Gassed, Stripped, & Thrown in the Hole

by | Nov 5, 2020 | POLITICS

RCJC deputies gassed a man and left him naked in a cell for four days — but can anyone hold the Sheriff’s Office accountable?

There is only one Richmond City entity institution that wields a near-absolute power over people’s lives – only one tasked with clothing, feeding, caging, controlling, and providing medical care for hundreds of people, with no effective governmental oversight. This institution, the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office (RCSO), manages a jail that contains some 700 people. Whether through incompetence or by design, its COVID-19 response has been, effectively, to punish the people whose lives the law has placed in its hands. 

Gilberto Dejesus probably knows this better than anyone. After being tear-gassed and maced on Saturday, August 29th, deputies took him to the “drunk-tank,” ordered him to strip, and locked him in a isolation cell with no sleeping mat, running water, sink or toilet – only “a hole in the floor that smelled from past odors of other people” – according to his account. Someone had covered the window in his door with a mat, preventing him from seeing outside. His skin burned from the mace and tear-gas; his penis burned. He pressed the distress button in his cell repeatedly… No one came. 

Dejesus would spend four more days naked in a cell with no amenities and more than a week in isolation total. “They put me in a cell that they knew I was not supposed to be in,” Dejesus told RVA Mag. “I told one of the highest majors, Major Lawson. I been telling Major Aines, Internal Affairs. But nobody’s trying to talk to me, and every time I write a grievance, my grievance is going straight to the people that did it to me.”

Unchecked Power

Amid recent calls to defund the police and legislative efforts to increase police accountability in Virginia, no clear policy demands have materialized to address the lack of oversight on local sheriffs. The pressures and scrutiny brought on by recent COVID-19 outbreaks in jails, however, reveal just how much power we place in the hands of our sheriffs when we elect them every four years. 

Almost every jail in the Richmond area has experienced a significant outbreak since the pandemic began in March. The Chesterfield County Jail reached a 16 percent infection rate in June; 200 people in Henrico Jail tested positive for the coronavirus in July; RCJC and Pamunkey Regional Jail reported over 100 COVID-positive test results in September, and, in August, RVA Mag received unconfirmed reports that an RCJC inmate contracted COVID and died shortly after being released.

Since then, reported infection-rates in RCJC and Pamunkey have decreased dramatically — zero people in RCJC are now COVID-positive, according to an RCJC spokesperson — but incarcerated people and advocates say containing RCJC’s outbreak came with a high cost. Throughout the jail, people have faced lockdowns intended to combat COVID and address chronic understaffing. Many have been confined to small cells, alone or with a cellmate, 23 hours a day for weeks at a time.

These harsh quarantine measures — some of which may meet the UN critiera for torture — fit into a larger pattern. Reports from incarcerated people and advocates suggest the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office (RSCO) has failed to consistently implement low-risk safety procedures, such as releasing pretrial detainees or sanitizing commons spaces multiple times daily. Instead, RSCO has relied on harmful, even life-threatening, measures to reduce COVID’s spread and maintain order inside RCJC.

“They honestly tried to break me”

Gilberto Dejesus had two reasons for refusing to enter his cell on August 28th. First, he was having problems with his cellmate — he worried they would end up fighting — and, second, he had been moved to pod 5G from a COVID-positive pod and believed he was infectious. Rather than comply with deputies’ orders, Dejesus chose to remain outside his cell for 24 hours, preferring to be charged with misconduct. 

On Saturday evening, over a dozen people joined Dejesus in protest. The protesters refused to lock down and asked to speak with the jail’s management. They were concerned that deputies were transferring exposed individuals on to 5G, which was COVID-negative at the time. In response, the jail cut off the water and ventilation and tear-gassed the entire pod — over 50 people, including bystanders with asthma, bronchitis, and other pre-existing conditions — using gas grenades intended for outdoor use only. Some inmates received medical care shortly after the incident and were allowed to shower within 24 hours. For Dejesus, however, the real nightmare was yet to begin. 

“After a while,” said Dejesus, “they came back, cuffed me alone, and dragged me out of my cell. I couldn’t see nothing but only could remember the Captain Richardson telling me I was never going to get out of the hole for this incident. I sat in a room in medical burning for a while … I cried for so long.”

No nurse ever came to help him, Dejesus says. Instead, deputies allowed him to rinse his eyes with a bottle of Dasani water. He told them his penis burned and his hands were “on fire.” After this, he says, six deputies escorted him to a pod known as the ‘drunk tank’ and locked him in an isolation unit with no mattress, toilet, or sink. His face and eyes had started burning again; he begged for a shower. The deputies ignored, he says, his request and left.

It wasn’t until shift change at 7pm on Sunday, Dejesus says, that a deputy named Mutagh finally took him to the nurse. He told her he was “burning, couldn’t breathe, had shortness of breath and chest pains.” According to Dejesus, a deputy named Woods “cussed [Mutagh] out for taking me to shower, showing obvious reasons for me to believe he had orders to punish me excessively.” The following morning the same Deputy Woods denied him food at breakfast, Dejesus says. After that, Dejesus remained in the cell naked without a sleeping mat or other amenities for two more days, until Tuesday evening. When he emerged from solitary days later, he says, he had lost all his possessions and his $300 of commissary funds had mysteriously disappeared.

In the end, Dejesus’ concerns about spreading COVID to 5G seem to have been justified. While he was in the hole, RCJC employees tested him for COVID-19. Though he has since recovered, the results came back positive.

RCJC interior. Photo via CGL Companies

“Either you go in your cell or I’m going to put you in your cell”

Not long after Dejesus was released from solitary, RCJC deputies used chemical agents on inmates yet again. Angelo Long, an inmate on pod 6G, says deputies sprayed mace through the slot of his locked cell before taking him to the hole. Skin burning, he sat in isolation for two days before receiving medical attention or a shower, he says — “Two days with whatever that was sitting on my skin. I had these big black spots on my arm. You got to lick your lip because your lip dry or something, you can taste that spray on your lip.”

The trouble in 6G started around 4pm on September 16th, when deputies initiated an unexpected lockdown. Frustrated by this change, a group of inmates refused to enter their cells until jail staff provided an explanation for the order, according to a petition signed by six incarcerated people present. “Me personally, I got an open case right now,” said Emanual Crawford, one of the signatories. “I’m still fighting. Do you think I was able to reach out to my lawyer? No. Then you got some people who’s trying to bond out. Can you bond out? No. Give me a reason so I can understand what’s going on. Show me the routines so I can get on track and know how to call my peoples or call my fam.”

Instead of explaining the order, Crawford said, jail higher-ups sent in dozens of deputies in riot gear, some equipped with glass shields, mace canisters, or bean-bag guns. “Either you go in your cell or I’m going to put you in your cell,” he recalled Major Hunt, a high-ranking RCJC official, telling the inmates. According to Crawford, the pod did not learn the reason for the lockdown — to increase social distancing — until days later. 

Faced with RCJC’s show of force, Crawford and others began returning to their cells. But this didn’t save them from the pepper spray fumes which, Crawford says, spread quickly through the pod. (“Everybody coughing. You could hear coughs come from damn near like twenty cells.”) The water had been turned off in the pod, according to Crawford, so he was unable to drink water or wash his eyes out. Half the people who requested medical attention were seen shortly after the incident, according to Crawford. The other half, Crawford included, never received care.

“I was sick for a month and I didn’t get nothing for nothing,”

Angelo Long, the man put in solitary after the macing, says he was targeted by officers for criticizing the jail’s COVID-19 response. 

Back in July, Long says, he contracted coronavirus while cleaning COVID-positive pods without proper protective equipment: “This ain’t one of them COVID-positive pods, is it?” he recalled asking a deputy jokingly. “The sergeant looked at me and was like, ‘Yes, it actually is.’ I said, ‘Whoa, why the hell you bring us to clean these COVID-positive pods? We don’t have no biohazards suits, no nothing. Why they ain’t call somebody professional from the outside?’ ”

Three days after cleaning that first pod, Long started feeling sick. “All my food, like a honey bun or something, it’d smell like ammonia or bleach,” he said. “I just knew something weren’t right. Sometimes I go and I spit out blood.” Severe headaches, diarrhea, and cold-like symptoms shortly followed. According to Long, he cleaned at least four more pods before being diagnosed with COVID. His janitorial work, he believes, helped spread COVID-19 throughout the jail. “I was sick for a month and I didn’t get nothing for nothing,” Long said. “I got a Tylenol probably like a month later for my back pain that was I was still having.”

During the confrontation on September 16th, as he walked back to his cell, Long criticized the deputies for their irresponsibility. “You put me and a couple more people on those COVID-positive pods, and we cleaned those pods and brought that shit back and got everybody else sick,” he recalls telling them. 

After this exchange, he locked down in his cell. Five or ten minutes later, two deputies came to his cell to take him to “the hole.” While one deputy was speaking to him, the other sprayed a chemical agent, likely mace, through his cell’s tray slot, he says. “Immediately I started coughing. My eyes got real teary, I couldn’t breathe anymore, I had to get up out that room,” Long said. “My chest started hurting like hell. It burnt my skin.” Afterwards, Long says, even the first deputy objected, telling his co-worker that the macing had been “unnecessary.”

With the mace still burning his skin, Long was placed in solitary confinement. Two days went by before he got a shower; he spent a week in isolation but was never charged with any misconduct. Long, who has spent over year in pre-trial detention for a non-violent felony charge, says he feels his actions have turned him into target inside RCJC. “I guess because I’m always speaking up for the whole pod, or I stand up against them -– not even in a violent way, just speaking my mind -– it’s like I’m a threat,” said Long. “Seems like every time they come down on me now, they always come down on me to hurt me, man.”

“All I want now is accountability”

After being released from solitary, Gilberto Dejesus filed a grievance form. It cited the RCJC handbook’s “Conditions and Limitations on Punishment” and described how deputies denied him medical care and locked him naked in a cell for days. When he received a response to the grievance some days later, it came from the very same deputy who dragged him to the ‘drunk tank’ in the first place: Captain Richardson. In his reply, Richardson accused Dejesus of inciting a riot, refusing to lock in, refusing to stand down, and “threatening to go to the Sheriff’s home and harm her.” 

Otherwise, Dejesus says, his complaints have largely been ignored. 

Gilberto Dejesus’ mother, Claudette Archer, used to work in corrections at a juvenile facility. After her experience as a corrections officer, she said, she is not surprised by anything that happens in the system. “At the end of the day, they’re going to stick together. They’re going to cover their tracks,” she said. Still, Archer can also see things from the law enforcement perspective: “You have all these riots going on around the city, protesting and everything, and they’re tired,” she said. “But then you have some that’s just point-blank nasty and rude, and they enjoy mistreating the inmates. Some people just enjoy being brutal.”

All Dejesus wants now, he says, is accountability for the brutal treatment he endured. “I’m getting held accountable for what I’m doing, but are you?” said Dejesus, who is incarcerated for failing a drug test in violation of his parole. “I keep coming down here for minor mistakes, as far as my addiction. I don’t ever get no break, just because I’m a young black man with tattoos.”

According to Archer, trouble and racial profiling have plagued Dejesus ever since he was a boy, when officers classified his group of friends as a gang. “Chino has always looked out for people,” Archer said, using his nickname. “But I guess the officers see it as something different. They feel that he’s starting trouble. At the end of the day? You have to stand for something, or you’re gonna fall for anything.”

Top Photo via CGL Companies

Henry Clayton Wickham

Henry Clayton Wickham

Henry Clayton Wickham is a Richmond native and graduate of the Zell Writers Program. He is a recipient of a Hopwood Graduate Short Fiction Award and the Andrea Beauchamp Prize; he recently completed a Nicholas Delbanco Residency through the Fine Arts Work Center. He teaches writing at The University of Michigan.

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