Sheriff candidates call for more screening and 24/7 in-house medical care at county jail

(Updated at 5:55 p.m.) All three candidates looking to replace Sheriff Beth Arthur, who retired at the end of last year, say they have ideas for changing how the jail is run.

They each say their ideas could help save the lives of those detained in jail, which is overseen by the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office.

In the last seven years, seven men have died while in jail, six of whom were Black, which led the Arlington branch of the NAACP to begin pushing for greater transparency from the office as well as changes to jail operations.

In most cases, the cause of death was ruled to be a “natural cause” — such as heart disease caused by high blood pressure — although opiate withdrawal was a complicating factor in one such case. One man died because of a mix of drugs in his system and another died by suicide.

“I’m concerned because the status quo is not working,” candidate Wanda Younger, who recently retired from the Sheriff’s Office after 31 years of service, said when she announced her campaign to the Arlington County Democratic Committee last week. “I will work with the County Board and state legislators to ensure there is 24-hour mental health and medical care for those detained.”

She later told ARLnow that outcomes would improve at the jail with this 24/7 supervision, as well as new leadership and more deputies on staff. The Sheriff’s Office, like the Arlington County Police Department, has been experiencing attrition that has made it harder for the department to perform basic duties, she says.

“I am committed to changing the lives of the staff, changing the lives of the detainees and changing your lives,” she said in her speech.

Jose Quiroz, who took over as the interim Sheriff yesterday (Monday) after Beth Arthur retired, says he wants to implement biometric screening — something the Sheriff’s Office has been discussing but has yet to purchase.

Inmates in the jail’s infirmary, which consists of 12 beds, would wear devices to monitor their vital signs , notifying staff of a medical emergency such as a substance use withdrawal. Depending on funding, he says, he would eventually like all inmates to wear such devices.

“We’re in 2023, technology is advanced — let’s use that to our advantage,” he tells ARLnow, adding that jails in some less urban, less wealthy jurisdictions from Alabama to Montana are already using this technology.

James Herring, a police officer with Arlington County, says the county should bring medical care in house. He suggested staffing the jail with psychiatrists and therapists who report to the county as well.

“We need to shift from a system that only treats people when something goes wrong to a system that” identifies problems before they arise, he said, adding that the jail should conduct baseline physicals and mental health checks, Herring told us after announcing his candidacy last week.

That may be more expensive, but it would give the Sheriff’s Office “full control and full knowledge” over what’s going on.

“Ms. Arthur started as a budget analyst,” he said. “We got what you’d expect to get when a budget analyst takes over.”

Quiroz says medical care has been outsourced for as long as he has been with the department, more than 20 years. He is also interested in exploring the possibility of the county assuming control of medical care, saying that is how Fairfax County does it.

ACSO ditched its former contracted medical care provider, Corizon, in response to the growing number of deaths in the jail. A Corizon nurse was charged with, but found not guilty of, falsifying medical records in connection with the death of inmate Darryl Becton. One inmate has died since the new provider, Mediko, took over.

Last summer, the jail added urine screenings to check for substance use, Quiroz said. Before that, detainees were asked questions about what they may have consumed before being incarcerated, which didn’t always paint a full picture, especially when users may not know their drugs are laced with fentanyl.

The jail has taken some other corrective steps to improve its treatment of inmates, including assigning two staff members to ensuring Mediko is following the provisions of the contract — such as having enough nurses on staff or distributing medicine at the appropriate frequency — as well as updating health check protocols.

These actions led Virginia’s Jail Review Committee, part of the Board of Local and Regional Jails, to conclude that “no further measures are necessary” and close its investigation into the Arlington jail last month. Its investigation found evidence suggesting the jail had broken state regulations in Becton’s death, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In addition to overseeing the jail, the Sheriff’s Office provides oversees courtroom security, transports inmates to court, state facilities and appointments, serves court-issued summonses, collects delinquent taxes and helps with traffic enforcement, per the county website.