Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, died at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail on Aug. 19, 2015. (Courtesy of Jamycheal Mitchell’s family)
By Editorial Board,
A MENTALLY ill black man, just 24 years old, is arrested in April 2015 for shoplifting a Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar and a Zebra Cake — total cost: $5 — from a convenience store in Virginia. He languishes in jail for 14 weeks, refusing medicine, his weight plummeting, his cell smeared with feces. After 101 days, having lost more than 40 pounds — literally wasting away, as a starving man does — he dies.
And no one noticed a thing, until it was too late.
Those are some of the essential facts surrounding the case of Jamycheal Mitchell, whose death last summer triggered at least three official investigations and not one coherent answer to the central question: Why didn’t anyone intervene?
The first and hastiest investigation was done by the facility where Mitchell starved to death, the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. Scarcely a week after his body was discovered, jail officials concluded their probe, pronounced themselves blameless — and released not an iota of information.
The next two investigations, by Virginia’s Office of the State Inspector General and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, were no more edifying. The inspector general, citing guidance from the state attorney general, said it lacked jurisdiction to question jail personnel, thereby raising doubts about the utility of its existence. And the DBHDS, in thousands of turgid words, did not bother to address or, so far as can be determined, even ask about the most glaring failure of all: How could no one have noticed that a man was wasting away in plain sight?
This is not an investigation. This is a whitewash.
In both state investigations, the lapses are galling. A former top-ranking inspector general’s official said that the office was in fact empowered to question jail officials, flatly contradicting the office’s assertion of impotence. The mental-health department’s investigators interviewed the jail’s nursing director, Pam Johnson, who said, witlessly, that Mitchell had been eating his food “as far as the nurses were aware.”
The inspector general’s report said that nursing care in Mitchell’s case, provided at the time by NaphCare Inc., a jail contractor, was deficient, and left it at that. And when DBHDS investigators sought a copy of the “mortality and morbidity report” on Mitchell from NaphCare, they received no call back.
The scandal here is multidimensional. It’s a disgrace Mitchell spent 101 days in jail on a $5 shoplifting rap. It’s a disgrace he wasn’t transferred to a nearby state mental-health hospital, as a judge repeatedly ordered. (The hospital didn’t receive and then didn’t see the order until after Mitchell’s death.) It’s a disgrace that months went by before anyone at the jail intervened to take Mitchell to the emergency room. It’s a disgrace the jail taped over video footage taken outside Mitchell’s cell that might have added information. It’s a disgrace the jail absolved itself of all responsibility, while releasing no information. And it’s a disgrace state investigators, after spending months on probes, either couldn’t or wouldn’t ask the right questions to the relevant people.
State advocates for the mentally ill have asked for a Justice Department civil rights investigation. That would be a good, and sadly necessary, start in unraveling the disgrace of Jamycheal Mitchell’s death.