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Virginia Jail Not Responding to Problems Cited in Department of Justice Report

by Douglas Ankney

"Help us.” “We are dying in here.” “They are trying to kill us.”

Those were just some of the pleas that civil rights and mental health advocates heard from prisoners who shouted through the walls during a tour of Virginia’s Hampton Roads Regional Jail (HRRJ) in March 2019.

“They didn’t even know who we were,” said Bill Farrar, spokesman for the ACLU of Virginia. “They were just desperate.”

HRRJ Superintendent David Hackworth urged the advocates to dismiss the prisoners’ requests for help. But a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) report released in December 2018 documented horrific deaths, prisoners with serious medical and mental health problems, and repeated denials of healthcare at the jail.

In January 2013, 52-year-old Betty Wills was “actively psychotic” when she arrived at HRRJ. She also suffered from diabetes, thyroid disease and congestive heart failure. Jail staff failed to treat her and she died at a local hospital, according to the DOJ report.

On April 3, 2015, Robert Elmo Davenport was found hanging in his isolation cell at HRRJ. The 54-year-old, who had a history of major depression, had filed a grievance complaining that his request to see a psychiatrist “had been put off” several times. He also said his medicine was not working and he was experiencing anxiety attacks. The next day, he was placed in isolation.

“The only evaluation he received was by a social worker on the morning of his death,” the DOJ report stated.

On the same day that Davenport was found dead, prisoner Alton D. Cowins was put in another isolation cell at HRRJ. Admitted three days earlier in a state of psychosis, incoherent and throwing feces, he didn’t see a psychiatrist who could have had him transferred to a mental hospital. On April 5, a nurse noted that Cowins had a bulge in his abdomen and was in intense pain; 14 hours later he was throwing up feces and green bile but no one examined him. He was later discovered unresponsive, dead from an ulcer. The DOJ report noted that his death was preventable had he received adequate medical care.

In August 2015, Jamycheal Mitchell was discovered dead in his cell, naked and covered in his own feces. The mentally ill 24-year-old had been arrested for taking $5 worth of snacks and a cold drink from a convenience store. He told authorities he thought his parents owned the store. A judge ordered Mitchell to be transferred to a mental health facility, but the transfer never occurred. His family filed suit and received a $3 million settlement from HRRJ and its medical provider at the time, Alabama-based NaphCare. [See: PLN, June 2019, p.58].

It was public outcry over Mitchell’s death in custody that sparked the DOJ investigation. But its report was not released until after the resignation of then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had long opposed federal oversight of local policing. Meanwhile, deaths continued at the jail.

In November 2015, Mark Goodrum died of end-stage kidney disease at HRRJ. He had been arrested for smoking marijuana in his own home and remained incarcerated because he couldn’t pay a $100 bond.

In August 2016, Henry Clay Stewart, Jr. collapsed and died in his cell after vomiting blood and not eating for days. He had written notes begging for help. A wrongful death lawsuit filed by his family resulted in a $625,000 settlement. [See: PLN, May 2019, p.44].

At least 16 more people have died at HRRJ since Stewart, including Regina Marie Honeycutt. The 32-year-old was picked up on a probation violation and sentenced to a three-year term. In September 2018, before being transferred from the Norfolk jail to HRRJ, she complained of “intense stomach pain, constipation, and bloody vomit,” but was treated only with anti-constipation medication. Honeycutt collapsed in her cell at HRRJ on October 6, 2018 and died the next day of blood poisoning caused by fecal matter leaking into her abdomen due to a cancerous tumor blocking her colon. Her father, Timothy Caramillo, has filed a wrongful death suit.

Another prisoner, Davageah K. Jones, 18, a schizophrenic with bipolar disorder, died at HRRJ in May 2018 after failing to receive insulin for his Type-1 diabetes. His family has also filed a lawsuit against HRRJ and its new medical provider, Tennessee-based Correct Care Solutions (now known as Wellpath). The suit admits that Jones refused his medication – not only insulin but also antipsychotics – yet it faults HRRJ and Wellpath for failing to secure a temporary detention order that would have forced Jones to be medicated in a state psychiatric hospital. That is what had happened during Jones’ previous brushes with the law, all on minor charges such as marijuana possession, identity theft and brandishing a firearm. At the time of his death he was charged with tossing a rock at the car of a clerk who had kicked him out of a convenience store.

A 2017 staffing study noted that HRRJ was a dumping ground for physically and mentally ill prisoners from other jails. The study recommended 422 staff positions at HRRJ, but the jail had just 299 employees at the time.

“Would it be nice to have more?” said HRRJ Superintendent Hackworth. “Absolutely.”

In May 2019 he requested an additional 113 guards at an annual cost of $7 million. Along with 10 positions he had requested previously, that will bring staffing levels at HRRJ to the 422 positions called for in the staffing study – but not for at least a year. The state General Assembly, which provides the bulk of the jail’s funding, will not go back into session until January 2020. And the cities that use and provide the rest of the funding for HRRJ – Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Hampton and Newport News – have already set their budgets through mid-2020.

“I think we are speeding up now,” Hackworth insisted, noting that HRRJ had increased medical staff and added video visitation to help counter prisoner isolation. “I don’t know what the time frame is, but I definitely think there is a need to change and move into the future. To say we are not doing that isn’t a fair assessment.”

Norfolk Sheriff Joe Baron defended Hackworth, saying “things can only move as fast as there is money to deal with the issue.” Newport News Sheriff Gabe Morgan agreed that “everyone has critical shortages right now.”

However, James Boyd, president of the Portsmouth branch of the NAACP, wanted the DOJ to force specific changes at HRRJ because he had no confidence in Hackworth’s abilities. “We were concerned in 2015, and we are concerned still in 2019,” Boyd said. “I don’t think there has been real progress.”

In fact, said Rhonda Thissen, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, when she and the ACLU’s Farrar asked Hackworth what the jail was doing to improve conditions, they were told some prisoners were now receiving crayons.

“We actually asked that they bring in someone else to answer our questions,” Thissen said. 

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Sources: wavy.com, thecrimereport.org, daily­press.com, pilotonline.com, legalreader.com