Hampton Roads Regional Jail staffing: 'A very dire situation'

13News Now uncovered the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, which came under fire and under federal investigation after inmate deaths, is critically understaffed.

PORSMOUTH, Va. (WVEC) -- The staffing shortage at Pasquotank prison-- which may have contributed to a deadly attempted prison break -- exists at other correctional facilities. 13News Now uncovered the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, which came under fire and under federal investigation after inmate deaths, is critically understaffed.

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HRRJ takes people facing charges from five cities in our area. On any given day, it houses about 1,100 inmates. Jail leaders said the staffing shortage is so severe, there are times when one officer is supervising 120 inmates in a housing unit, which is nearly double what national guidelines recommend.

For officers at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, the staffing shortage makes working behind bars even more challenging.

“We want to make sure these inmates are safe in our facility until they can get home to their families,” Chief of Security Capt. Thurman Barnes said. “We also have to look at staff safety. There's strength in numbers.”

Barnes explained he's lost officers through attrition, retirements and resignations.

“It's a very dire situation that we get more staffing here,” he made clear.

The shortage is especially difficult at this facility because of one of its main priorities. They need enough officers to be able to give medical services to the inmates. Hampton Roads Regional Jail holds some of the area's most sensitive inmates: ones who need acute medical care or mental health services.

Medical wing of Hampton Roads Regional Jail

“It's putting patient care at risk,” said Health Services Administrator April Green, who believes this type of inmate population makes the officers' jobs even more demanding. “They have to have a higher level of vigilance to determine if somebody is going into cardiac arrest, if someone is having a seizure, if someone is beginning to have self-injurious behavior.”

Last year, officers had to take almost 350 inmates to the emergency room, which is one almost every single day.

“That means that level of vigilance in the facility may be diminished because their staff is now outside of the facility,” Green described.

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For right now, jail leadership has developed work-arounds. In April of 2017, they initiated mandatory overtime. Officers are now working several more days a month and on the weekends.

“The mandatory overtime was not an option for us to make sure we have a safe facility,” Barnes expanded.

It is not a long-term fix financially to regularly pay people time and half. We've uncovered the jail pays about $70,000 a month in overtime alone.

Medical wing of Hampton Roads Regional Jail

“It's more expensive to supplement with overtime,” Barnes explained.

Also, it is not a sustainable solution.

“It does take a toll on the staff, because of the fatigue factor and it takes a toll on the morale,” Barnes said.

To actually fix this issue, jail leaders hope the Virginia General Assembly will approve a state budget amendment to increase staffing at the facility. It will be proposed this week as the session begins and lawmakers work on the budget.

The addendum asks for $2,441,753 for the next fiscal year to fund about 80 additional officer and medical positions at the facility. That increase would bring the Hampton Roads Regional Jail up to state standards.

“If it's going to keep our facility safe, that's what we're going to have to do,” Barnes added.

The mayors of the five cities, which send inmates to the jail, also signed a letter to lawmakers. It urged them to pass the amendment to "improve the safety of the facility."

Jail leaders should learn more on the fate of the amendment as the budget is debated.

Mayors' letter to lawmakers about HRRJ funding by 13News Now on Scribd

Delegate James Budget Amendment by 13News Now on Scribd

Senator Lucas Budget Amendment by 13News Now on Scribd