DisAbility Agency Sends Letter of Complaint: What Kind Of Response Is That?


(6-20-16) Here’s a quiz.

Choose what you would expect an agency — created to protect persons living with disabilities — to do when a Virginian with schizophrenia gets arrested for taking $5 of snack foods without paying, is jailed for 101 days, and found dead in a feces covered cell from a heart attack caused by starvation?

(A.) Investigate the death and conditions in the jail to determine why that inmate lost 40 -50 pounds while supposedly being checked daily by a nurse.

(B.) Join the ACLU, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, NAACP, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Virginia Chapter of Mental Health America, and the Washington Post in asking for a federal investigation.

(C.) Hold a press conference to denounce the death and file a lawsuit under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act against the jail and state.

(D.) Write a letter of complaint to the governor.  

If you answered (D.), you have correctly answered what the Richmond-based disAbility Law Center of Virginia, an organization that contracts with the federal government to act as legal advocates for Virginians with disabilities, has done in the tragic case of Jamycheal Mitchell, the 24 year-old, African American inmate who was found dead last August in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth.

A letter.

While Richmond Times Dispatch reporters have been filing endless Freedom of Information requests to ferret out details about Mitchell’s death, and mental health and civil rights advocates have been protesting and demanding action,  the disAbility Law Center has … what?

In 1986, the Protection and Advocacy For Individuals With Mental Illness Program (PAIMI) was created to fund agencies in each state specifically to protect persons with mental illnesses from abuse and neglect in institutions. In 2000, Congress broadened the program to include abuses in community settings. 

Early in the unfolding Mitchell case, I telephoned disAbility Law Center Executive Director Colleen Miller to ask what her agency planned to do about his death. I had mentioned in two earlier blogs that her agency had not taken any action or issued any statements publicly. In a five minute conversation that I would describe as being hostile, Miller told me that I was being “presumptuous” in assuming the law center was not working diligently on the Mitchell case. When I asked her to elaborate, she made it clear that she had no interest or intention of talking to me, nor desire to join forces with me in demanding the state investigate Mitchell’s death.

Thinking perhaps that I had been presumptuous, I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Ten months after Mitchell’s body was discovered, Miller sent a letter to the governor. In it, she accused the state of routinely promising, but failing to reduce or eliminate its waiting list for mentally ill inmates who are supposed to be transferred to state hospitals for treatment.

That’s it. A letter.

No mention of how state officials have failed to investigate what actually happened to Mitchell inside that jail, no mention of how either the state mental health department or Attorney General’s office held up the release of an investigative report until after the Virginia legislature had adjourned, no mention of how the Office of State Inspector General warned that unless steps are taken the 7,054 individuals identified as having mental illnesses in Virginia’s jails remain at risk.

Nope, just a letter.

At the same time the disAbility Law Center in Virginia was drafting its letter,  the Protection and Advocacy for People With Disabilities organization in South Carolina announced it had reached a hard-fought, two year legal battle with the state to stop prisoners from being mistreated in jails and prisons.

“The evidence in this case (filed by the P & A)  has proved that inmates have died in the South Carolina Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care, and hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious injury, mental decompensation and profound, permanent mental illness,” the presiding judge who heard the lawsuit ruled.

That P & A’s action ends what the judge described as the unconstitutional treatment of an estimated 3,500 severely mentally ill offenders in the S. C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) facilities.

The judge’s ruling ordered the SCDC to address serious deficiencies in six areas, and the agreement addresses the judge’s concerns:

1. Develop a systematic screening and evaluation program to accurately identify offenders in need of mental health care.

2. Develop a comprehensive mental health program that ends inappropriate segregation of offenders in mental health crisis, improves facilities and eliminates disproportionate use of excessive force and punishment by adopting national standards.

3. Increase the number and training of clinical staffing in accordance with the American Psychiatric Association.

4. Maintain accurate, complete and confidential mental health treatment records.

5. Institute psychotropic medication protocols with appropriate supervision and evaluation.

6. Initiate a program to identify, treat and supervise offenders who may be suicidal. It is estimated there will be a one-time cost of $1.7 million for facility upgrades and $7 million annually for mental health staffing, which is being phased in over three years.

Wow! That is exactly what Congress wanted PAIMI groups to do.

Individuals with disabilities are entitled to know that their state’s PAIMI organization will be there to protect them if they need help. They deserve more than a letter when one of them starves to death while languishing in jail and no one bothers to explain how that happened.

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.