There Aren’t Enough Beds in This Virginia Jail for All the Women Caught in Heroin and Human Trafficking Dragnets

Even as the waning of the war on weed makes a small dent in mass incarceration, American cops and prosecutors are rushing to restore jail and prison populations with new nonviolent vice offenders. One chilling case study can be found in Henrico County, Virginia, where the number of female inmates at the county jail has more than doubled in the past year, a leap largely due to prostitution and opioid arrests. The place is so overcrowded that a common room has been converted to an area where 50 or more women sleep on cots or slim mattresses on the floor.

"Our female population skyrocketed," Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade told the Ronoake Times. "We don't have enough space for them."

What's behind this XX-chromosome crime wave? It's not an onslaught of ornery lady crooks; it's an intensifying police crackdown on sex workers and on people with drug dependence issues. Harsh mandatory sentencing policies may also play a role.

Patricia O'Bannon, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, says the problem stems from the Henrico Commonwealth's Attorney's overreliance on jail for people who need mental-health or drug-abuse treatment. But Michael Feinmel, who prosecutes drug- and prostitution-related cases for the county, claims that treatment resources are too scant and jail is the only option—at least it gets people off the streets.

Feinmel's justification implies that cops have no choice but to make all these prostitution and drug arrests—that these people are a nuisance to the public, or have no homes and anywhere else to go, or pose an immediate danger to themselves. But this isn't true.

Henrico County vice cops go out of their way to arrest these women, or at least the ones booked for prostitution. They troll online ads, reach out to sex workers pretending to be customers, and rent rooms at local motels where they can lure these women in order to arrest them. Or they travel to hotel rooms that women have rented and then arrest them for "keeping a bawdy place."

They do this under the guise of fighting "human trafficking," but it's just punishing women who sell sex. The "victims" are arrested and get to sleep on slim mattresses on the cement floor of an overcrowded jail where such basic necessities as toilet paper and menstrual pads are limited.

From 2014 through 2016, Henrico County Jail averaged just 118 to 124 female inmates per day. So far, 2017 has seen more than twice that. The jail's average female population per day this year so far has been 268—in a facility that only has 239 beds dedicated for women. Nearly 70 of of the inmates have been pregnant.

"I think judges used to be more lenient on females than males," the sheriff mused to NBC 12 Richmond, "but I think with more mandatory sentences and things, it's created an increase in [the female] population."

He said that more beds are being ordered (a step that has apparently taken 10 months of overcrowding to trigger). For now, apparently, converting the jail's dayroom into a communal sleeping area must do.

Last year, former FBI director James Comeny visited Henrico County to talk about opioid addiction. "We cannot arrest our way out of this problem," Comey said at the time. Evidently, Henrico County cops disagree.