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Former Inmates Protest Middle River Jail Conditions, While Board Mulls Expansion

Middle River Regional Jail

The board that oversees the Middle River Regional Jail near Staunton is considering whether to expand the facility, which has become overcrowded in recent years.  But critics say that expanding the jail isn’t the answer. WMRA’s Calvin Pynn reports.

The number of inmates in the Middle River Regional Jail has been more than double its rated capacity every year since 2017, according to the jail’s website. And conditions there have, allegedly, been grim.  

Credit Calvin Pynn
Anna Cubbage talks to the rally about her brief incarceration.

ANNA CUBBAGE: My name is Anna Cubbage, and last year I was briefly incarcerated here at the Middle River Regional Jail.  

Anna Cubbage, from Bridgewater, described her incarceration as one of the worst experiences of her life.    

CUBBAGE: In that time, I witnessed violations of human rights, deliberate indifference by staff towards inmates, and I saw numerous mentally ill members of our community struggle in concrete holding cells that were covered in human excrement – sometimes not even their own, because the cleaning of these cells between inmates is virtually nonexistent.   

Critics say the answer to the overcrowding is not to build a bigger jail, but to not incarcerate so many people in the first place. That was the message that more than 100 people sent as they stood outside the jail Monday night to protest the expansion in a rally arranged by Virginia Organizing.   

[Cars pulling into the Middle River Regional Jail]

CUBBAGE: There are many, many people who do not belong here. Nobody should be punished for being mentally ill, for having a substance abuse disorder, or for being poor. And that’s why we’re here.  

Some, like Cubbage, gave testimonies about their own time at the jail - including Dewan Bellamy, deputy chairman of the Waynesboro chapter of the Black Panther Party, who was incarcerated there from 2014 to 2015.

Credit Calvin Pynn
Dewan Bellamy says he was injured during his months in solitary confinement.

DEWAN BELLAMY: I spent 623 days in solitary confinement. I was beaten, I had my wrist broken, and I was stripped naked for 15 days in a cell where the temperature was below freezing. I’ve seen rotten food, I’ve worked in the kitchen here.

Tracy Stover read a letter her son, Thomas Stover, who was incarcerated at Middle River last year and is awaiting trial in the Rockingham County Jail for probation violations stemming from earlier drug charges.

TRACY STOVER: I can’t help but wonder what the trajectory of my life could have been had I not been in prison for two marijuana plants ten years ago, and had I not been labeled a convict beyond helping.

Credit Calvin Pynn
Tracy Stover related the experience of her son's incarceration.

The rally was held ahead of the jail’s authority board meeting on Wednesday, where they were expected to vote on whether to move forward with the proposed $40 million expansion, but the vote was delayed.

The board’s Chairman, Stephen King, said it’s still too soon to take action.

STEPHEN KING: We have five different jurisdictions, all with different thoughts and ideas. Some of them wanted to get to the jail and look at the facilities before they make a decision.

Some members of Harrisonburg City Council toured the jail this past weekend, and other local leaders will follow in the coming weeks. Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro, and Rockingham and Augusta counties all fund the jail, and at least four of the five jurisdictions must approve the proposal for it to move forward.

Credit Christopher Clymer Kurtz
Stephen King is chairman of the Middle River Regional Jail Authority Board.

KING: So, we're just waiting, giving a little more time for that input so that we can let them all have a chance to provide that input to their various city managers, and county administrators.

Harrisonburg City Council has opposed the project, arguing that the extra funds that would pay for the project would be better invested in the community. According to King, expanding the jail isn’t the board’s ideal solution either.

KING: We don’t want to, there's no desire to do that, but the reality is what's driving what we feel compelled to do at some point. We are all in favor of doing the alternative programs that we can to reduce numbers. But our reality is we're having to deal with.

The board could vote on the project at their June 1 meeting, provided the localities have all the information they need. Some local activists say that even if the board votes against expanding the jail, that won’t address the systemic issues that led to overcrowding in the first place.

Dewan Bellamy, again.

Bellamy: I think that should be our focus whether they expand or not because stopping this expansion isn’t going to stop them bringing it again up five years from now. So, we have to find a way to eliminate the issue completely.

Calvin Pynn is a radio reporter, writer, and photographer based in Harrisonburg, Virginia.