RICHMOND, Va. – Several prominent local, state and national advocacy groups have called for the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an independent investigation into the death of a Portsmouth man from apparent neglect in a Virginia jail.
In a letter sent to the justice department today, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), NAMI Virginia, NAMI Hampton-Newport News, the ACLU of Virginia, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, the Portsmouth Branch of the NAACP and Mental Health America of Virginia have jointly urged for the investigation because of “egregious problems” with the way multiple agencies operated before and after Jamycheal Mitchell’s death. The organizations also warned that lacking the department’s intervention, more inmates with mental illness could die in custody.
“We are extremely concerned about the likelihood of future deaths if the problems are not remedied,” the letter states.
Mr. Mitchell died in custody at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in August 2015, four months after being arrested and held for stealing $5 worth of junk food from a local convenience store.
An internal investigation cleared the jail of any wrongdoing. However, an April 2016 report from the State Office of Inspector General revealed multiple mistakes by every agency that had contact with Mr. Mitchell following his arrest.
“The report outlines a number of systematic failures that led to the death of Jamycheal Mitchell and says that these systematic weaknesses were known to lawmakers and government agencies long before Mitchell died and had been recommended to be addressed – some urgently – but that various policy, procedural and legislative changes had nonetheless not be enacted,” the advocacy groups letter states.
“We believe the problems illustrated in this case, including neglect and possible abuse within the jail as well as lack of systemic coordination among responsible systems, are not isolated to this particular case.”
The letter cites improvements in mental health treatment in jails as well as systemic improvements in the mental health care system as a whole in other states following the justice department’s involvement.
“Federal action is imperative to prevent future tragedies and to facilitate sustained improvements in coordinated responses to justice involved persons with mental illness in Virginia,” the letter concludes.