Another Mentally Ill Prisoner In Virginia Dies: State Officials Won’t Answer Questions About It


(6-17-16) The Richmond Times-Dispatch has learned that a prisoner died at Central State Hospital, a mental facility in Virginia, after being sent there from the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth. This happened between May 25th and June 8th.

This is the same jail where Jamycheal Mitchell, who had schizophrenia, was found dead last year from a heart attack caused by starvation. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, Virginia chapter of Mental Health America, the NAACP, the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, and the ACLU have asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Mitchell’s death pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. In a strongly worded editorial, The Washington Post also has called for a federal probe.

The Justice Department has been reluctant to investigate individual deaths unless those fatalities reflected a pattern of civil rights abuses. If this new death resulted from how the inmate was treated while being detained at the Portsmouth jail, advocates could argue that there is a pattern of abuse of prisoners with mental illnesses inside the jail.

Unfortunately, Virginia mental health officials, the jail, and state bureaucrats all declined to answer basic questions about this second death when asked by investigative reporters Sarah Kleiner and K. Burnell Evans. Instead they claimed the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibited them from talking about the death.  A HIPAA legal expert in Virginia was quoted in the article saying, “People take a more aggressive approach to restriction (under HIPAA) than they really ought to.”

The failure of state officials to answer questions should not shock anyone who has been following Virginia’s shameful actions in the Mitchell case.

After the 24 year-old’s emaciated body was discovered last August in a feces covered cell, jail officials immediately investigated themselves and announced they’d done nothing wrong. Since then, they have refused to make public that internal investigation and subsequently have acknowledged that they taped over video footage taken outside Mitchell’s cell that could have shown if he was being fed and how often he was being observed by officers and nurses during the 101 days that he was waiting to be sent to a state hospital.

Investigations by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, which oversees state mental hospitals, and the Office of State Inspector General, which is responsible for investigating ‘critical incidents,’ failed to answer the fundamental question of how an inmate with a mental illness died from starvation while in custody. Both of those agencies claimed they didn’t have authority to actually investigate what happened inside the jail and assign wrongdoing. A third state agency with authority to investigate such deaths, the Richmond-based disAbility Law Center of Virginia, recently sent a letter of complaint to the governor, but also chose not to investigate Mitchell’s death.

Here is what this same cast of characters told the Richmond newspaper when asked about this newly discovered fatality.

Maria Reppas, a spokeswoman for the (Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services) confirmed that a Hampton Roads Regional Jail inmate died after being transferred to Central State Hospital, but she declined to release any additional information, citing the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act…

The disAbility Law Center of Virginia, an organization that contracts with the federal government to act as legal advocates for Virginians with disabilities, receives reports from the state about deaths, but is not allowed to share any information it gets with the public because of HIPAA, said Colleen Miller, its executive director…

The Hampton Roads Regional Jail declined to release a list of inmates who were transferred to Central State, citing (HIPAA.)

The (Office of State Inspector General) had yet to receive an autopsy report (from the Virginia Office of Chief Medical Examiner) in the case, said agency spokeswoman Julie Grimes. Once that happens, the agency…will decide whether to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death.

The Virginia Office of Chief Medical Examiner, which is charged with determining the cause and manner of death for people who die in state mental hospitals, jails and prisons, declined…to release any information without the name of the person who died.

So there you have it – a bureaucratic Merry-Go-Round. State officials say HIPAA keeps them from releasing a name or any other details, then the medical examiner says no information can be released without a name. The result: a second inmate dies after being held in the same jail as Mitchell and the state agencies responsible for assuring the public that the death was not caused by neglect or abuse all duck behind HIPAA.

“When these officials refuse reasonable requests for information, after last year’s events at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, it makes it appear that they are obfuscating — even if they are not,” G. Douglas Bevelacqua, a Virginia inspector general over behavioral health and developmental services from 2010 to 2014, told the Richmond paper. “Transparency is important because elected leaders react to public sentiment. Without information about questionable deaths in custody, voters can’t insist that policy makers address problems.”

Here’s another paragraph from the Richmond story:

What we know: An inmate who had been held at the Portsmouth jail where Jaymcheal Mitchell died last year was transferred to a state mental hospital in Petersburg and then died sometime between May 25 and June 8. What we don’t know: the patient’s name, gender and age; when he or she was transferred to Central State Hospital; when exactly he or she died; or why the person had been locked in jail. State officials and jailers know all of that information but have declined to provide any of it to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, despite multiple Freedom of Information Act requests.

The state’s embarrassing handling of the Mitchell case laid a foundation of public mistrust of state officials.

The state’s refusal to assure the public that this second death was not caused by neglect or abuse only increases that public mistrust.

The only silver lining will be if this stonewalling finally prompts the Justice Department to send in investigators to do what state officials should have done.

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.