in the city while others will stay to shut down the operation. City council was told that just extra personnel costs such as severance will cost the city an estimated $800,000 or more.

The center could be closed for as long as a year, Marshall said.

Hilbert wondered if the city shouldn’t join an area regional detention center, rather than having its own system.

The move also caught relatives of inmates by surprise. Annette Hunt was angry that no one called her about her granddaughter being moved. And she’s the guardian.

“I heard it on the news,” Hunt said, adding that she has no idea how she’ll visit her granddaughter because she has transportation issues and is on disability.

Other relatives of inmates came to the detention center once the evening news aired.

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