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New Virginia Law Requires Oversight of Jail Deaths

As of May 2018, Virginia’s Board of Corrections (BOC) had counted 21 jail deaths in the state since the start of the year. But thanks to a new law passed in 2017, the BOC now has authority to review deaths in local and regional jails. The statute is a direct result of the lack of accountability in the 2015 death of 24-year-old prisoner Jamycheal Mitchell.

As previously reported in PLN, Mitchell suffered from mental illness and died of starvation at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail (HRRJ). He had been arrested for stealing $5 worth of junk food from a convenience store, and his death, following 101 days in custody, sparked a U.S. Department of Justice investigation. [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.24; Jan. 2017, p.44].

Mitchell’s death revealed problems at the jail that compelled lawmakers to act.

“Nobody seemed to have responsibility or was willing to take responsibility for how this actually occurred,” then-Governor Terry McAuliffe said at a press conference, where he signed the new law on February 25, 2017.

The statute redefines qualifications for the nine-member BOC, requiring expertise in areas like mental health, medical care and correctional facility management. It also clarifies that the BOC has authority to investigate jail deaths at the state’s 60 local jails, which previously had no outside oversight unless a crime was committed.

While the law was ballyhooed as great progress for jail oversight, implementation has been slow. Following a delay in funding, investigator T. Stephen Goff reported for work in November 2017. Another staff member performs administrative tasks.

Within the first nine months after the law was passed, seven people died in Virginia jails; two of those deaths were at HRRJ. Jakim Funderburk, 20, was found hanging from a bed sheet on November 19, 2017. Prior to his transfer to HRRJ, he was found by a guard at the Chesapeake Jail “with a sheet around his neck hanging,” Chesapeake Sheriff’s Office spokesman Janelle Scott wrote in an email.

Funderburk spent a week after the transfer on suicide watch at HRRJ. He was allowed to move to the least restrictive parts of the jail’s mental health wing.

“He was being routinely evaluated,” said HRRJ assistant superintendent Linda Bryant. “He was improving, which is why it’s devastating for all of us.”

The devastation was most profound for Funderburk’s family, who blamed jail officials for his suicide.

“We knew he had problems. They knew he had problems. They should have known better,” said Gary Funderburk, Jakim’s uncle.

The second prisoner death at HRRJ was that of Davageah K. Jones, who was held on charges of marijuana possession and breaking and entering. Jones, 18, died on May 15, 2018 after suffering an unspecified medical emergency.

Two suicides occurred at the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority within a month. There were two deaths at the Riverside Regional Jail and another at the Henrico County Jail. Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade said Wayne Burnett Marshall, 45, apparently suffered a fatal stroke while watching TV. He was being held on a charge of sex trafficking.

Altogether, there were 54 jail deaths between the date the new law took effect on July 1, 2017 and Goff’s report to the BOC in May 2018, when he said 17 of the cases had been closed. Another 36 cases remained open and pending. Of those, Goff said 22 appeared to be the result of natural causes, while 11 were suicides, two were homicides and one was unknown.

Two other jail deaths that predated both the new law and Goff’s hiring have resulted in lawsuits.

One occurred at HRRJ in March 2016. William Otis Thrower, Sr., 69, had been constipated for five days and requested medical assistance both verbally and in writing. Linda Bryant, the jail’s assistant superintendent, said medical staff believed Thrower was fine. A wrongful death suit filed by his estate seeks almost $14 million in damages.

The other lawsuit arose from the July 2016 death of Kendra Nelson, 23, at the Portsmouth Jail. The defendants include the facility, then-sheriff Bill Watson, jail medical provider Correct Care Solutions and four staff members.

Lynda Johnston, Nelson’s mother, said the young woman suffered from untreated symptoms of heroin withdrawal as well as a heart condition. Kendra Nelson was arrested after illegally walking in a roadway and failing to produce ID when asked by police. She began frothing at the mouth and died within her first 24 hours at the jail. Her mother’s suit alleges that medical personnel dismissed Nelson’s symptoms as “dope sick[ness].”

“These people are the only people that have access to get you any help,” Johnston said, referring to jail medical staff. “Your life is in their hands.”

Sheriff Watson denied any wrongdoing, saying Nelson’s death was due to her heart condition. He also denied calling the young woman “nothing but a druggie.”

“I’m sorry for the family but it was not our fault. Her addiction caused her death,” he stated. Correct Care Solutions did not comment on the litigation.

It is not clear whether deaths that occurred prior to the BOC’s new oversight authority will be reviewed retroactively.

Mental Health America of Virginia has asked the BOC to share how many deaths at local jails involved mental health or substance abuse issues. The advocacy group’s executive director, Bruce Cruser, also wondered what criteria the BOC uses to declare a case closed.

No information about the closed jail death cases has been made public.

“Any policies on this will be set by the board itself,” declared Michael Kelly, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office. “We will of course advise the board on its obligations, responsibilities and authorities under the law, but ultimately, it will be up to the board to decide how they want to handle these situations.” 



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