Opinion | Why a NAACP branch asked Justice to investigate Arlington County

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Julius D. “JD” Spain Sr. is president of the NAACP Arlington Branch. Michael Hemminger is the third Vice President of the NAACP Arlington Branch.

In March, the NAACP Arlington Branch made a formal request to the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into Arlington County’s detention facility. The NAACP did not take this action lightly, and it came after a long, sad, and disturbing parade of deaths in our county jail under the supervision of the same sheriff.

In seven years, seven colored men have tragically died while in Arlington County’s custody – and the death rate is accelerating. Seven colored men. Men who should have had decades left to live. Men with loved ones, families, friends, children and grandchildren. Most or all awaited trial (many pleaded not guilty) and all lost their lives in suspicious circumstances. The most recent death occurred on February 1st. A black man who experienced homelessness was arrested in early January for the intrusion and appears to have died due to poor medical care in the jail. He was at least the fourth black man with housing insecurity to die in custody. Despite the NAACP’s diligent and persistent efforts, Arlington officials remain speechless and passive in the wake of these preventable deaths.

The sheriff’s response to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to seek records regarding these deaths was shrouded in secrecy, with whole pages of editorial and aggressive use of exceptions (without explanation) to thwart the public’s legal right to information. The records, however, reveal that the inquests conducted by (or with) the Arlington County Police Department from 2020, 2021 and 2022 somehow remain open. These delays, combined with the equivalent of self-examinations, give us a great break.

Several of the men who died had been arrested and jailed for minor offenses. FOIA records and analyzes show that about half of these men died of inadequate abstinence or rehab procedures. Several appear to have died because prison staff failed to perform basic duties. County authorities have been reluctant or unable to provide the public with any tangible measures for comprehensive change, reform or even introspection.

These deaths raise too many issues that require a federal presence to resolve them. In 2019, Arlington County passed an Equity Resolution stating that a fair Arlington is one where everyone is valued, educated, healthy and safe regardless of race. Unfortunately, many colored people are not included in that mission. Among other inequalities, blacks turn out to be racially profiled, and it appears that a meeting with law enforcement could result in a death sentence in prison.

Society has the right to understand the deaths of those in custody. Is there a pattern or practice of human and civil rights violations in Arlington County Jail? Are these seven deaths the result of negligence, neglect, relentless indifference or deliberate violation of human life and civil rights? Are our most vulnerable residents in storage when they have a critical need for medical and mental health care? Is there a prison culture that dehumanizes inmates and ignores (or even encourages) employee laxity? Does the county overcriminalize minor offenses to ensure that those experiencing homelessness are kept out of sight? Has the sheriff’s medical unit or prison practice injured additional inmates? Does the sheriff fulfill his statutory obligations to protect the health, welfare and safety of the persons in her care? And how can a county that is 9.7 percent black have a prison population that is more than 65 percent black?

Our sheriff, police, and prison staff are officials in this community. They must also be accountable to the same community. The Ministry of Justice has the authority, resources, expertise and impartiality to uncover these answers. The sheriff’s recent call for an “internal audit” or the hiring of an internal staff member to carry out “quality assurance” largely misses the mark and is not the way to a fair, comprehensive and independent inquiry or the necessary reforms. Only justice can answer these questions and begin to restore confidence in a traumatized society.

These seven men were human souls who loved and were loved. Seven years of indifference by the county and the sheriff predict that the death toll and suffering are destined to rise again unless the federal government intervenes.

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