RICHMOND, Va. -- Wednesday afternoon CBS 6 got a tip from a law-enforcement source telling us two inmates at the City Jail, now known as the City Justice Center, had died in the previous two days.
We called and tried to get confirmation and details, but all we got was a statement from the Richmond Sheriff's Office saying "the matters are under a joint investigation" with the Richmond Police Department, and it would be inappropriate for them to comment further.
No hint if there was cause for alarm - a virus or bad drugs or anything else.
We couldn't even get confirmation about the number of deaths.
Then on Thursday came news of a third death. This time the sheriff's office confirmed the fatalities, and said only, “While there is no evidence of foul play at this time, we are conducting a joint investigation with the Richmond Police Department and the Office of the Medical Examiner to determine the exact cause and manner of each death. Until the investigation is complete, it would be inappropriate to offer speculation or comment further. Life is precious, and our hearts go out to the families of the deceased.”
There was none of the usual information (inmate was found unresponsive in his/her cell, or had been receiving medical treatment, or suspected suicide, etc.), just that three inmates had died in three days, which is quite unusual.
We did find out the identity of one of the inmates - 28 year-old Zachary Tuggle - only because his grandmother talked with CBS 6 about the unexpected death that occurred Monday.
Mamie McCloud said her grandson has had seizures since he was shot in the head 11 year ago and had been on the medical tier at the jail. She said she was told by the Sheriff's Office that her grandson apparently died while having a seizure, although we overheard a phone conversation indicating the facts are incomplete in the case and she shouldn't be talking with reporters.
"I am thinking about the other two families," Mamie McCloud said. "I really am. I can imagine what the other families are going through too."
Some of you may recall a previous Richmond sheriff named Andy Winston. He ran the City Jail for years and sort of wrote the book on it. He had a policy of transparency. If something bad happened, even if it made him or the jail look bad, he would lay it out there. Reporters could come in and have a look for themselves.
The current longtime sheriff C.T. doesn't quite have that policy. In fact, he's done some things himself that have gotten plenty of scrutiny.
Yes, of course, we shouldn't immediately expect the names of deceased or injured inmates or details about investigator suspicions. Inmates and their families have rights to privacy, too.
But we in the media and local citizens should not be finding out about deaths of those in custody through tips and sources. Nor should a rash of deaths go without some explanation.
"Three people in less than 72 hours," Mamie McCloud said. "What's going on? It makes you wonder."
Yes, there are all types of people in jail. Young, old, weak and strong. Some of them are sick and even terminally ill. Just because somebody dies there doesn't mean somebody inside the jail did something wrong.
But we can't have this wall of silence when inmates are dying. These people are in our custody.
That's my take, please share yours in the comment section below.