Questions Linger Year After Mentally Ill Prisoner’s Death

RICHMOND, Va. — Jamycheal Mitchell loved making people laugh and was known for his smile. Beneath his friendly persona, however, was a young man with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia who dropped out of high school and couldn’t hold a steady job. Despite those troubles, the 24-year-old appeared to have a positive outlook.

“Every time we had family events, Jamycheal was the center of attention,” his cousin Jenobia Meads said.
Then, last year, a small transgression – the theft of $5 in junk food from a convenience store – ended with Mitchell’s death in jail.

He was accused in April 2015 of stealing a Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar and a Zebra Cake from a 7-Eleven in Portsmouth, a small city along Virginia’s Elizabeth River where most residents, like Mitchell, are black. Critics say his arrest effectively became a death sentence, and they blame failures in Virginia’s mental health and criminal justice systems.

Mitchell was ordered to a state mental hospital after his arrest. Instead, he spent months behind bars before being found dead in his jail cell last August. He died of heart failure accompanied by severe weight loss, a medical examiner said.
A year later, questions remain about how Mitchell deteriorated in plain sight of jail and health officials, frustrating advocates who say they fear that thousands of mentally ill people behind bars in Virginia remain at risk.

“We haven’t really been given many great answers as far as any reassurances that people with mental illnesses aren’t going to die anymore,” said Mira Signer, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness in Virginia.

Mitchell’s family filed a $60 million lawsuit accusing jail officials of physically abusing Mitchell and withholding food. Mitchell was treated like a “circus animal,” a fellow inmate said in the lawsuit, which claims jail officials kicked, punched, and mocked Mitchell, and sprayed him with mace.

Hampton Roads Regional Jail has pushed back fiercely against the claims, denying that employees mistreated Mitchell and arguing that officers routinely checked on him and provided three meals daily. Jail officials initially said video footage captured outside Mitchell’s cell had been recorded over, but they changed course in court documents last month. Officials now say video exists but have declined to release it.

The jail has blamed contractor NaphCare, which provided health care there at the time. Jail officials say the company never warned of Mitchell’s deteriorating physical health. When asked to comment, NaphCare referred to an earlier statement calling allegations of “indifference and neglect” against its staff “false and unfounded.”

In June, Virginia State Police announced a criminal investigation into the matter. Advocacy groups also want the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a civil rights investigation; the local FBI office says it’s prepared to look into the case if state police find evidence to do so.

“How did somebody not say, ‘We have got to get help for this young man?’“ said G. Douglas Bevelacqua, a former official in the Virginia inspector general’s office, which investigated Mitchell’s case – a whistleblower complaint accused the agency of inadequately completing the work, but the governor’s office dismissed it. “Until we understand how this happened to Mr. Mitchell, it has a greater likelihood of being repeated someplace.”

Mitchell spent several years in a behavioral health group home as a teen and was hospitalized at times at state institutions, court documents state. On April 22, 2015, he was charged with larceny and trespassing after the 7-Eleven clerk caught him stealing. Police had previously banned him from the store, which Mitchell incorrectly believed his father owned, his family’s lawsuit says.

A judge set Mitchell’s bond at $3,000 but then revoked bail altogether, according to the lawsuit. Psychological records described Mitchell as manic and psychotic, and not mentally competent to assist in his defense. The judge ordered Mitchell to a state mental hospital for treatment so the judicial process could move forward.

But the hospital didn’t receive the order until two months later, a state investigation found. The paperwork ended up in a hospital employee’s desk drawer, and Mitchell was never put on a waiting list for a bed, the investigative report said.
The employee who mishandled the order, according to the report, was overwhelmed, due in part to an increase in mental-hospital admissions. She was “astonished and distraught,” the report says, and has since retired.

Advocates and policymakers hope Mitchell’s death will be a catalyst for reform, such as increased funding for community-based services and jail-diversion programs. In 2015, more than 7,000 people in Virginia jails had some form of mental illness, according to state figures.

But the problems laid bare by Mitchell’s death have long been known to policymakers, and change has been incremental, critics say.

The state lags behind much of the country in general-fund spending on behavioral health care and continues to invest heavily in expensive state mental hospitals, while other states have moved toward community-based care, said Michael Schaefer, of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health.

Health officials say they’ve made progress since Mitchell’s death, pointing to legislation that requires courts to send treatment orders to hospitals by the next business day and directs providers to confirm orders are received.
State officials have recommended other changes but say broader reforms will be fruitless unless policymakers pump more money into community-based services aimed at preventing mentally ill people from ending up in the criminal justice system in the first place.

Some remain skeptical that real change is on the horizon.

“The traditional pattern is for people to be outraged at incomprehensible treatment for a period of time and then people return to their lives,” Bevelacqua said. “The system has just such tremendous inertia that it just rolls over everyone and continues to rumble along, delivering services that are frequently not in the interest of the people being served but the bureaucracies that are serving.”

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