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Time for Transparency on Jailhouse Deaths
Danville Register & Bee - 5/27/2018
In April 2015, Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, was arrested for shoplifting about five dollars' worth of junk food - a soda, a pastry and candy. He was jailed in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, awaiting court action in his case.
For Mitchell, that shoplifting arrest turned into a death sentence because of lack of oversight, lack of money and lack of attention to an obviously ill man.
Mitchell, it turns out, suffers from severe mental illness, and he'd stopped taking his medication for schizophrenia because of the severe side effects it can have. A judge immediately recognized the problem and ordered him transferred to Eastern State Hospital for psychiatric observation and treatment. But because a bed wasn't available and because of other failings at the state and local levels, Mitchell remained in his jail cell, essentially forgotten by the system and deteriorating both mentally and physically. By mid-August, weighing less than 100 pounds, he died after being rushed to a local hospital.
Mitchell's story made headlines around the world after the Guardian and Observer newspapers in Great Britain covered it. The Richmond Times-Dispatch, our sister BH Media newspaper, doggedly led the way in uncovering one gruesome detail after another about Mitchell's last weeks and days.
One of the most disturbing things the news media uncovered was there was no governmental agency - neither state nor local - had jurisdiction to investigate deaths in local and regional jails. State prisons are under the control of the Department of Corrections and the board that oversees the department, but local and regional jails fell through the regulatory and oversight cracks. Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered an investigation by the Virginia State Police and a special prosecutor looked into the matter, but no one had the statutory authority to take remedial action.
In its 2016 session, the General Assembly ordered a panel to study the problem and bring recommendations to the legislature in 2017. Following the panel's recommendations, the Assembly addressed the gap in state law regarding legal oversight and also established an office with the Department of Corrections to investigate any inmate death occurring in a local or regional jail. The office would report to a reshaped Board of Corrections, which could take any action deemed necessary in the cases.
But for one reason or another, this new office was slow getting up to speed. Though the law took effect July 1, 2017, it wasn't until mid-November that it was fully staffed and operating as envisioned. By the end of October, there had been 41 deaths in Virginia's jails since the start of 2017, and more than half had occurred in the months after the law went into force.
Six months later, that number has climbed to 53, and the two investigators tasked with examining the circumstances of the deaths have closed only 17 cases. They've dutifully reported their findings to the Board of Corrections, but the public and the news media have heard absolutely nothing. This pattern of silence began Nov. 15 when the board ejected a Times-Dispatch reporter from a portion of a meeting on privacy grounds - the mental and physical health of an individual were to be discussed ? a deceased individual.
Fifty-three deaths, 17 closed investigations and not a shred of information released to the public. There is something wrong with this picture, and it lies with the Board of Corrections itself, which establishes its own policies as to what information to release, if any.
"Any policies on this will be set by the board itself," Michael Kelly, Attorney General Mark Herring's spokesman, wrote in an email to the Times-Dispatch. "We will of course advise the board on its obligations, responsibilities and authorities under the law, but ultimately, it will be up to the board to decide how they want to handle these situations."
And so far, how the board handles "these situations" publicly is with silence.
Of the 36 still-open cases, 22 appear to be from natural causes. One is of unknown causes, two are homicides and 11 are suicides.
How many of these deaths involve mental health or substance abuse issues? What, exactly, is meant when the corrections department says an investigation is "closed"? Will any summations, including recommendations to prevent suicides or homicides behind bars, be released to the public?
We don't know. It's time for the Board of Corrections to release this information and present a full picture of how jail systems in the state operate. Are further changes needed? More funding for guards and mental health services? Who knows? Certainly not the public.