By Joe Beck
FRONT ROYAL -- Almost two months after it opened, the Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren Regional Jail continues to struggle with the absence of a magistrate onsite to process the arrests and release of inmates.
Interim RSW Superintendent Russell Gilkison said in an interview a resolution to the problem is not in sight. He said local officials are waiting for more cable to be run into the building, a project being overseen by information technology specialists with the Virginia Supreme Court and a contractor hired by the state.
"I don't have a date when it's going to occur," Gilkison said of the cable installation. "All efforts are being put forward by all parties trying to expedite the system as soon as possible. The key player is the Supreme Court and their IT work."
Local law enforcement officials have been frustrated by the absence of a magistrate and a Breathalyzer at the jail. Warren County Sheriff Daniel McEathron made his worries about the magistrate clear in an email sent in early June to Robert Mulligan, who resigned as RSW superintendent at the end of June.
The email was among those obtained by The Northern Virginia Daily under a Freedom of Information Act request. The request covered emails among jail authority board members and jail management between June 1 and the first part of July.
"Robbie, the magistrate's office is of utmost importance," McEathron wrote. "If the office isn't moved in coordination with the transition of the inmates, there will be a huge problem with the continuity of not only arrests on our end but inmate releases on your end causing an extreme transportation issue for your staff if the magistrate is not right there. This should be considered a high priority."
Weeks later, McEathron remaines dissatisfied with the lack of progress in opening the magistrate's office. Police officers and deputies have to make extra stops at magistrate offices in Front Royal and Woodstock before they can take newly arrested detainees to the jail for booking.
The magistrate's job includes reviewing complaints of criminal conduct, making an initial bail decision and issuing arrest warrants.
McEathron said all those tasks must be performed in Woodstock or Front Royal, as they were in the past, before law enforcement officials can transport prisoners to the jail on Winchester Road north of Front Royal.
"It's a safety issue," McEathron said in an interview Friday. "You're handling that prisoner more times than you need to."
McEathron and others have cited the absence of a Breathalyzer at the jail as also contributing to security problems linked to additional handling of prisoners outside the jail.
The emails also referred to several other problems in the days and weeks leading up to the opening of the jail in late June.
Gilkison said the jail has been making progress toward setting up a video conferencing system that will allow courts in Woodstock and Front Royal to conduct some hearings without having to transport prisoners to the courtrooms.
But he acknowledged that hiring for correctional officers and nurses has continued to lag.
An email from Mulligan to McEathron on June 3 describes staffing as "a crisis."
"The RSW will open with roughly 30 percent of staff that are direct supervision trained, sheriff's personnel with minimal classroom training and 40 recruits who will spend their first day out of the academy in an operating facility," Mulligan wrote.
Gilkison said he wouldn't use the word "crisis" to describe the current situation. But he acknowledged that 21 correctional officer positions remain open out of a total 126 sworn officer positions.
Gilkison said several factors have contributed to the hiring backlog, including background checks, scheduling new hires for training at the academy and competition from other jails trying to fill vacancies.
"I think it's a work in progress," Gilkison said of the jail's first weeks of operation. "It's always a work in progress. This is a huge undertaking when you open a facility of this size."
McEathron said he remained disappointed but determined to work through the jail's shortcomings.
"It's obviously not the best situation right now," McEathron said. "Our hopes were the jail, when it opened, would have all the services that it would need to make a smooth transition and make everything relatively simple, just like it was at the local jails."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org