Virginia Mentally-Ill Man’s Death by Deterioration in Jail Cell Exhibits Policy Failures
by David M. Reutter
The death of a mentally-ill Virginia man jailed on a misdemeanor and confined in isolation while awaiting transfer to a psychiatric hospital exhibits the folly of current policies in dealing with those who have psychological disorders and run afoul of the law.
Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, had struggled with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder for over a decade when he discontinued taking his medication in the months prior to his arrest on April 22, 2015. On that day, he went into a 7-Eleven and stole $5.05 worth of snack foods. [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.63].
At the time of his arrest, the 6 foot tall Mitchell weighed 180 pounds. Court records show that during an interview he waived his right to an attorney and appeared “confused." His $3,000 bond was revoked when the court ordered a competency evaluation. Mitchell was remanded to Hampton Roads Regional Jail (HRRJ), in Portsmouth, to await transfer to Eastern State Hospital (ESH).
ESH had no available beds, so HRRJ placed him in an isolation unit it used for prisoners with disciplinary or mental health issues. A psychologist evaluated Mitchell on May 20, 2015 and found his “thought processes were so confused” that only parts of his conversation could be understood.
Over the next months, Mitchell deteriorated even further. “I watched a physically healthy young man grow into a broken old man in a matter of months," a fellow prisoner wrote Mitchell’s family.
Justin Dillon, also an HRRJ prisoner at the time, said that by mid-July of that year, Mitchell's condition had become alarming. “He was all skin and bones," said Dillon. “He looked like a stick."
At a July 31 court hearing, Mitchell’s family was alarmed by his rail-thin appearance. Their demands he be taken to a hospital were ignored.
Dillon last saw Mitchell on August 16, and he warned HRRJ staff that Mitchell told him he was sick. Staff told him Mitchell was fine.
On August 19, 2015, a judge ordered Mitchell transferred to a mental health facility. That transfer, however, never occurred.
On August 19, 2015, at 5:44 a.m., Mitchell was found dead in his cell. He weighed 144 pounds--36 pounds less than at the time of his arrest. The cause of death was later determined to have been starvation.
In May 2016, Mitchell's family filed a $60 million wrongful death lawsuit against HRRJ and several other individual defendants. Among those defendants listed was NaphCare, Inc., the private company that provided health services at HRRJ at the time of Mitchell's death. Another defendant was former ESH admissions worker Gail Hart, who reportedly buried Mitchel's transfer paperwork in a drawer, rather than processing it.
HRRJ officials say Mitchell was treated like other prisoners. That treatment was exactly the problem.
“HRRJ cannot be a mere observer to the continuing decompensation and health declining of its mentally ill population,” said Mitchell family attorney Mark Kurdys. “What HRRJ cannot do is to do nothing.”
HRRJ has a four member staff to treat its roughly 370 prisoners with mental illness.
“It is quite a challenge at times with the mentally ill," said Lt. Eugene Taylor. “Our jail has become a de facto mental health facility in lieu of [hospital] beds being available in the state."
Mitchell's death was only one of 18 to have taken place at HRRJ since 2012.
As reported in June 2016 by Portsmouth WAVY news program “10 On Your Side,” several investigations and reviews of procedures took place following Mitchell's death. The results, at best, suggested a system constipated by bureaucracy.
The Portsmouth Police Department investigated HRRJ and, according to HRRJ, found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) investigated the situation and found several problems in the way transfers from the jail to mental health facilities were processed. Per its findings, OSIG offered recommendations for remedying five specific problems. To these recommendations, the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services then responded by stating it lacked the authority to make the recommended changes.
In December 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced an investigation into HRRJ. As reported by WAVY, the DOJ investigation sought to determine whether violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring had requested DOJ to investigate HRRJ. The Mitchell family had also previously requested the FBI (a DOJ agency) to step in and investigate the facility.
Sources: Washington Post, www.wavy.com