by Rob Poggenklass, Tony Dunn Legal Fellow
At 5:45 a.m. on August 19, jail officials discovered Jamycheal Mitchell’s dead body on the floor of his cell at Hampton Roads Regional Jail. According to his aunt, a registered nurse, Jamycheal’s 6-foot-3 frame was so emaciated that the family could only conclude that he had refused medication and starved himself to death.
For years, the ACLU of Virginia has called for reforms to our criminal justice system. But as the conservative economist Milton Friedman once said, “Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change.” The events that led to Jamycheal's death can only be described as evidence of such a crisis. This crisis touches almost all aspects of Virginia’s criminal justice system – from law enforcement, to the jails, to the courts.
Jamycheal was a 24-year-old mentally ill African American man who was too disabled to work. Court records show he encountered Virginia’s criminal justice system in 2010, spending four months in jail. Eventually, his charges of petit larceny and trespassing were dismissed because a mental health expert and a court agreed that he was too mentally ill to stand trial. In 2011, court records show he was charged and convicted of petit larceny and sentenced to 90 days in jail, with all of that time suspended. In 2012, he was once again charged with petit larceny and trespassing. He spent about a month in a state mental hospital before being found guilty of the misdemeanors.
On April 22, 2015, Jamycheal returned to the Portsmouth City Jail. This time, an officer had charged Jamycheal with trespassing at a 7-11, but released him on the promise that Jamycheal would appear in court. When Jamycheal returned to the store later the same day, an officer arrested him and took him to the city jail. He was accused of stealing a Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar, and a Zebra cake – totaling $5 worth of goods.
At an initial hearing two hours after the arrest, a magistrate refused to set any bail for Jamycheal. Later in the day, a judge set his bail at $3,000. But Jamycheal apparently could not pay, as he spent the next four months in Portsmouth jails. (The fact that Jamycheal never paid court fines and costs from his previous convictions suggests he may not have had the money to pay.) In front of the judge, Jamycheal waived his right to an attorney. Roughly three weeks after his arrest, the Portsmouth City Jail transferred Jamycheal to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, a larger facility in Portsmouth that houses inmates from across Hampton Roads.
On May 21, after nearly a month in jail, Jamycheal was declared unfit to stand trial. Judge Morgan Whitlow also ordered that Jamycheal be transferred to Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg for mental health treatment. At some point, a judge having concluded that Jamycheal was not competent to represent himself in a criminal case, the court appointed the Portsmouth Public Defender’s Office.
This is where the facts become less clear. According to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, the hospital had no vacancy, thus the jail was forced to keep him while he waited for a bed. But according to Jamycheal’s aunt, who called Eastern State, “people there said they didn’t know anything about the request or not having bed availability.” The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services, which operates Eastern State Hospital, has not commented on Jamycheal’s case, citing federal privacy laws. Regardless of which version is correct, the result was the same – Jamycheal remained in jail instead of at a mental health treatment facility.
On July 31, Judge Whitlow reiterated his order to have Jamycheal transferred to Eastern State. His previous order had gone unaddressed for 70 days, and it does not appear that the judge held anyone accountable for failing to comply with his order. Under state law, a court may fine any person who defies a court order up to $250 or put them in jail for up to 10 days.
At the time of his death, Jamycheal had spent more than 120 days in jail (at a cost of approximately $77 a day) for stealing $5 worth of candy and soda. Natasha Perry, the master jail officer at Hampton Roads Regional Jail, declared that the death of 24-year-old Jamycheal was due to “natural causes.” Portsmouth police are investigating Jamycheal’s death.
Jamycheal’s case illustrates so many of the problems we’ve identified with Virginia’s criminal justice system, they are almost too numerous to count. Nonetheless, we’ll try. Following is a list of some of the problems in the system that contributed to his death in jail. We’ll be talking more about these and other needed reforms in future blogs.
Problem #1: a 24-year-old is not expected to die of natural causes, especially in a jail where he is kept under near-constant surveillance. We suspect the master jail officer’s announcement is not the end of this story. An autopsy will determine the actual cause of Jamycheal’s death.
Problem #2: a person who is charged with a crime should not languish in jail because he cannot afford to pay bail, especially someone charged, and not yet convicted, of only nonviolent offenses. This is a denial of the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It’s time for the General Assembly to reform our bail system to eliminate the cash bail system that evidence shows does nothing to promote public safety or even to assure that people will show up for trial. It should be eliminated in favor of releasing non-violent offenders with non-financial conditions that are focused on protecting our communities.
Problem #3: officials at either the jail or the state hospital (or both) violated a court order to transfer Jamycheal from Hampton Roads Regional Jail to Eastern State Hospital. This demonstrates that the rule of law is not functioning in the Commonwealth. A court order is not a suggestion – it is a directive. Anyone who violates a court order should be held accountable. Nearly three months after Judge Whitlow’s order that Jamycheal be transferred, no one had complied and no one had been sanctioned for non-compliance.
Problem #4: sheriffs and jail superintendents are quick to point out that local and regional jails are not mental health facilities. Yet 23.7% of their inmates – nearly one in four – have a mental illness that requires treatment with drugs. This fact alone makes clear that Virginia does not have adequate community-based treatment programs to meet the needs of Virginians with mental health issues. Nor does it have enough drop off centers where law enforcement can take people in crisis for treatment rather than incarceration. Finally, while many in law enforcement are getting crisis intervention training, it is clear that few departments have professional and well-trained crisis intervention teams that can respond effectively when a person in crisis requires intervention. The General Assembly needs to fund the needed level of community-based services that will reduce the dependence on more expensive jails as mental health service providers.
This is not an exhaustive list of the problems illustrated by Jamycheal Mitchell’s case. But these are among the most serious. All of them can and must be addressed. Virginia simply cannot wait for yet another crisis before it acts to fix our criminal justice system. Let Jamycheal’s death be the last of its kind.