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Lawmakers Call For Outside Investigation of Questionable Deaths in Virginia Jails 

click to enlarge The cell at Hampton Roads Regional Jail where 24-year-old Jamycheal Mitchell was found dead August 19, 2015. He had been charged with theft and was awaiting trial.

Bill Tiernan

The cell at Hampton Roads Regional Jail where 24-year-old Jamycheal Mitchell was found dead August 19, 2015. He had been charged with theft and was awaiting trial.

The death of Jamycheal Mitchell last year prompted two state investigations into whether Virginia’s mental health policies and procedures failed the 24-year-old by not getting him out of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail and into a mental hospital. But there’s been far less scrutiny of what went wrong in the jail itself.

That will change if several state policymakers and legislators have their way during the next legislative session.

Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle County, and Brian Moran, state secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, both say they want legislation that would allow state investigators to look into questionable deaths in jails throughout Virginia.

“I think all the stakeholders here want a system that assures accountability,” Moran said. “We’re in consultation with the local sheriffs as well as the regional jails. They want to be and are willing partners to try to come up with a system.”

The investigators’ aim would be to determine whether the jail in question and the state had the correct policies and procedures in place and whether the jail followed them.

Mitchell was arrested in April 2015, accused of stealing $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store. He died that August in a regional jail cell that allegedly had feces on the walls and urine on the floor.

In August of this year, Henry Stewart died in the jail, which is in Portsmouth and also serves the cities of Norfolk, Chesapeake, Hampton and Newport News. He had filed a number of emergency grievances asking for medical help – the last just two days before his death. That case prompted a change in leadership at the jail, which is now run by Norfolk Sheriff Bob McCabe as interim superintendent.

State police continue to investigate the Mitchell case, but so far no state agency has looked at whether policies or procedures at the jail could have prevented either death.

The reason, state officials say, is that no state agency has the authority to conduct such an investigation.

“Someone does a criminal investigation but in most of these cases, it’s not a criminal issue,” Bell said. “The question is, did they meet their licensure requirements, their regulations? And if they did not, what do they need to do to meet them? Do we need to look at those requirements and regulations themselves?”

The state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services released a report in March examining a series of failings in the state’s mental health system that contributed to Mitchell’s death. Among the findings: A court order that would have sent Mitchell for treatment at Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg was never acted on after a hospital employee placed it in a desk drawer.

In April, the Office of the State Inspector General also released a report on Mitchell’s death. The document has since been criticized by three people working with the agency who say that information was left out of it. It’s not clear what, if anything, that information would have revealed about what happened to Mitchell or what systemic problems contributed to his death.

Officials with both Eastern State and the Inspector General’s Office say they lacked the authority to fully examine what happened inside the jail.

In June, the jail’s superintendent at the time, Dave Simons, released a detailed timeline of events leading to Mitchell’s death. It stated that Mitchell was seen by a mental health professional about 70 times and that he was recorded as having refused medications, lab work and other health care.

“The governor’s concern, as he has said before, is getting to the bottom of how a person like this died in a regional jail,” said Brian Coy, press secretary for Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “The governor believes there should be greater clarity in the law so that there is no question about who has oversight or who investigates in the future.”

Before 2011, there was no question about who had such oversight, said Newport News Sheriff Gabe Morgan, who is on the regional jail’s board. The Board of Corrections had the power to monitor policies and procedures in jails. Then legislation supported by Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2011 took that authority away.

“The Board of Corrections always had the authority to investigate any kind of death,” Morgan said. “The problem is that over the years the state gutted the authority of the Board of Corrections. … They have no teeth.”

Bell said that any new legislation would need to give the Board of Corrections specialized staff to do the investigations.

“Everyone thought the Inspector General’s Office could do the work, but after the regional jail death it’s clear that there needs to be a mechanism in the law for an outside agency to come in,” he said.

Morgan and McCabe both said they would support the oversight legislation but there is another issue central to preventing deaths like Mitchell’s: the funding of mental health care in Virginia.

Both sheriffs say their city jails and the regional jail hold far too many people who are mentally ill.

“That’s just a huge problem that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be addressed anytime soon,” McCabe said.

Mira Signer, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, said there is “completely and utterly a lack of any agency having investigative authority” over the jails. She said she supports measures to fix that.

“However, mentally ill people shouldn’t be in there in the first place,” she said. “It’s fine to figure out a way to statutorily designate some agency that will have investigative authority, but at the end of the day that still misses the point.”

Signer and Morgan both say the state must find a way to create more services for the mentally ill that keep them out of jail in the first place.

The mentally ill end up in situations similar to Mitchell’s in the regional jail more often than people realize, said John W. Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association. Jones supports potential oversight legislation but agreed on the need for more mental health care funding.

“We need more mental health beds,” he said. “The mentally ill wouldn’t be in there if they weren’t sick. … We can’t say at a jail that we’re full. We have to accept people.”

This story originally appeared on PilotOnline.com.

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