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Stepping down after 16 years, Alexandria sheriff laments mental health crisis in jails

Dana Lawhorne and other law enforcement responders pray for the victims during a reopening ceremony for the field where the congressional shooting occurred on June 20, 2017, in Alexandria, Va. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Dana Lawhorne remembers the bad police officers — the ones who wouldn’t even come into his family’s house when he called as a child. But he also remembers the one who would take his mother upstairs and try to persuade her to get help for alcoholism.

“It was hope, he brought us hope,” Lawhorne said. “And I felt like, during my career, I always wanted to make people feel like there was some hope in what I could do for them.”

He became a police officer at 21, without having gone to college — and after 27 years became the sheriff in Alexandria, where he brought to the city jail a passion for programs in sobriety and education. (He earned his own degree from Northern Virginia Community College at age 55).

He also promised to diversify the institution and is proud to note that as of April 2021, only 35 percent of his supervisory command staff are White men; when he took office in 2006 it was nearly twice that.

But, as Lawhorne retires from his 16-year run as the sheriff in the Northern Virginia city, he said all those efforts are hamstrung by a lack of resources for people leaving the high-profile jail, in particular for those with serious mental health issues.

“We do the best we can with what we have here. But this is a state and national crisis, in my opinion, that needs more attention from our state and national leaders,” the 64-year-old said. “I would ask our incoming governor to fully fund the needs of our state mental health system.”

An inmate died by suicide in the jail earlier this year, after a federal facility for inmates with psychiatric problems refused to keep caring for him.

“It’s one of the hardest things as a sheriff you’ll ever experience,” Lawhorne said in reflecting on his retirement in December. “It is the thing that keeps a sheriff up at night.”

Locally, he said, people leaving the jail need better housing and employment opportunities. While he created a reentry position to help people with that transition, it only helps with basic short-term needs — not long-term support.

The Alexandria jail holds both city and federal inmates — meaning on any given day there might be people accused of terrorism, espionage or drunken driving in the cells. One night in the spring of 2019, he was watching MSNBC when a tweet flashed across the screen: “Raise your hand if you thought that the Alexandria jail would hold Maria Butina, Paul Manafort and Chelsea Manning,” — the Russian foreign agent, the one-time chairman of former president Donald Trump’s campaign, and the Army leaker of classified documents — “all at the same time.”

Lawhorne didn’t raise his.

Attorneys who worked with inmates in Alexandria say Lawhorne handled those challenges adroitly.

“Of all the jails I’ve visited, Alexandria goes out of its way to make it practical for lawyers and clients to meet,” said Ed MacMahon, who represented 9/11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Chinese spy Jerry Lee, who were both held in Alexandria. Moussaoui, he recalled, “had his own complete pod” where his lawyers could visit, “which was very unusual.” When the al-Qaeda member decided to represent himself, the jail made room for him to keep all the documents he needed.

U.S. District Judge Michael S. Nachmanoff was the federal public defender when Lawhorne took over as sheriff, and then a magistrate judge presiding over cases involving jail inmates.

“There are few sheriffs in this country who have run a jail as efficiently and as humanely as Dana has for the past 15 years,” he said. When the covid crisis hit, Nachmanoff said, he talked to other judges across the country whose courts effectively shut down because of jail outbreaks and inability to transport prisoners. Alexandria quickly set up virtual access to federal court and went several months without an outbreak.

“The way he met the challenge of covid sets him apart from almost any other jail in the country,” Nachmanoff said. “And that’s due to how competent Dana and his staff were during a time of tremendous stress.”

Now Lawhorne is planning to leverage his connections and knowledge of the city to help local businesses struggling in the pandemic.

He said he will also lobby for higher pay for Alexandria’s first responders, an ongoing fight in the city.

“The public wants them to have a four-year degree in criminology, sociology and psychology — we want them to have 12 years of college degrees, and yet we want to pay them below the market,” Lawhorne said. “Stop trying to fool people by claiming we want the best but not pay for them.”

In the sheriff’s office, Lawhorne was replaced by Sean Casey, another APD veteran. He takes over as sheriff as the omicron wave sweeps through the region and the jail.

Casey said he only thought to pursue the job because of Lawhorne. They had met through family when Casey was still hoping to be an Alexandria police officer. Lawhorne, he said, encouraged his career the whole way. At Lawhorne’s suggestion, he moved over to the sheriff’s department in 2017.

“What he’s taught me and he’s shown me is his compassion — compassion for the staff, compassion for our inmates, compassion for the community,” Casey said. “You might not be able to solve everyone’s problems, but you’re always willing to try, willing to listen, and do whatever you can to try to help.”