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Eight people have died in the Arlington jail in eight years. Five were homeless.

Jail entrance at the Arlington County Detention Facility (file photo)

Of the eight people who have died in the Arlington County jail in eight years, five appear to have been homeless, according to court records. 

Most recently, Abonesh Woldegeorges, a 73-year-old Black woman with no fixed address, died in the detention center on Sunday morning.

She was found at Dulles International Airport four times between 2019 and 2023 and then, this month, at Reagan National Airport, where she was arrested by airport police and sent to Arlington’s jail, the Washington Post reported. Although eventually granted bond, Woldegeorges remained in jail so she could be taken to Loudoun County for a hearing related to her Dulles charges.

Her case is not unique. Her death, however, returns the jail to the spotlight after previous inmate deaths generated a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit and a civil rights investigation by the Dept. of Justice, as well as a slate of changes by the Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the lockup.

Over the past year and a half it changed medical providers, purchased biometric sensors for select inmates and made other protocol changes. All of this occurred amid changing leadership: Beth Arthur retired before the end of her term and appointed as interim sheriff her Chief Deputy, Jose Quiroz.

Quiroz campaigned on improving inmate well-being and, after winning the Democratic primary, is the sole candidate for Sheriff on the November ballot. 

“Clearly, changing to a new medical contractor didn’t change anything,” says Michael Hemminger, president of the Arlington NAACP branch, which requested the federal inquiry he says is ongoing. “What level of care do these human beings deserve? Is it okay to continue outsourcing to a for-profit provider?”  

A holding place for people without homes and with mental disorders

Court records indicate three other deceased inmates, dating back to 2015, had no address listed or their housing situation was fluid, with an address that varied by the year of their offense. A fourth the Washington Post reported was homeless and suffering from alcoholism.

Of this group, Paul Thompson (died 2022), Clyde Spencer (died 2021) and Edward Straughn (died 2015) were in jail on trespassing or public intoxication charges. Anthony Gordon (died 2015) had been convicted of assault and battery of a family member and was sentenced to five years.

The remaining inmates who have died were listed as D.C. or Maryland residents. This includes D.C. resident Darryl Becton, whose family sued Arlington County for wrongful death for $10 million and were awarded $1.3 million about three weeks ago, according to Hemminger. 

That a majority of deceased inmates did not have stable housing comes as no surprise to Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood. He says the vast majority of inmates are indigent and his office has about a dozen clients right now with airport trespassing charges, specifically. 

“People who have homes to go to never have to trespass. People who have money almost never steal. People who are urinating in public — everyone I know would rather have a place to go inside,” he said. 

He added that more than half of jail inmates are also taking mental health medication. Statistics from the 2023 fiscal year indicate that psychotropic drugs were prescribed 1,582 times across 2,764 total commitments at Arlington’s jail. Other signs of elevated mental health issues inside the jail include the 1,102 inmates assigned a mental health alert.  

Jail statistics for the 2023 fiscal year (via Arlington County)

That the jail has a large population of unhoused inmates with mental health disorders is both a funding issue and the result of a disconnect among the people and agencies reporting and arresting people for trespassing, he said.  

“People don’t think about the social conditions that lead to this,” Haywood said. “It’s just a combination of a lot of issues that no one really wants to confront because they’re complicated and require a lot of resources.” 

Pressure for more follow-through

Democratic Arlington County Board candidate Susan Cunningham and Hemminger are pushing for more follow-through on commitments the Sheriff’s Office and County Board made after previous deaths.

In a statement released today, Cunningham noted that after the 2022 death of Thompson, the Sheriff’s Office had said it would be purchasing medical devices to monitor inmate health.

“Were these precautions in use? Did they effectively ensure timely emergency aid? If not, why not?” she asked. 

ARLnow asked the Sheriff’s Office on Sunday if Woldegeorges was wearing a sensor. She was not, according to ACSO spokeswoman Amy Meehan, as their use is currently limited to those in the jail’s medical unit, and Woldegeorges was not being held there.

“Once we evaluate how the Custody Protect biometric sensors work with the inmates in the medical unit, we will look into whether we expand the program,” she said. 

ARLnow also asked if there are protocols specific to older inmates, such as 73-year-0ld Woldegeorges. Meehan said the jail’s medical team evaluates each inmate to determine who needs critical care and additional supervision, based on factors such as underlying health conditions, mental health and substance use.

To further improve the health of inmates, Cunningham suggested the Board hold a public work session to ask Acting Sheriff Jose Quiroz what steps have been taken and will be taken to improve health care at the jail and give the NAACP and other community stakeholders the change to speak. 

She also said the Board should direct County Manager Mark Schwartz to “review the extent and result of medical, behavioral health and rehousing support provided, or not, to Ms. Woldegeorges by Arlington and other regional jurisdictions, to identify gaps and better serve every community member’s needs.” 

Hemminger, meanwhile, said it is time to follow-up on a commitment Arlington County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti made after Thompson’s passing to avoid preventable deaths going forward.

ARLnow asked the County Board if there was an appetite among members for finding alternatives to incarcerating homeless people for charges that stem from a lack of stable housing.

“While the full circumstances of the death of Abonesh Woldegeorges are not yet known, the Arlington County Board remains committed to building a community where being indigent, unhoused, or debilitated by mental illness is met with appropriate and therapeutic interventions and not incarceration,” Board Chair Christian Dorsey said in response.

“We will pursue all systemic improvements necessary to build such a community,” he continued. 

What the jail does for homeless inmates 

With details in the Woldegeorges case tied up in an investigation, ARLnow asked the Sheriff’s Office what support the jail provides, generally, to homeless inmates.

Meehan said all inmates receive re-entry planning support from case workers within three months of their release. 

Last week, the jail held a re-entry fair last week to male and female inmates and for family and friends of those in the detention facility “to make sure they are aware of everything that is out there for them to have a second chance and get back on their feet.”

The Sheriff’s Office sits on a local reentry committee that oversees the continuum of services that can help people reintegrate. Other members include the Office of the Public Defender and community organizations such as Offender Aid & Restoration, which helps ex-offenders get back on their feet, and the homeless shelter PathForward (formerly A-SPAN).

“We have several partnerships with nonprofit organizations who assist with homelessness such as Bridges to Independence; New Hope Housing; Doorways; Arlington Thrive, AHC, Inc.; etc.,” Meehan said.

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