One Jail Death Sparks Reforms, Another Causes Officials To Hide: Leadership vs. Obfuscation

hiding the truth

(4-25-16) Leadership. How do you define it?

I was asked to speak last week at the National Stepping Up Summit in our nation’s capital and when I glanced out from the podium, I spotted a table where a delegation from Fairfax County, Virginia, was seated. Among them was Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid, Deputy County Executive David M. Rohrer, Community Service Board (mental health provider) Director Tisha Deeghan and Gary Ambrose and Laura Yager, who are in heading up our county’s Diversion First initiative.  (1.)

As in so many communities, Fairfax officials made jail diversion a priority after a tragedy — the 2015 death of Natasha McKenna, a 37 year-old African American woman with schizophrenia who died after being repeated stunned with a taser while shackled inside the jail. I was one of the loudest critics about how county officials handled that senseless death.

But let’s compare the McKenna case to what is unfolding now in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area where Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24 year-old African American inmate with mental illness died in jail from a heart attack brought on by him starving himself while waiting to be sent to a state hospital.

After McKenna’s death, Sheriff Kincaid banned the use of tasers inside the jail. She stopped locking mentally ill inmates into solitary confinement unless necessary for their own safety. She began training deputies in crisis intervention team training and created special housing units for mentally ill women and men. She also led a delegation to Bexar County, Texas, to learn about its jail diversion program and when she returned, she became a leader in pushing for Diversion First, which Board of Supervisor Chair Sharon Bulova has made a top priority. Today, individuals such as McKenna are taken to a crisis center for evaluation rather than directly to jail or an emergency room.

What has happened since Jamycheal Mitchell’s death last August in Portsmouth?

Eight days after his feces smeared body was found in a cell, Lt. Col. Eugene Taylor III, assistant superintendent of Hampton Roads Regional Jail, announced that the jail had conducted a thorough investigation and found no evidence of any wrongdoing or mishandling by jail employees. Despite repeated requests, jail officials have refused to make their internal investigation public. The local police department chose not to investigate Mitchell’s death.

The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) delayed release of its  internal investigation of Mitchell’s death for four months until after state legislators had gone home and then it blamed clerical errors and a lack of adequate funding for mistakes that were made. The DBHDS announced that it didn’t have jurisdiction over jail employees so it didn’t investigate who was responsible for allowing Mitchell to literally starve himself during the 101 days that he was incarcerated.

The state Office of Inspector General also punted when it came time to explain how a healthy young man managed to die while in custody. Its inspectors said they didn’t have authority to investigate what actually had happened in the jail, although the IG report did note that the jail medical staff never mentioned Mitchell’s 33 pound weight loss in their reports. Instead of investigating the jail, the IG used its report to quote from an unrelated government study that warned against blaming individuals for deaths such as Mitchell’s. The IG explained that it was more important to fix systemic problems than assign blame.

Last week, Inspector General June W. Jennings and Priscilla Smith, the Office of State Inspector General’s director of behavioral health and developmental services, were questioned about Mitchell by a state legislative committee chaired by state Sen. Creigh Deeds. When asked by Deeds and other committee members, including Rep. Vivian Watts, to explain why no one in the jail noticed that Mitchell was starving himself, Priscilla Smith said her office didn’t know because it had not asked the jail for a copy of its internal investigative report.

Smith compared Mitchell’s death to a block of Swiss cheese, according to an account of the meeting published by Sarah Kleiner in the Richmond Times Dispatch.

    “If every single process has a hole, when Jamycheal Mitchell went into our system this time, he fell through every hole,” Smith said. “The odds of that happening are not high, but the results are devastating.”

State Delegate Peter F. Farrell asked Smith if anyone had been fired over Mitchell’s death.

“I have no idea,” she said.

“I don’t think anyone has been fired anywhere,” Deeds interjected.

After the meeting, Deeds added: “What I read in the paper just infuriates me, when the jailer there takes no responsibility for anything. It infuriates me that nobody has lost their job over this. One man lost his life but nobody lost their job. That’s outrageous.”

Deeds said he was also frustrated by the inspector general’s claims that it lacked authority to fully investigate what happened at the jail.

Let’s review: Within days after Mitchell’s death, the Hampton Roads Regional Jail announced that it didn’t do anything wrong, but it refused to make public its internal investigation. The local police department didn’t bother to investigate. The two state agencies responsible for investigating Mitchell’s death issued their reports without investigating what happened to Mitchell while he was inside the jail.

To date, the public has never been told how a healthy man with mental illness starved to the point that he had a heart attack while he was reportedly being eyeballed every half hour by correctional officers and checked by a nurse once a day.

In comparison, the Fairfax Police Department conducted an independent investigation into McKenna’s death. The Commonwealth Attorney released a detailed account about what happened to McKenna from the moment she was arrested to her death. (2.). Sheriff Kincaid posted a video on Youtube that showed McKenna being removed from her cell and repeatedly tasered. Sheriff Kincaid immediately banned tasers and led the effort with the Board of Supervisors to launch Diversion First. The sheriff also expressed regret about McKenna’s death.

How do you define leadership? How do you define bureaucratic obfuscation? You define both by looking at how our elected officials respond when there is a tragedy and in the cases of McKenna and Mitchell, there is a clear difference.

Notes: (1.) Diversion First is a collaborative effort to reduce the number of people with mental illness in the county jail by diverting low risk offenders experiencing a mental health crisis to treatment rather than bringing them to jail.

(2.) Although I strongly disagreed with the Commonwealth Attorney’s conclusions regarding McKenna’s death, his office provided the public with a thorough, at times, minute-by-minute account of what happened to her inside the jail.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.