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Authorities investigate death of Arlington County inmate

Inmate’s situation complicated by his refusal to identify himself and refusal of medical care, sheriff says

The Arlington Detention Center, left. (Arlington County )
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Arlington County police are investigating the death of Paul E. Thompson, a county jail inmate who was arrested last month on a trespassing charge and held without bond while authorities tried to determine his identity and address mental health needs that complicated his criminal case, law enforcement officials said. A spokeswoman for the Arlington police said investigators are also awaiting the results of his autopsy by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Thompson was the sixth inmate to die in the Arlington County Detention Facility since August 2015. His death also comes in the midst of a national movement to find alternatives to incarceration, particularly for defendants who have been charged with minor offenses.

Law enforcement officials said Thompson, 41, died Tuesday in the detention facility. He had refused to identify himself and declined to cooperate in his medical care since his arrest by Arlington police Jan. 13, authorities said.

A motion had been filed in General District Court to determine whether Thompson, who was homeless and suffering from alcoholism and mental health problems, was competent to stand trial, according to court records and interviews with county law enforcement officials.

These officials said such proceedings — known as “169” proceedings because of their statutory code — can help set in motion efforts to stabilize and provide health care for defendants who are often severely mentally ill, homeless, suffering from substance abuse or all of the above.

Inmate dies in Arlington County detention center

But the process also takes time, and finding available psychiatric beds has become difficult at a time when the pandemic has limited their supply and local and regional jails have been overwhelmed with large numbers of mentally ill criminal defendants. Last summer, Virginia closed five of the commonwealth’s eight adult mental health hospitals because of unprecedented staffing shortages.

“I think the reality is the system is failing people in our community who are suffering from addiction and suffering from mental health issues,” Arlington County Sheriff Beth Arthur said in an interview. “They’re being arrested, and they’re being arrested for nonviolent charges, and they’re being brought to jail, and they’re not given bond.”

Arthur said the jail’s corrections and medical staff had done everything possible to address Thompson’s medical and mental health issues while pushing the legal and judicial system to move forward on a competency review in the hopes of obtaining court-ordered intervention for him. Thompson’s competency hearing was scheduled to be heard Feb. 8.

“It’s really troubling that six people have died in custody here in seven years,” said Bradley Haywood, chief public defender in Arlington, adding that his ability to speak about Thompson’s case was limited because of attorney-client privilege and because he didn’t yet know all the circumstances of Thompson’s death.

“Something went terribly wrong,” Haywood said. “I would want to know more details about the medical treatment he received at the jail. So many of the people who are dying in custody are people [for whom] behavioral health is implicated. It highlights that we need a new paradigm. This is broken.”

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who is commonwealth’s attorney for Arlington and Falls Church, was first elected in 2019 to a four-year term after running on a campaign of reform. Her office has opposed the use of cash bail for minor offenses, allowing people to go free without posting bond. In this case, prosecutors told the court they would not be opposed to Thomson’s release if he could be positively identified, Dehghani-Tafti said.

The series of in-custody deaths in Arlington’s lockup — including three since October 2020 — prompted the sheriff’s office to cancel the contract of the jail’s former medical provider, Corizon Health, in October. The new provider, Richmond-based Mediko, took over as the jail’s health-care provider in November; the new contract was finalized Wednesday, sheriff’s spokeswoman Maj. Tara Johnson said.

Arlington cuts ties with jail's health-care provider

Thompson was charged with a class-one misdemeanor Jan. 13 at Pentagon Centre, according to the warrant filed in General District Court and a police summary provided by Arlington police spokeswoman Ashley Savage.

Police, summoned about 3:30 p.m. to the 1200 block of S. Hayes Street, were told by the security guard that Thompson had been asked to leave the premises. Police advised Thompson that he would have to move to public property, but Thompson failed to comply, and he was taken into custody. A short time later, a magistrate at the detention center issued the warrant for his arrest, and he was booked as “John Doe,” of no fixed address. He was positively identified by police Jan. 21.