(2-8-17) House Republicans in Virginia today moved to fire the state’s sitting Inspector General for issuing a vanilla investigative report about the death of Jamycheal Mitchell that avoided answering tough questions. Mitchell was the 24 year-old African American with schizophrenia who was found dead in a Hampton Roads Regional jail cell while waiting 101 days for a bed in a state hospital. An autopsy showed he had died because of a heart attack caused by starvation. Mitchell had been arrested for allegedly stealing $5.05 worth of snacks from a 7-11 store.
Along with other mental health advocates, I sharply criticized State Inspector General June W. Jennings for issuing a report that failed to explain how a prisoner could starve to death while under near constant surveillance by correctional officers and being checked daily by a nurse hired to provide health care at the jail. Instead of questioning jail officials thoroughly and digging out details about what transpired, Jennings explained that she’d decided to not investigate who might have been responsible, nor “every element of prior investigations.” Instead, her report focused on “system errors”rather than “human ones.” The result was a largely useless document that surely pleased jail officials (who already had investigated themselves and found no wrongdoing) and appeared to have been written to help protect the state from being found liable in a civil lawsuit.
After Jennings issued her report, a whistleblower in her office and two other contract employees alleged in a complaint to the state Attorney General, that IG investigators hadn’t even bothered to go to the jail when Mitchell first died, but instead did a “desk review,” which meant they called jail officials and asked them to fax them copies of their official reports. The whistleblowers also charged that Jennings and her staff intentionally mislead me when I filed a Freedom of Information request.
Hours after that complaint was filed, a spokesman for Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that the complaint was being rejected because the governor had full confidence in Jennings. The whistleblowers noted that the governor’s office took this action without bothering to interview any of them. In the midst of that dust-up, a newspaper reported that Jennings and her top assistant, Patricia Smith, had personal ties to the state hospital that misplaced Mitchell’s paperwork, causing him to remain in jail rather than be transferred. Those connections raised questions about whether either Jennings or Smith could be objective, but the governor stuck with her.
And after today’s vote, Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, doubled or I should write, tripled down. In an angry statement, he defended Jennings while accusing Republicans of game playing.
“I am outraged that House Republicans are trying to fire a qualified public servant over a tragic matter for which she and her office bear absolutely zero responsibility. This action is particularly hypocritical in light of House Republican leaders’ rejection of proposals to fix the problems that they say warrant her firing.
“This year I introduced legislation to give the Board of Corrections clear authority to investigate deaths in Virginia jails. Republicans in the House rejected it.
“I also put funding in the budget for mental health screenings in jails. Republicans in the House rejected it.
“Jamycheal Mitchell’s death was a tragedy that demonstrated the need for real mental health and criminal justice reform, and my administration is ready to move forward. Unfortunately, Republicans in the House of Delegates are more concerned with playing politics with qualified appointees than with keeping Virginians healthy and safe.”
The IG’s handling of the investigation and the state’s continued failure to adequately pursue answers about Mitchell’s death helped prompt the Justice Department to announce in December that it would investigate possible civil rights violations at the Hampton Roads jail. Since Mitchell’s death, his family has filed a $60 -million dollar civil suit against the jail and state officials, the superintendent in charge has retired, and the state has awarded a nearly $1 million grant to the jail to improve mental health services.
There was no mention in the governor’s release about whether he or Democrats can stop the firing or who might replace Jennings, a 25 year state employee.
I have been critical of how inspector generals have operated in Virginia long before Jennings was named to run a reorganized office. Before her, the state had an actual Inspector General assigned to examine mental health investigations. Douglas Bevelacqua was doing such a fabulous job exposing weaknesses in our system that he landed in trouble with his boss. They got into an argument when Bevelacqua pointed out that he had issued a report warning state officials about “streeting” – hospitals turning persons with mental illnesses away without treating them — nearly two years before state Sen. Creigh Deeds was turned away without getting a bed for his son, Gus. In that tragedy, Deed and Gus were told no local beds could be found within a 72 hour limit. Sent home, Gus attacked his father with a knife before ending his own life. Bevelacqua’s superior ordered him to tone down his criticism in a report that he was writing about the Deeds’ case. Instead, Bevelacqua resigned.
Given the enemies that Bevelacqua has made by actually doing what an Inspector General is supposed to do – being an independent watchdog rather than fretting about politics- it’s doubtful the state legislature will appoint him to replace Jennings.
That’s too bad for all of us.