A Year Later: Still No Explanation About Inmate’s Death But Lots of Dodging By Officials

(8-19-16) One year ago today, Jamycheal Mitchell was found dead in a Virginia jail cell. Here is an Op Ed that I wrote for the USA Today newspaper this week about the state’s failure to explain what happened to him.)

How an ill man starved to death in jail: USA TODAY

His naked body was found in a cell where he had been waiting transfer to a state mental hospital.

By Pete Earley

Jamycheal Mitchell died psychotic and emaciated in a Virginia jail cell a year ago this month, yet local and state officials still have not explained how a healthy 24-year-old African American could suffer a heart defect compounded by starvation without anyone in authority noticing.

Mitchell, who had schizophrenia, was arrested in April 2015 near his family’s home in Portsmouth, Va., after he allegedly took a Mountain Dew, Snickers bar and a Zebra cake, worth $5 from a 7-Eleven store without paying. His naked body was found 119 days later in a Hampton Roads Regional Jail (HRRJ) cell, where he had been waiting transfer to a state mental hospital. The 6-foot-tall Mitchell weighed190 pounds when he was arrested. He had lost 46 pounds in jail, causing the state medical examinor to cite “wasting syndrome” — sudden massive weight lost — as a major contributor to his death.


Mental health advocates, the NAACP and the ACLU have called on the Justice Department to investigate because of the state’s failure to explain Mitchell’s death.Several state agencies that should have investigated either demurred or claimed they lacked jurisdiction to interrogate jail officials.

That left jail officials to investigate themselves. They did and, less than 10 days after Mitchell’s body was discovered, announced they had done nothing wrong. They refused to make that self-serving report public.

Their credibility took a hit after reporters learned that a video camera outside Mitchell’s cell could show whether guards regularly fed him and nurses entered his cell. Jail officials said they had taped over that footage because it didn’t show any “criminality or negligence.” But when Mitchell’s family filed a $60 million wrongful death suit that required the jail to hand over records to the court, jailers said they located the missing footage.  Even so, they have refused to make it public.

Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration has come under fire, too. One reason Mitchell languished in jail is because a state hospital worker tossed his transfer paperwork into a drawer, where it wasn’t found until five days after he died.

State officials delayed releasing one embarrassing report about Mitchell for four months until the Virginia legislature ended its session. Last month, three whistle-blowers filed an 18–page complaint about the Office of the State Inspector General’s handing of its Mitchell probe. Among their charges: OSIG investigators didn’t visit the jail immediately after Mitchell’s death but did a “desk review,” simply phoning officials for assurances nothing inappropriate had happened. Sadly, the governor’s office dismissed that eye-popping complaint without bothering to interview the whistle-blowers. Local news reporters then revealed that OSIG Director June Jennings failed to disclose in her report that her husband works as a manager at the state hospital the OSIG was investigating, and that the lead OSIG investigator used to be employed there, raising questions about the investigation’s impartiality.

Frustration over the McAuliffe administration’s failure to fully investigate Mitchell’s death led to a local prosecutor demanding the Virginia State Police to step in.

Given that prison populations are declining nationally, but that the number of inmates with mental illnesses is increasing, Mitchell’s death and the state’s actions are especially troubling.

How did an inmate, who was supposed to be checked every half hour by guards and visited once a day by a nurse, starve in plain sight?

The public and Mitchell’s family deserve an answer.

Pete Earley, who lives in Virginia, is a mental health advocate and father of an adult son with a serious mental illness who has been arrested. 


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.