Hard Time: The Richmond City Jail
These images are from the approximately 2 years reporter Dave Ress and I spent documenting life in the Richmond City Jail for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The project was done in two parts. During the first, we spent nine months looking at living conditions in the jail, working conditions for the deputies, women in jail, the school tier and the issue of recidivism as a societal problem. During the second part, Dave and I went back in to look at the conditions of the mentally ill in the jail.
Working on this project was a fascinating experience. The newspaper had not had access to the city jail for years, so we jumped at the opportunity to do the story.
People often ask me what shooting in the jail was like. As challenging as it proved to be both technically and emotionally, I considered it a privilege. In my opinion, what I witnessed was not something photojournalists get to witness every day in this country. I had almost unlimited access and I was documenting issues that mattered both to me and to the community I live in.
The Richmond City Jail is extremely overcrowded. At the time of the project it housed approximately 1600 inmates in a space built for about half that number. On any given day there would be about 1400 male inmates and 200 females. Approximately 20,000 men and women filter through the jail every year, many being counted multiple times because they return repeatedly. On the men’s side, inmates are housed in general population tiers and singles cells. There are three buildings with three general population tiers each. A tier can house up to 150 men in a space built for 50. This meant that, more often than not, many of the men were sleeping on the floor.
As I worked, I became more and more amazed that people on the outside often had no idea of even where the city jail was located, much less what life inside it was like. Located at less than two miles from downtown, the jail can be seen as a community, a safe haven, a receptacle of all that’s wrong with our society. Or it can be viewed simply as a collection of individuals, each with a story to tell.
The most difficult aspect of this assignment, was never fear for my safety, but the act of listening to grown men and women look me dead in the eye and swear this was their last time in jail, tell me they were way too old to keep up that recidivist pattern, and knowing in my core that the realization of that goal would likely never happen.
The most satisfying part of the project was the reaction from the community after the stories were published. The reactions weren’t all positive, but the overwhelming majority of readers I spoke with said they had no idea what the conditions were like in the jail before reading the series. As a result of the community reaction to the series, plans for a new jail are currently in the works.
For more multimedia from this project visit http://media.gatewayva.com/photos/rtd/20061217/hard_time/hard_home.html