Justice Dept. To Investigate Treatment Of Mentally Ill in Va. Jail: Major Victory for Mental Health Advocates

Sonia Adams holds the program for her son Jamycheal Mitchell's funeral as her sister Roxanne Adams stands behind her Friday, May 6, 2016. Mitchell was found dead in his cell at Hampton Roads Regional Jail.

Sonia Adams holds the program for her son Jamycheal Mitchell’s funeral as her sister Roxanne Adams stands behind her Friday, May 6, 2016. Mitchell was found dead in his cell at Hampton Roads Regional Jail.

(12-12-16) Breaking news! The U.S. Department of Justice today announced it will investigate the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Va., after repeated requests from mental health advocates following the death of Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24 year-old African American with schizophrenia who suffered a fatal heart attack prompted by starvation after spending 101 days in jail last year.

Seven advocacy groups initially requested an investigation of the jail, including:

  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, the state office of NAMI;
  • NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), the national organization of NAMI;
  • NAMI Hampton-Newport News, a local affiliate of NAMI;
  • The ACLU of Virginia;
  • NAACP Portsmouth;
  • Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and
  • The Mental Health America of Virginia, a statewide organization.
  • The Treatment Advocacy Center signed a second version of a letter to the Justice Department sent by the original 7 agencies.

I also called for an investigation, and was joined by The Washington Post, after state agencies failed to publicly explain how Mitchell, who was accused of stealing $5.05 worth of snack foods, died in the jail while reportedly under the daily medical care of a nurse and regular checks by correctional officers. Two investigative reporters for The Richmond Times Dispatch, Sarah Kleiner and K. Burnell Evans, were relentless in investigating Mitchell’s death, and deserve credit for keeping this story alive, as does Gary Harki, with the Virginian Pilot.  Another key player in publicly demanding an investigation was Douglas Bevelacqua, a former Virginia inspector general responsible for mental health probes.

All of us who care about the inappropriate incarceration of persons with mental disorders owe a huge thank you to the eight groups and the investigative reporters who focused on this horrific case. It is important to note that the Justice Department did not state that it would specifically investigate Mitchell’s death. This is unfortunate. But it will look at practices in the jail and hopefully its probe will improve services there that will spread across the state. This is a major victory for Virginia NAMI’s Mira Signer, who spearheaded the effort, and it should be further embarrassment for state officials and Virginia agencies charged with protecting persons with mental illnesses who should have investigated this when it first happened but chose instead to simply allow jail officials to investigate and absolve themselves. I will be writing more about this later.

Email message to me from Justice Department official:


Because you had previously provided information to our office as we did preliminary work on this matter, I wanted to let you know that our office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia have just formally opened an investigation into the Hampton Roads Regional Jail.  Thanks again for your help during our preliminary inquiry.  I will be continuing to work on this case going forward, so please do not hesitate to contact me should you have any questions or have any information you believe would aid us in our investigation.

Justice Department New Release:


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                                WWW.JUSTICE.GOV                                                                          



WASHINGTON – The Justice Department announced today that it has opened an investigation into the conditions at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Virginia.  

The investigation will focus on whether the jail violates the constitutional rights of inmates to adequate medical and mental health care; violates the constitutional rights of inmates who have mental illness by secluding them in isolation for prolonged time periods; and violates the rights of inmates who have mental illness by denying them access to services, programs and activities because of their disability.  

“All prisoners, including those with mental illness, have a constitutional right to receive necessary medical care, treatment and services,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division.  “The Justice Department will conduct a thorough investigation, led by the facts and the law, to review conditions in the jail.” 

“We are committed to protecting the civil rights of all citizens, including those who are incarcerated,” said U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente of the Eastern District of Virginia.  “Prisoners with mental illness are a particularly vulnerable population, and their rights must be safeguarded.  We look forward to conducting a full and fair investigation of this matter in partnership with the Civil Rights Division.” 

The department has not reached any conclusions regarding the allegations in this matter.  The investigation will be conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) and under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Under CRIPA, the department has the authority to investigate violations of prisoners’ constitutional rights that result from a “pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights.”  The department has conducted CRIPA investigations of many correctional systems, and where violations have been found, the resulting settlement agreements have led to important reforms.  

The Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Virginia are conducting this investigation.  Individuals with relevant information are encouraged to contact the department via phone at 844-644-0225 or by email at Community.HamptonRoads@usdoj.gov.


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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.