The Richmond City Jail’s COVID-19 Response? “Torture.”

by | Sep 22, 2020 | RICHMOND POLITICS

People incarcerated at Richmond City Justice Center say a recent tear-gassing by law enforcement endangered their lives.

On August 29th, Tobias Hill was sitting in his cell at the Richmond City Justice Center (RCJC) when the gas began to creep beneath the door. He didn’t know what was happening outside, but as the tear gas burned his eyes and burrowed into his lungs, he did reach one conclusion. He was going to die.

“I’m screaming, ‘Help! I’m ready to pass out, I’m ready to die! Can you please help?'” said Hill, who has multiple pre-existing conditions and mild claustrophobia. “Three of the deputies look at me and just kept walking. I tell them I have asthma, I can’t breathe, I have bronchitis. They just kept going. Didn’t pay me no attention.”

Hill is one of about fifty people who sheriff’s deputies gassed with weapons intended for outdoor use, after cutting off his ventilation and water. Accounts from eyewitnesses suggest the gassing was an act of excessive and unprovoked aggression, one designed to inflict maximum physical and emotional harm on Pod 5G’s inmate population, many of whom were trapped inside their cells.

“I think the guards feel like, because we in cells that mimic a cage, we supposed to be animals or something,” said Theron Moseley, who authored a petition and letter on behalf his fellow inmates in 5G. “We not. We human just like them. We got nieces, we got nephews, we got kids, we got mothers. We human.”

According to Hill, the gassing was the worst thing that has ever happened to him in his life. “I was stuck in this little-ass cell not knowing what the fuck was going on,” he said. “I’m traumatized, to be honest with you. I thought I was going to die.”

After a moment, he reconsiders: “I knew I was going to die.”

The first page of 5G’s petition, titled “Incarcerated Lives Matter!”

“Legitimate questions”

The conflict that would leave Tobias Hill locked in his cell, screaming for his life, began with a level-headed conversation, says Moseley. At around seven that evening, he and about ten others were asking about the coronavirus protocols at RCJC, where over 100 people (13.5 percent of the jail’s population) have recently tested positive for COVD-19.

The group had two primary concerns. First, they were upset about the handling of recent fever on the pod — the individual with the fever had been moved to quarantine, but his cellmate continued living among the general population, according to Moseley. And, second, they did not understand why people from pods with COVID cases were being transferred to their pod, 5G, which had zero reported cases. Such transfers had occurred multiple times in recent weeks, and at least one of the individuals transferred tested positive for COVID-19 ten days beforehand. He did not test negative until after his arrival in 5G, an anonymous source confirmed.

According to Moseley’s letter, in the lead-up to the gassing, protesters informed Sergeant Brown and Lt. Branch that they would lockdown “as soon as the administration start following proper quarantine protocols” by removing individuals coming from pods already exposed to COVID-19. When Branch and Brown were unable to address these concerns, the group demanded to speak with their superior, Major Hunt. Hunt did come to the pod, but he refused to discuss the jail’s COVID-19 protocols; instead, he ordered the protesters to lockdown in their cells and left. A little while later, a deputy came on the intercom and ordered people to stand by their cells. Everyone complied, according to Moseley.

Then the ventilation cut off.

“Man, we’re going to have to take this now because they don’t want to answer our questions, legitimate questions,” Moseley described thinking as they waited.

A slot beside the door to the sally port opened. A tear-gas grenade flew into the pod, spraying smoke. It was quickly followed by two more, according to Moseley; then Sheriff’s deputies in riot gear entered, and soon it was almost impossible to see.

“The entire pod was smoked out,” Moseley said. “It went from a casual conversation, us asking questions, to all chaos.”

RCJC interior. Photo via CGL Companies

“There was no reason for all that they did”

While Hill banged against the door of his cell, screaming for help, Moseley and the other protesters attempted to comply with the deputies’ orders and enter their cells. (“I’m standing in front of my cell, waving my hands with a couple of other guys that weren’t even protesting,” said Moseley.) When the door did not open, he ran to the second floor of the pod, searching for an open cell where he could evade the gas. Soon after, he found himself crammed into cell #26 with at least five other people. (One of the men in the cell had severe asthma and later went to medical to use an oxygen mask, multiple sources confirm.)

Once in the cell, the men found the water had been shut off. According to Moseley, he and others had to dip their t-shirts in the toilet in order to soothe their stinging eyes, and one person drank water out of the toilet to clear his airways. As if this weren’t enough, a deputy outside also sprayed mace beneath the door, according to both Moseley and Travis Brown, the man assigned to the cell.

“There was definitely no reason for them to come and shoot more gas in there or none of that,” said Brown, who was outside cleaning the pod during the conversation that led up to the gassing. “It wasn’t even no threat inside the jail. Usually when you use tear gas and mace, it’s a problem with a riot. There was no reason for all that they did.”

In the midst of the chaos, Moseley and Travis Brown attempted to leave cell #26. On stepping outside, however, they were greeted with a face full of pepper spray by Lieutenant Brown and Sergeant Branch, despite Travis Brown’s attempts to de-escalate the situation.

“As soon as I came out the cell, I tried to go down on my knees like you usually do in any situation in prison to let them know you’ve basically given up or let them know y’all got the authority,” he said. “I tried to go down on one knee but they still maced me anyway.”

“We had to sleep in tear gas and pepper spray”

What angers Tobias Hill even more than the gassing itself, he said, was the way staff abandoned inmates in its aftermath, leaving people gasping and burning in their cells for at least fifteen minutes. (“They literally left us,” he said. “Couldn’t see no one in sight.”) Once staff did return, Hill said the two guards walked right past him, ignoring his cries for help.

After a while, the guards let people access an open-air rec area in order to air out the pod. Though people were given clean sheets to sleep on that night, according to Moseley, they were not allowed to clean the vomit from their cells or take showers for 24 hours afterward. Hill said his wait to shower was even longer — three days — and that his skinned burned the entire time.

“Basically,” he said, “we had to sleep in tear gas and pepper spray.”

Label of the tear-gas grenade model used in the gassing. It was found on the ground afterward and provided by an anonymous source.

After the gassing, someone in 5G found a sticker on the floor with the name of the grenade used. According to a description provided by a retailer, the weapon used — a 5231 Triple Phaser CS Smoke Grenade — is “specifically for outdoor use.”

As many experts have pointed out in the wake of Black Lives Matter uprisings, tear gas is far more dangerous than most law enforcement agencies let on. Even when used outside at protests, chemical agents can have long-term health consequences for anyone in the vicinity, including individuals in nearby houses. In addition, deploying corrosive, inhalable chemicals can raise the risk of coronavirus spread, compromise the body’s resistance to infection, and increase the severity of mild infections. Even outdoors, tear gas and COVID are “a recipe for disaster,” medical researcher Sven Eric Jordt told NPR.

A punitive approach to quarantine

The gassing and medical neglect that Hill, Moseley, Brown, and others experienced are not isolated problems. They are consistent with numerous reports of disorganization, repression, and medical irresponsibility that incarcerated people, activists, and local lawyers have described taking place inside the jail in recent months. Before the outbreak, according to Yohance Whitaker, an organizer with Legal Aid Justice Center, the jail’s COVID-19 protocols were “almost nonexistent.” Now, RCJC’s primary strategy for containing the virus is to put infected or exposed individuals into solitary confinement, often for twenty-three or even twenty-four hours a day. “Just being in isolation is a horrible experience,” Whitaker said. “It’s taxing psychologically and emotionally and physically.”

Those who resist such measures have been subdued by force on multiple occasions. Most recently, on Pod 6G, people were pepper-sprayed for refusing to enter lockdown. The details of the macing incident, according to Julea Seliaviski of RVA26 — an activist in close communication with an eyewitness — are disturbingly similar to the gassing of 5g.

At around 4pm on September 16th, according to Seliaviski, a group of people on 6G refused to enter their cells because they wanted a superior officer to come answer questions about new lockdown procedures, which allowed people to leave their cells for only half the day. Rather than address protesters’ concerns, a team of officers in riot gear entered and sprayed mace from the second story balcony, spreading chemical agents throughout the pod. As in 5G, the water was cut off, according to Seliaviski. People could not wash the pepper spray off their skin until the water was turned on again, at around 10am the following morning.

When asked about recent uses of chemical agents, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, Stacey Bagby, told RVA Mag, “It is the policy of the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office to use the methods warranted for gaining compliance of resistant or aggressive inmates, especially during incidents when other inmates and/or staff may be at risk.”

Someone incarcerated in another pod in RCJC, who wished to remain anonymous, informed RVA Mag that the sheriff has implemented the same lockdown procedures used in 6G — half the pod out in the morning, half out in the afternoon. Initially, according to the source, the deputies told people the reduced mobility was a health precaution implemented because of an infection on the pod. Even after the infected individual was quarantined and the entire pod tested negative, however, the half-day lockdown was put back in place — this time for “security reasons,” the source was told by a guard.

“When we go in there at four today, we won’t be back out till four tomorrow,” said the source. “So that’s twenty-four hours straight that we haven’t talked to our families. And there’s a pandemic in the world right now.”

RVA Mag has also received unconfirmed reports that a man recently contracted COVID in RCJC and died. An anonymous source close to the matter said the deceased was about sixty, had pre-existing health conditions, and was a “poster kid” for COVID susceptibility. Though the individual was having difficulty with breathing and speaking, jail officers refused his lawyer’s complaints, according to the source, and later died in a hospital. On August 31st, Sheriff Irving told WTVR CBS 6 news that no one had died from COVID in the jail or while in RCJC custody, leaving open the possibility that someone may have died shortly after being released. According to the anonymous source, the deceased was a pre-trial detainee. This means, if these unconfirmed reports are true, he died without ever getting his day in court.

A spokesperson for the Richmond City Health District said the RCHD is not able to comment about reports of a recent death for confidentiality reasons.

Cameron Fobbs, one of the petition signatories, participating in BLM protest.

Seeking justice for “the voiceless”

A common theme among the people interviewed from 5g was sense of outrage and surprise at the degree of force levelled against them. Moseley, Fobbs, Brown, and Hill all insist the protesters did nothing to instigate violence. “We talk about our situation,” Moseley said, describing his pod’s relationship with RCJC deputies. “We don’t fight each other. We not doing all that. So I’m trying to figure out: If we give all that respect, why can’t we get at least some respect back?”

Rather than suppress resistance, the jail’s unwarranted aggression may have galvanized it. Moseley, Hill, Brown, and 32 others have all signed a petition accusing RCJC of excessive force and requesting legal representation in a lawsuit against the jail. The petition is entitled “Incarcerated Lives Matter!” and the letter, which describes the gassing as “torture,” is signed: “Theron T. Moseley and the Voiceless.”

“To say that the pain we all felt was excruciating will be an understatement,” the letter says. “The feeling of being helpless and not being able to control your breathing is terrifying. That pain was so unbearable at times that I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

During part of the gassing Cameron Fobbs — one of the petition’s signatories — was on a call with his partner, who preferred to remain unnamed in the article. After the phone cut off, she didn’t hear back from him for 24 hours, and was left to imagine the worst. “It was infuriating because the jail kept acting like nothing happened, so then you’re not even given true information on the well-being of someone you love,” she said in a text. Fobbs was arrested and incarcerated in late July while protesting at Marcus David-Peters Circle; he was on probation for a prior offense at the time. 

“His mistakes do not deserve the risk of catching a deadly disease by force,” said Fobbs’ partner. “All anyone is asking for is that human lives be valued.”

When asked to comment for this article, the Mayor’s Office referred RVA Mag to the Sheriff’s Office.

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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