Judge rules Portsmouth must repair and maintain its city jail; HRRJ inmate dispute still pending

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The City of Portsmouth cannot condemn its city jail and must make necessary repairs for safe, operating conditions, a Portsmouth Circuit Court judge ruled on Thursday.

In July, the City of Portsmouth unexpectedly condemned much of its Civic Center complex, including the Portsmouth City Jail. The properties were deemed unsafe for habitation.

July 2019: Inspectors condemn Portsmouth civic center complex, including jail due to ‘conditions unfit for humans’

Sheriff Michael Moore filed an injunction against the city to keep his jail running, and Judge Johnny E Morrison ruled in Moore’s favor on Thursday.

“The judge went with option number one, which is the most sensible option and the best cost-saving option for the citizens of Portsmouth is to simply repair the jail,” said Jon Babineau, attorney for Moore.

However, Portsmouth leaders now have to resolve a dispute with Sheriff Moore about his use of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, or else the two sides will return to court in March.

Portsmouth wants to force Moore to send more than 200 inmates to the HRRJ, as the city is currently paying millions every year for hundreds of empty beds. The current contract between Portsmouth, other member cities and the HRRJ calls for 250 inmates at the regional jail per city.

Moore refuses to send more inmates there for ethical and medical reasons, citing recent deaths and a critical Department of Justice report. He said he’s in charge of the care and safety of all inmates under his watch.

RELATED: Behind the Bars: Inside Hampton Roads Regional Jail

Previous negotiations haven’t helped the situation. Sheriff Moore testified that City Manager Doctor Lydia Pettis-Patton didn’t talk when they met last fall.

“During that hour and a half meeting, Judge, the City Manager did not respond one time,” Moore said. “She did not communicate at all.”

Babineau said Moore would be open to negotiations, but he refuses to send more inmates to the regional jail unless HRRJ agrees to a new plan of action with the DOJ.

“He would love nothing more than to have the matter resolved but we need to have the parties at the table to be able to have an intelligent discussion on a resolution,” Babineau said.

In his ruling, Judge Morrison criticized the city for not trying to change its contract with the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. He said he couldn’t believe the city hadn’t asked to reduce the number of beds they’re paying for at HRRJ. 

Morrison told both sides they have two months to figure it out or he’ll make a ruling in March.

The jail stands in a prime real estate development spot on the Portsmouth waterfront, a longtime goal of the city. That location could play into negotiations moving forward. 

Developer Armada Hoffler pulled out of waterfront development talks last fall. 

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