Piedmont regional Jail at Farmville.

In 1937, the Virginia Legislative Jail Commission described Virginia’s jail system as “the most peculiar one in the nation.” We agree.

Virginia primarily operates two types of jails — local and regional. While local jails serve the area in which they are based and are managed by locally elected sheriffs, regional jails serve multiple localities. They’re governed by local boards and overseen by a superintendent. The state has little authority over their operations — which might play a significant role in the questionable and peculiar deaths of too many inmates in a number of these facilities.

One of those, Piedmont Regional Jail Authority (PRJ) in Farmville, has a history of failing to provide adequate care for inmates. In 2011, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found deficiencies in the jail’s medical and mental health care that exposed prisoners to a risk of serious harm. The DOJ reached an agreement with the facility in 2013 requiring the jail to employ credentialed medical and mental health personnel and perform timely and appropriate health assessments of prisoners.

And yet, the tragic death of Jason Sisson, 34, at PRJ seems to indicate that agreement has been all but ignored. Sisson was serving nine months on a drug conviction when he was severely beaten by another inmate. He was treated at a hospital and returned to the jail with detailed instructions that included 15-minute checks by officers. The checks were not done although Sisson repeatedly tried to get the attention of jail staff. He suffered severe brain damage that resulted in his death. In a $103 million federal lawsuit filed Monday, Sisson’s mother is alleging that PRJ’s officers and medical staff ignored her son in a time of peril.

Despite PRJ’s history of inadequate care for inmates, its website actually boasts that in “the past two decades, Piedmont Regional Jail Authority has consistently been recognized as one of the best managed facilities in Virginia. Fiscally, Piedmont Regional Jail Authority has been recognized as the Virginia facility with the lowest cost-per-day for inmate incarceration.”

While we certainly don’t condone luxury accommodations for inmates, jail officials are constitutionally and morally required to provide adequate medical and mental health care. Anything less would be a most peculiar jail system indeed.

— Robin Beres

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