The body of Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24-year-old African American with schizophrenia, was found in a jail cell smeared with feces at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail last August. What has happened since?
●Eight days later, jail officials said an internal investigation found that Mitchell had died of natural causes and there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by jail employees. Jail officials refused to make that probe public.
●Four months later, officials released an autopsy that concluded Mitchell had died from a heart attack caused by “wasting syndrome,” which meant he starved himself to the point that his heart failed. Mitchell weighed 190 pounds when arrested for allegedly stealing $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store. The autopsy listed his weight at 144 pounds. 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.
●Mitchell was in jail waiting to be transferred to a state mental hospital for evaluation. The court order requesting that transfer wasn’t immediately forwarded by the court to the hospital. When it was finally delivered, it was tossed into a desk drawer and wasn’t found until five days after his death. Mitchell had been in jail 101 days.
●The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services sat on its internal investigation into Mitchell’s death for four months, until after Virginia’s General Assembly adjourned and released it after complaints by advocates. Its investigators did not question jail employees about what happened inside the jail leading up to Mitchell’s death, saying DBHDS had no jurisdiction over them.
●The Virginia Office of the State Inspector General also demurred from investigating what took place in the jail, claiming it didn’t have authority to question the actions of jail officials. Instead, it quoted a government study that concluded tragedies such as Mitchell’s are not the fault of bad employees but of systemic failures.
●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 DBHDS officials without consultation. DBHDS officials said they got all the information they requested from the attorney general’s office.
●Two weeks ago, jail officials acknowledged that they had taped over videos taken by a camera positioned outside Mitchell’s cell. Earlier, a jail spokesman said those tapes showed Mitchell was being fed each day. But after an attorney representing the Mitchell family asked for copies of the tapes, the jail declared that they didn’t contain any pertinent information and taped over them. The family attorney said the videos would have shown how often Mitchell was fed, if his food trays were returned unopened and if deputies and nurses entered his cell to check on him.
To date, no one has explained why Mitchell was allowed to starve to death while in custody. No jail or state employees have been publicly reprimanded.
The Justice Department should immediately investigate Mitchell’s death to determine whether criminal charges should be filed against jail or NaphCare employees who were responsible for safeguarding Mitchell’s health.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) should publicly censure DBHDS officials who delayed the release of their investigative report and the attorney general’s staff if they did tell court officials not to cooperate with investigators.
Virginia legislators should strip the inspector general’s office of its responsibility for investigating mental-health care based on its pusillanimous reporting and prior incidents of alleged kowtowing to appease state officials. Investigator G. Douglas Bevelacqua resigned two years ago after being told to modify an investigative report at the request of the DBHDS. Bevelacqua should be brought back as an independent inspector general.
Until those steps are taken, Virginians will never know why a mentally ill man was allowed to starve himself to death in jail and will have no confidence in public officials who clearly care more about protecting themselves than being transparent.
The writer is a former Washington Post reporter and a mental-health advocate.