A Chesterfield County judge lambasted Riverside Regional Jail’s top two administrators Tuesday for their treatment of an inmate in need of psychiatric care, suggesting it was symptomatic of the facility’s inadequate mental health services overall.

The treatment of inmate Niesha Smith and the “bunch of lies” Riverside administrators told in court last week about how they handled her case “is a frightening commentary on what’s going on at Riverside” with regards to its mental health services for inmates, Chesterfield General District Judge Pamela O’Berry said in scathing remarks from the bench.

The case involving Smith marks the latest in a string of allegations of mismanagement of inmates at the facility in Prince George County. On Tuesday, O’Berry said she was “not going to let this go away” and essentially put administrators on notice that she will be watching for any other issues that may arise in the next 60 days. She took their cases under advisement, which could result in a contempt of court conviction, until May 17. 

“This is a problem,” O’Berry said. “A big problem. I’m going to watch ... to see what’s going on. I want to see if anything has been learned from” how jail administrators handled the Smith case.

“God only knows what’s happening” with the other Riverside inmates in need of mental health services, the judge added. “And that is sad.”

O’Berry issued a contempt of court summons for interim Superintendent Karen Craig and Maj. Walter Minton, the deputy superintendent, to appear before her Tuesday to explain why they were “not being truthful with the court as it relates to the mental health treatment of inmate Niesha Smith,” according to the summonses served Friday.

Both officials initially were summoned to O’Berry’s court last week to explain their actions regarding the inmate, which the judge found to be inadequate and untruthful. When they returned Tuesday, O’Berry didn’t find their explanations any more satisfying.

“You are incapable of telling the truth,” O’Berry said at one point. She later added: “I am not at all impressed” with your explanation of the jail’s processes in evaluating inmates with mental health issues.

The judge had sought to have the inmate, who exhibited extreme mental health distress, transferred to Central State Hospital and evaluated for a temporary detention order, or TDO, which determines whether a person has the ability to care for their own basic needs and if the person is a danger to themselves or others.

A part-time psychiatrist at the jail conducted an assessment Feb. 16 but found that the inmate didn’t meet the criteria for the detention order, according to testimony Tuesday. Such evaluations normally are performed by crisis mental health professionals with the local community services board.

When O’Berry first summoned the administrators to court March 5, they told her that an evaluation had been performed by the jail’s psychiatrist and, under further questioning by the judge, said a report had been completed. O’Berry told them she wanted to see it.

The administrators had incorrectly assumed that a report had been made, but they moved to have the psychiatrist who evaluated the inmate on Feb. 16 write a letter that was submitted to O’Berry at Tuesday’s hearing, said attorney Ed Riley, who represents Craig and Minton.

In the meantime, the jail had forensic psychologist Evan Nelson assess the inmate’s mental competency, and Nelson determined she was incompetent to stand trial. Based on that report, the judge late last week ordered the inmate transferred to Central State for mental restoration and the jail immediately complied.

The judge accused the administrators of having that evaluation performed only to “cover their butts” after they “walked out of here” last week knowing the court questioned the sincerity of their earlier actions.

O’Berry said this “whole flurry of activity” by jail officials occurred only after she ordered them to court last week to answer for how they handled the inmate’s case.

 

But Riley argued there was no attempt by the administrators to deliberately deceive the court. They answered the judge’s questions with the best information they had at the time, although they may have inadvertently misrepresented what the jail’s Feb. 16 inmate evaluation was for, Riley said.

“There was never an attempt that I could discern to mislead the court in any way,” he said.

Riley also noted to the judge that Craig has been on the job only since mid-January and is serving in an acting role until a permanent replacement can be hired. The former superintendent, Col. Jeffery Newton, retired Nov. 1.

And Minton, who has been with the jail for 25 years, has been on extended family medical leave and returned on Feb. 28 — just a matter of days before O’Berry ordered him and Craig to appear before her for the first time on March 5, Riley told the judge.

“I think the judge’s concern is about the treatment of mental health inmates and she’s taking this opportunity to look further into that,” Riley said. “That’s what’s going to happen, and [Craig and Minton] understand that. They’re going to look at their processes and make sure they’re complying and doing everything they can do to address any mental health needs of the inmates being held there.” 

O’Berry’s criticisms of jail administrators came two months after another Chesterfield jurist, Circuit Judge Lynn S. Brice, convicted the recently retired superintendent of Riverside and a member of his command staff of contempt of court for failing to obey the judge’s order to transfer a severely mentally ill inmate to Central State Hospital.

In comments from the bench, Brice admonished both officials for their “dereliction of duty” to treat inmate Brandi Leah Gonzales “with respect.” She fined both men $100 each. The maximum punishment is 10 days in jail and a $250 fine.

“It was in direct violation of this court’s order and was clearly contemptuous,” said Brice, who added that she was “truly troubled” by the sequence of events that led Gonzales to be held nearly seven weeks beyond the date of the judge’s order. The judge had directed Gonzales to be transferred to Central State based on an expert’s psychological evaluation of the inmate and her distressed mental state.

Riverside attorney William Hefty urged the judge to dismiss the charges because he said neither of the administrators was aware Gonzales had not been transferred until it came to the court’s attention in early December. The mix-up was the responsibility of a new records clerk at the jail.

“Nobody intentionally ignored the order,” Hefty told the judge.

The regional jail that serves Petersburg, Colonial Heights, Hopewell and the counties of Chesterfield, Charles City, Prince George and Surry is facing other problems and has come under increased scrutiny in recent months.

Last week, the jail’s governing body passed a $42.6 million operating budget for fiscal 2020 that will include a projected $2.4 million deficit due largely to a substantial drop in inmate population. The jail’s current budget will end in the red by about $2.2 million for the same reason. The board will have to transfer reserve funds to fill both budget gaps and about 30 jail positions will not be filled.

Riverside receives nearly half its funding, or about $20 million, from the money paid by the seven member localities that house inmates there.

The jail board also learned that an investigation of two inmate deaths at Riverside in 2017 by a Virginia Board of Corrections jail review committee found apparent policy violations. Among the findings: Jail staff members failed to keep close enough watch on an inmate who committed suicide in his cell and an officer assigned to make mandatory twice-per-hour checks on him falsified entries in a jail logbook to reflect his rounds had been completed.

mbowes@timesdispatch.com

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