Fault Lines
15 December 2017

It Took Jamycheal Mitchell’s Death For Virginia To Deal With Inmate Mental Illness

January 19, 2017 (Fault Lines) — The death of a mentally-ill young man at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail has forced Virginia lawmakers to reckon with the state’s dismal mental health treatment in the criminal justice system. The family of Jamycheal Mitchell pleaded with the General Assembly to enact major reforms to mental health treatment for inmates.

Mitchell was arrested in 2015 after stealing $5 worth of junk food from a 7-Eleven. His family says Mitchell, who suffered from schizophrenia and a bipolar disorder, mistakenly thought his dad owned the store. Mitchell lost 46 pounds over 101 days while in custody, and died of cardiac arrest due to extreme weight loss on August 19, 2015.

Mitchell was supposed to be transferred to Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, but numerous clerical errors delayed the move. The jail’s former administrators cleared their employees of wrongdoing but refused to release their internal report on Mitchell’s death and records related to his incarceration. Subsequent investigations by state agencies failed to reach conclusions about how the bipolar and schizophrenic man died while under what was supposed to be close supervision.

“No young man should spend four months in jail for stealing a candy bar and soda,” Roxanne Adams (Mitchell’s aunt) said during a news conference at the General Assembly Building. “The mentally ill should be in treatment centers, not jails.”

“My son died in a jail by himself. Nobody knows what his last words were. Did he say anything? We don’t know nothing,” said Mitchell’s mother, Sonia Adams. “You don’t expect your child to die before you.”

Day after day, he stood cold and naked at the door of his cell. No young man should spend four months in jail for stealing candy bar and soda.

Lawmakers are working to enact law to improve mental health, including a bill that would make it easier for inmates to get treatment.

There are at least 15 bills queued up this session reforming the state’s mental health system, with a particular focus on jails, which state officials describe as de facto mental hospitals but without many treatment options. Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s budget includes $32 million in new mental health funding. The Republican legislative majority has made it clear that reforms and new funding are a priority.

“This is a bipartisan effort,” Delegate Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, said. “We’re determined to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.” But as is almost invariably the case, it took a needless death to generate sufficient interest to act upon the problem.

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