A Chesterfield County judge who excoriated Riverside Regional Jail’s top two administrators in March for their alleged mistreatment of an inmate in need of psychiatric care dismissed contempt charges against the pair Friday, after noting that an independent evaluator says the facility is doing the best it can with its limited resources.
Judge Pamela O’Berry of Chesterfield General District Court also seemed satisfied that the inmate whose mental health treatment she criticized as severely lacking has since received adequate care.
During a hearing March 12, O’Berry had harsh words for Riverside’s then-interim superintendent, Karen Craig, and Maj. Walter Minton, calling their explanation of inmate Niesha Smith’s treatment a “bunch of lies” and suggesting that it was symptomatic of the facility’s inadequate mental health services overall. She issued contempt of court summonses for both and ordered them to appear in court to explain themselves.
The judge continued their cases until Friday, warning that she was not going to let the matter drop and would be watching for any other issues that may arise.
“The court has been keeping an eye on Ms. Smith’s case, [along] with the mental health cases that are going on at Riverside more generally,” the judge told Craig and Minton at the outset of Friday’s hearing.
After the March hearing, O’Berry instructed the court’s mental health clinician to visit Riverside to view its mental health services firsthand and write a report.
The evaluation by Senior Court Clinician Jericia Johnson, which O’Berry said she read several times, apparently made an impression on the judge in terms of how the jail’s mental health unit operates under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Citing the report, O’Berry said from the bench Friday that Riverside’s mental health services are “under-resourced” and actually are “doing some good work” with a limited budget and staff. She greatly softened her stance against the two administrators.
In her report, which was made part of the record, Johnson wrote: “In a perfect world with unlimited resources and money, the jail could become a multifaceted treatment and rehabilitation center. However, it is not a perfect world and the resources are limited and continue to be whittled away. My estimation is that Riverside is doing the best they can within the system they have.”
Further, Johnson said that she was surprised how clean the jail was compared with other jails she visited, and said that the inmates seem to have a relatively good rapport with the staff.
“Even the inmates on the mental health pod, who were in cells with mattresses on the floor for safety precautions, responded favorably to interactions with the mental health staff,” Johnson wrote. “It was evident to me that the mental health staff are invested in the welfare of the inmates but are also frustrated at the lack of resources available to meet the overwhelming needs of the population.”
The jail, Johnson added, holds on average about 1,250 inmates per day. Of those, one-third are identified as having mental health needs. And of that number, about one-third are considered to be suffering from a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.
“There are four mental health staff and five case managers to cover the entire jail population,” wrote Johnson, who added that the jail also has two psychiatrists who work a total of 24 hours a week.
At the conclusion of Friday’s hearing, O’Berry urged Craig and Minton to “impress upon the new staff at Riverside” the importance of caring for inmates with mental health issues in a timely manner.
Craig, who was hired in January to serve as acting superintendent until a permanent replacement was named, stepped down from the post Monday after newly hired Superintendent Carmen I. DeSadier began work. Craig will continue as a consultant to the jail through the end of May.
Minton, who has been with the jail for 25 years, has announced his retirement and will leave in July.
Attorney Ed Riley, who represented both administrators, said jail staff members “are making every effort they can make, to do what they can for mental health patients. But they don’t have enough resources — their budget is a challenge. And that’s what one of the first things jail personnel will tell you.”