Virginia Officials Should Be Ashamed That Feds Had To Investigate How Inmate Starved To Death In Jail – Not Crowing About Consent Decree


Church bulletin at Jamycheal Mitchell’s funeral

(8-6-20) The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has proposed a consent decree with the Hampton Roads Regional Jail Authority, hopefully closing one of Virginia’s most egregious chapters involving abuse of a prisoner with a serious mental illnesses. If approved by a judge, the jail will be required to implement numerous reforms, including better care for its mentally ill inmates, more staffing, and adherence to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The federal government stepped in because jail and state officials covered-up and did their best to ignore the August 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell, who suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The question we should be asking is whether our elected leaders have learned anything and taken steps to avoid future bureaucratic blundering if a death happens in a jail.

An autopsy concluded that Mitchell had died from a heart attack caused by “wasting syndrome,” which meant he’d starved himself to the point that his heart failed. Mitchell weighed 190 pounds when he was arrested for allegedly stealing $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store. The autopsy listed his weight at death as 144 pounds. Mitchell was waiting in the jail for 101 days for a state hospital bed to become available. After his death, hospital officials admitted that his transfer paperwork had been tossed in a drawer and forgotten. Guards were supposed to eyeball Mitchell each half-hour, and once a day he was supposed to be checked by a nurse employed by a for-profit company called Naph Care. There were no notations in his medical records that showed anyone had noticed his 46-pound weight loss.

It is surprising that  Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring was credited in a Virginian-Pilot story this morning for requesting the Justice Department get involved.

Mark Herring

It was the the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, the ACLU of Virginia, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Hampton-Newport News, Mental Health America of Virginia, the Portsmouth Branch of the NAACP, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and The Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law which called on June 6, 2016 for the Justice Department to investigate Mitchell’s death because state officials, including Herring, had done such a lousy job. I also wrote in the Washington Post about the need for a federal investigation. Herring didn’t ask for a federal probe until September 3, months after the advocates.

As I noted in a Washington Post editorial at the time, an investigation by the Richmond Times-Dispatch revealed the Virginia Attorney General’s Office told court officials responsible for transferring Mitchell to a state hospital to not participate in an investigation by the state inspector general or state mental health officials without clearing what they might say first with Herring’s office – a move that critics saw as a way to stifle potentially embarrassing testimony in anticipation of a wrongful death civil lawsuit filed by the family. (The jail, Naph Care, and the state ended up paying a total of $3 million to the Mitchell family in a settlement.)

Herring was not alone in his questionable actions. Jail officials and then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration grossly mishandled investigations into Mitchell’s death.

Here’s some examples.

Eight days after Mitchell’s body was discovered in his cell, jail officials announced they had conducted a thorough internal investigation and found absolutely no wrong doing. After clearing themselves, they refused to make that report public. Later, they announced that video that showed the outside of Mitchell’s cell – which would have documented how often he was checked by a nurse and fed by jailers – had been inadvertently taped over, only to produce the videos once attorneys for Mitchell’s family sued the jail.

The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) sat on its internal investigation into Mitchell’s death for four months, until after Virginia’s General Assembly adjourned. That report was released only after complaints by advocates. In preparing that report, state investigators admitted that they hadn’t bothered to question jail employees about what happened inside the jail leading up to Mitchell’s death, claiming they had no jurisdiction over them.

The Virginia Office of the State Inspector General also demurred from investigating Mitchell’s death, claiming it didn’t have authority to question the actions of jail officials. Instead, the IG issued a wishy-washy report that quoted a government study which concluded tragedies such as Mitchell’s are not the fault of bad employees but of systemic failures.

When three whistleblowers filed a complaint about the state Inspector General’s handling of the case and daily operation of the IG office, Gov. McAuliffe’s office dismissed their complaint without bothering to investigate any of the charges or even talk to the whistleblowers. The Virginia General Assembly was so outraged by the IG’s ineptness that it ousted her, only to have McAuliffe give her another cushy job in his administration.

Created by Congress to specifically investigate cases of institutional abuse of mentally ill inmates, the state’s disAbility Law Center hid its head in the sand and did nothing that mattered when it came to investigating Mitchell’s death.

If advocates and investigative journalists at the Virginian-Pilot, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Washington Post hadn’t appealed to the Justice Department, nothing would have been done. And what those advocates and reporters revealed about problems inside the jail and the state’s bumbling were shocking.

Virginian-Pilot Investigative Reporter Gary A. Harki found that a year after Mitchell’s death, another inmate – Henry Stewart –  filed paperwork and repeatedly asked for help because he was not feeling well. His pleas were ignored and he died two days later.  Harki discovered that since 2015, at least 22 people died while in the jail’s custody. In 2017, then-jail Superintendent Ronaldo Myers worked to get legislative support for a measure that would have given the jail $5 million in state money to hire 80 new correctional and support staff. The bill died in a legislative committee after some sheriffs on the board did not support it.

A Justice Department investigation “concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the Jail failed to provide constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners, and placed prisoners with serious mental illness in restrictive housing for prolonged periods of time under conditions that violate the Constitution.”

Rather than being given credit, Attorney General Herring, former governor McAuliffe and state legislators should apologize and assure voters that if another inmate dies in custody, the state will thoroughly ferret out the truth rather than trying to ignore it.

Copy of consent degree news release.



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.