Another Inmate Death: Study Finds Virginia Jail Deadliest In State For Prisoners

Attorney General Mark Herring Asks For Justice Department Probe

Attorney General Mark Herring Asks For Justice Department Probe

(9-5-16) Another death in the same Virginia jail where an inmate with mental illness literally starved himself to death has sparked a fresh round of calls for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the facility.

In addition to this new death, the Richmond Times Dispatch reported Sunday (9-4) that prisoners being held in the the already under-fire Hampton Roads Regional Jail died nearly nine times more often than in other local or regional jails in Virginia.

Let’s start with the new death.

As first reported by Gary A. Harki in The Virginian Pilot, Henry Clay Stewart, a 60 year-old prisoner being held in the jail for violating parole on a shoplifting charge, repeatedly told jail officials that he needed medical help, in one instance, because he was vomiting blood.

“I have blacked out two times in less than 24 hours,” Stewart wrote Aug. 4 in imperfect English on an emergency grievance form obtained by his family after his death. “I keep asking to go to the emergency room. … I can’t hold water down or food.”

Two days later, he was dead.

Surprise, surprise, the newspaper quoted jail spokeswoman Officer N. Perry saying she could not talk about Stewart’s death because of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The newspaper reported:

Inside the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, Stewart couldn’t eat solid foods and was frequently vomiting blood. Fellow inmates tried to help him. He was the “senior gentleman” on his cell block, (Brent) Lashley (a fellow prisoner) said in an interview Wednesday…Stewart started to lose weight, unable to eat the harder food, such as fresh vegetables, because he had no teeth. Stewart told Lashley at one point that he’d lost at least 16 pounds since being incarcerated. What he did eat was often vomited up, along with blood.

Although Stewart had not been diagnosed with a mental illness, his death (still unexplained) appeared to mental health advocates to be another example of alleged neglect by jail officials similar to the death last August of Jamycheal Mitchell, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

I’ve written several blogs about Mitchell’s death in the jail where he had been held 101 days after allegedly stealing $5 in snack food from a convenience store near his Portsmouth home. He suffered a heart attack brought on by the loss of 46 pounds.

Shamefully, no state agency has accounted publicly for how Mitchell, age 24, lost so much weight when he was supposed to be checked by guards every half hour and once a day by a nurse.

The Richmond Times Dispatch, which has been dogged in investigating Michell’s death, reviewed jail deaths during the past three years in Virginia and reported Sunday that Hampton Roads was the deadliest in the state.

Since June 2013, 12 of the 6,716 inmates who have been locked up at the Portsmouth-based jail have died — a rate of 178.7 per 100,000. Statewide, 129 inmates have died in Virginia in the same time period — a rate of 20.4 per 100,000.

Lt. Col. Eugene Taylor III, the jail’s assistant superintendent, dismissed the newspaper report, claiming the high death rate was because the five cities that feed in the jail send over their sickest inmates, and the jail cannot refuse them.

That rationalization fails to explain why other jurisdictions drawing from large areas have much lower death rates. The newspaper noted:

Nearly three times as many inmates were jailed in Richmond in the past three years. It ranked seventh in the state with 60.8 deaths per 100,000, nearly three times lower than the rate at Hampton Roads Regional Jail. Fairfax County Adult Detention Center and the Virginia Beach Correctional Center, had (the fewest) deaths among large inmate populations. Just one of Fairfax County’s 36,741 inmates died between June 1, 2013, and Aug. 31, 2016. And in Virginia Beach during the same time frame, three of 28,786 inmates died.

After months of hand-wringing but little action, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has finally joined advocates in formally calling for the Justice Department to investigate the Hampton Roads Jail.

“I write to respectfully request that the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division initiate a pattern and practice investigation into whether there are systemic violations of the Constitution or federal law occurring at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail (HRRJ) in Portsmouth,” Herring wrote Friday to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a letter obtained by The Virginian-Pilot. “Specifically, whether inmates at the HRRJ are receiving the proper medical care.”

His request follows requests to the Justice Department by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America, The NAACP, the ACLU and The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. The Washington Post also joined me in calling for a Justice probe.

I’m grateful that Gary A. Harki at the Virginia Pilot and Sarah Kleiner and K. Burnell Evans at the Richmond Times-Dispatch have keep focusing on the jail’s practices and I am ashamed that no state agency, including the disAbility Law Center, which is supposed to protect persons with mental illnesses in institutions, has been at the forefront of calling for an investigation of these deaths.

Not surprisingly, jail officials announced they had investigated Stewart’s death and had determined that no one employed by the jail had done anything wrong. They said the same about Mitchell but have refused to release their internal investigative reports.


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.