Antonio Hash on deputy mental health, suicides in the jail, and his vision as Roanoke's next sheriff

This week, we sit down with Antonio Hash, a 13-year veteran of the Roanoke City Sheriff's Office who is running to become the city's next sheriff.

In advance of the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 2, The Roanoke Rambler is publishing interviews with local candidates, including for uncontested races, to give voters insights into who their elected officials will be. These interviews are accessible to non-subscribers to promote civic engagement to the widest possible audience.

This week, we sit down with Antonio Hash, a 13-year veteran of the Roanoke City Sheriff's Office. Hash, 42, is running as a Democrat to become the city's next sheriff. The race is uncontested.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

What are the duties of the city sheriff's office and of the sheriff?

For the sheriff’s office, we cover the court, we cover the jail, and we serve papers civilly from other agencies or jurisdictions in Virginia. They have to be served those papers, or papers to have people come to court for various reasons, and just to make people aware of their court dates. So that's primarily our job. We do cover school resource officers for our schools. We do transportation.

You are currently a school resource officer?

Right now, I'm a school resource officer. The whole pandemic has pushed us into a position to where a lot of people, especially from a law enforcement side, are choosing other career paths. So it has caused setback when it comes down to law enforcement because we don't have the people employed to be able to continue to hold up our end of the bargain when it comes down to the schools. And so I am out here on the [campaign] trail like, ‘Hey, we are hiring.’ You know, the sheriff's office needs people, the police department needs people. I enjoy working with our kids from our community. It just gives you a sense of gratitude that you pour back into somebody else's kid, and seeing something good in them so they can move on with their life and be able to become a productive citizen like we are.

And what school do you cover?

Currently I’m at Hurt Park Elementary School, I’m at Roanoke Academy [for Math and Science] elementary school, I am at Fairview [Elementary School]. And I am at [Lucy] Addison Middle School. So, we short. When it comes down to our schools, we are out here, we are trying to engage our students with the help that we do have. So, we trying to make the best out of it.

Why do you want to be sheriff?

For years, I've sat back and I’ve watched the growth of our department. And we have had some great leaders. But there's things that need to be changed. And a lot of times, people won't allow change, because they're in a position to where they’re scared of what people may think. And even though I care about people's opinion, but when change needs to happen, the only way you're going to be able to get there is to make the change, or to implement it and allow change to happen. If it doesn't work, don't be afraid to say, It didn’t work, and then go back to fix it, or go back to something else that was working. But if you never implement the change, you'll never know what's going to work. So over the years I've seen things that needed to be changed, just haven't been changed. We need some more diversity in our department. Again, people need opportunity and it shouldn't rely on just the African-American community or the Caucasians, but any ethnicity that wants that opportunity if they meet the guidelines or credentials to be a law enforcement officer. Roanoke is a diverse city. And when you look at law enforcement, the law enforcement family should look like the city who we serve. I don't care what's your background, your sexuality, it should look like the city who we represent. And so I’m trying to grow our department to look outside of the box, look outside of the norm, you know. We've been brought down the same way for 13 years, let's change some things. And don't be afraid to change it, but it's gonna take a person like me coming into office saying ‘It’s broken. Fix it,’ you know? And I'm not saying everything about our department is bad, because we have great things about our department and great things about our city. But when change needs to happen, you need people like me that's going to implement change.

Specifically, what things would you say are broken and what needs to be changed?

So, I don't want to go into too much detail because I'm still an employee, and I don't want to step on the toes of people who are in charge of me. But what I can say, when it comes down to our mental health, I'm going to create change around mental health. I'm going to create change around diversity. I'm going to create change about recidivism and what we offer as far as our reentry programs, because again, people do make mistakes. But people deserve opportunity to change. They committed a crime, but they're still going to be productive citizens one day, they're going to return back to our community. And if we don't give them some stability, they become reoffenders again and this time it may not be against these families over here, but it may be against your family or my family. So we have to offer services to these individuals. We have so many agencies and nonprofits around the city who get paid to put on programs for the community, but people are not taking advantage of these opportunities, because they’re sitting in jail. We have to create opportunity, jobs, housing, services. The city offers it, these agencies offer it, so why not give it back to these individuals. Because if we don't give them help, they’re going to reoffend again. The city offers a drug program for those who are on drugs called the Alpha program, or drug court. Those individuals who want it take full advantage of it. But those individuals who cannot get themselves together, the system is set up to help them, but maybe their rehabilitation part is not going to work for them they need time to sit down and get their lives together by taking them out of the environment they were in, they put them in a situation to where they out here, using reoffending, causing harm or  danger to our community.

Your campaign website talks about mental health both for those incarcerated as well as for deputies. What do you plan to do on the deputy side to help people with mental health?

So, from a deputy standpoint, we come to work every day. When you walk in, the door shuts behind you, too, so mentally, it puts you in a position to where it's almost like you’re locked up, too. The great thing about it is at the end of your 12-hour shift, you get to go home. But when you come inside the facility, there's no windows, you don't see the sun, you don't know if it's raining, you don’t know if it’s snowing. We mentally and we physically experience so much being inside that type of arena to sometimes when crisis hits, it hits those loved ones or those loved ones that are in our facility, but when the deputies have to experience the crisis, when they have to experience the emergency, it plays on their psyche as well. So what I'm telling our deputies, when we experience crisis, you have to go get help as well. That way we can make sure that you don't break down the integrity of the job, because if integrity is broken it leads to other things. The City of Roanoke offers assistance now to employees. But it's going to be our job to mandate and say, 'You have to go before you can return back the next day or this week. You’ve got to show us that you've been and you received some type of help.' Because it’s needed. It was never encouraged.

You were born and raised in Roanoke?

I've lived in Roanoke all my life. I moved away to D.C. and Richmond for a little bit. And then I moved back to Roanoke, where I worked. I was a barber at one time, cutting hair. I loved it, it was an amazing profession. Then I went to banking, for Freedom First [Credit Union]. I went to the DMV, worked for them as a window clerk, amazing job. But then I had the opportunity to join the sheriff's office because I wanted something on another level to be able to serve our community. And when I put that uniform on for the first time, and put my badge on, I felt like I had something to give, I have something to offer.

What inspired you to go into law enforcement?

I forgot to say that I was working at a phone company, and some of my good friends, they was like, 'We getting to join the sheriff’s office,' and I was like, 'For what?' and they were just like, 'You know, we just want something different, and it's awesome.' Okay, so I was riding down the street one day, I looked over to my right, and this deputy sheriff pulled up next to me. He looked over and he just smiled like he was enjoying his job, and I was like, Man, I would like to work there, you know, just because when you find folks enjoying a job, smiling, it's just like, 'Okay, what's so blessed about being in the sheriff's office?' I put in an application and I had an interview, they gave me a tour the facility. I was like, 'This  is wild, but I think I want to be here.'

I read that your father passed when you were in fifth grade—

I never knew my father. My grandmother helped raised me. My mom was a wonderful lady, single mother. She gave everything to make sure her kids never lacked anything. She was a hairstylist. My mom would try to make ends meet, do the best she can.

I met my father once. It's crazy because I met him at our child support case downtown. It was Halloween day, and they were having a Halloween costume party at church — they called it the Hallelujah Night. And my dad said, 'Hey, I'm gonna go down the street and get him a costume.' So we sat outside the municipal building, and I think it was the Heironimus building downtown. He said, 'I’ll walk down the street and get you a costume.' And we sat there for an hour and a half. He never returned.

So that was my last memory of my father until the day he died. We went to see him in the casket and he was laying there. It was emotionally hard to deal with it, because here it is somebody who helped to see the birth of you, but never was a part of your life. And so at first I couldn't cry. I couldn't do anything. So it put a bitter place in my heart. But then I got older, I was like, Lord, if it was meant for him to be there, he’d still be there.

In recent years there's been significant concern about the jail's high number of suicides relative to the population incarcerated. Experts note that jails are ostensibly fully controlled environments with cameras, tear-resistant sheets, etc., that there shouldn't be any way for a person to kill themselves in a cell. What specific policies would you implement to prevent suicides?

Our job in our jail is to identify anybody that is in crisis. The problem that we have is people have been in our system for so long, they have learned the conversation, or the way we communicate with them, when crisis is in front of us. And so they know what to do, what to say and how to skate around it. 'Sir, are you homicidal or suicidal? Do you feel like hurting yourself or anybody else? Have you already tried to commit suicide?' And the first thing they tell us is, 'No.' But when they get back in their cell and they locked up, they think about the things they've been through in life, the charges they’re charged with, [they start thinking] 'I’m done, it’s over.' If we don't see them in the moment, we don't catch them. So then we try to teach other inmates, if you see something, say something.

We are a non-direct supervisional facility, which means we are not in there with them. So twice an hour we are doing our rounds; you know when we are coming around, so we can stagger our rounds. But if we just left your pod, typically we aren’t back there in 30 minutes. Thirty minutes is a long time to make something happen. If they slip through, because they know the process, then our job is to try to catch them, but we don't catch them all. And I hate to say that, because they’re in a facility that they can trust us, that their loved ones there are taken care of.

We do have the sheets that after so much weight or pressure they’re supposed to tear, so it’s not supposed to allow them to hang themselves. Our razors now have a device on them so where if you break it, it is no longer usable. We are taking training, we are looking at other institutions and seeing some of their training that they have across the board, that could assist in a correctional facility, dealing with the suicide rate. A lot of institutions are dealing with the same thing. But we try to catch everything that we possibly can, because it is our goal for you to return home to your family.

But what about any specific policies that you think need to be changed, in terms of hard infrastructure, like new staff, new cameras, anything?

So right now every pod has cameras inside the pods. The only places they don't have cameras is inside the cells because of people's privacy. Every day room has cameras, every suicide cell has a camera. We have a mental health pod. We have a whole section now that is set up so these individuals can get help as soon as possible. So we have implemented that over the last three years. It is my goal to continue to make sure that we are staffed in those areas because building those suicidal pods or mental health pod, that helped our suicide rate go down, just because we're now being able to identify those individuals sooner than later. And they're able to get them some help, get them evaluated, get them on medication.

Some localities are trying to do things where people with substance use disorders, like alcohol, instead of going to jail, they would go to some other sort of detox facility—

Absolutely. I was watching the news the other day and I saw jurisdiction nearby. They have the funding that allowed them to instead of bringing those individuals to jail, they take them to this facility to where they can get help ASAP because they realize jail is not meant for this person. They didn't commit this crime because they were criminals; they committed this crime because of mental health. I would love to partner with anybody who may think that we can bring something new to our city, to be able to service these individuals or to push them forward. Again, if the opportunity is there, I'm taking it.

In recent years, there's been increased awareness of and attention to systemic racism, particularly as it manifests in the criminal justice system. What role do you think the sheriff's office has in addressing those inequities?

We create opportunity across the board for those individuals who we feel like need an opportunity. And it's not the same across the board. I'm trying to work with the Commonwealth to say, 'Hey, let's implement programs to where we're not just sending, you know, Black people to jail because we feel like that's the best place for them, or Caucasians to jail. Anybody who has committed an offense for the first time, let's create opportunity for them to where we can get services from them because they committed a crime. So now they've given you a resources back to the community, community service. One of our things we wanted to do was a workforce program. This will allow us to utilize the services on the weekends. So now we just put them in jail, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or Saturday Sunday now. But instead of putting them in jail, we put them out to work.

You’ve got to tell the Commonwealth’s Attorney, we have to make sure that people are being convicted across the board the same, because in one culture they may not be able to afford an attorney, but in one culture they can. But this one don't get the same services as this one over here. It has to meet across the board.

The Roanoke Times is good at showing up in court, and hearing cases out, and then documenting and putting it on the front page: '40 years in jail.' But then the next thing happens: two years in jail for the same crime, but the weight doesn't carry the same for different cultures. And that’s what has caused a lot of division in the criminal justice [system], because people see it, you know, so they feel like they’re not treated fairly. They feel like they’re being targeted for certain crimes because, you know, my windows are tinted, that doesn’t make me a bad person, but another person can get away with the same thing. We have to do better as a country, as a community. Roanoke has, for the most part, we have held it together on the home front. We ought to be commended, because Roanoke is not like some of these other cities. Do we have some opportunities to grow and make things better? Yes, but we don't look like some other cities.

What's your position on specific reform ideas such as ending cash bail or ending mandatory minimum sentences?

I don't want to end cash bail. I feel that if a person has the ability to bond out, let them bond out. Some of the cash bonds that they make people pay are getting put towards their or child support or certain things in order for you to get out.

And what about mandatory minimums?

I'm not against the mandatory minimums. People know when they out here committing crimes what they are getting themselves into. And if you don't, you need to look it up. I'm not against it because it holds us accountable for the things out here that's plaguing our community, gun violence, selling illegal drugs. People are dying from homicide, you know, all kinds of stuff. So there has to be repercussions for the things that you do.

Outside of work, what do you like to do for fun?

I love doing community service. Every year, called the UBU Honors, we honor people, organizations, legends in our communities who give back. I’m a singer. At one time I was a youth pastor. I love ministry, I love church, I love my community and I love family. I play volleyball.

What else do you think is important for voters to know either about yourself, the office or the election this November?

At the end of the day, it is my goal to lead the people of Roanoke City as a true leader, lead them with dignity, lead them with respect. The community is looking for an outlet, they're looking for change. But somebody has to be the voice of reason, somebody has to be the change that you want to see. I will never ask my deputies to do something that I'm not willing to do.