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A Troubled Virginia Jail Looks To Add Guards, But Advocates Push For Decarceration

As the Hampton Roads Regional Jail proposes spending $7 million for 113 new guards, advocates renew calls for officials to improve conditions—and an Appeal analysis suggests that the jail could save millions by incarcerating fewer people with mental illness.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Alexa Welch Edlund/AP Images

A Troubled Virginia Jail Looks To Add Guards, But Advocates Push For Decarceration

As the Hampton Roads Regional Jail proposes spending $7 million for 113 new guards, advocates renew calls for officials to improve conditions—and an Appeal analysis suggests that the jail could save millions by incarcerating fewer people with mental illness.


The long-troubled Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Virginia, has yielded staggering human and financial costs. Between 2003 and 2018 there were 68 in-custody deaths as well as millions in legal settlements. In January, the jail and its former medical provider agreed to pay $3 million to the family of Jamycheal Mitchell to settle a lawsuit over his in-custody death; in 2018, the jail and its current medical provider paid $625,000 to settle a lawsuit over the death of Henry Clay Stewart.

In December 2018, the Department of Justice released a report blasting the jail—which houses approximately 1,100 people per day, typically from cities including Newport News, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Hampton, and Portsmouth—for its unconstitutional conditions of confinement. The DOJ also said the jail needlessly incarcerates people with severe mental and medical illnesses on minor, nonviolent offenses at an enormous cost to local communities: at least $505,890 in the 2017 fiscal year alone.

In 2015, Mitchell was held at the jail for allegedly stealing $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store. Stewart was incarcerated for violating his probation over a shoplifting charge.

Yet in May, the facility’s oversight board proposed adding 113 officers and one full-time psychiatrist at a cost of $7 million to satisfy the DOJ’s demands to drastically improve its conditions of confinement. “I don’t know the parameters of this funding, where it’s coming from or what it can be used for, but I can think of all types of creative things that would benefit our community greatly, that we could do with that $7 million,” Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie N. Morales told The Appeal.

Attorneys in Morales’s office investigated Hampton Roads over Mitchell’s death but did not prosecute anyone in the case, saying that they found “insufficient evidence” to support criminal charges. Morales released a report on Feb. 20 that criticized Hampton Roads jailers and its medical provider for housing Mitchell in “substandard conditions” and allegedly abusing him. But in her interview with The Appeal, Morales stopped short of calling for closing the jail or for officials to stop jailing people with special needs like Mitchell, who had a documented history of severe mental disability.

“I would love to see a facility that’s not a traditional area for incarceration, per se,” Morales said, “where people could be rehabilitated, where they would be able to receive the treatment that they need … so that when they re-enter into society, they re-enter as whole as possible.”

Reached by phone, Hampton Roads jail superintendent David Hackworth declined to comment on the oversight board’s proposal.

An overrepresented population

Preventing the incarceration of people with mental illness would save a significant amount of money.

The DOJ identified 62 people with a serious mental illness, like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, whose entire booking history at the jail “included only minor offenses such as shoplifting, trespassing, or probation violations.” As of Aug. 31, 2017, those people had spent a total of 17,373 days incarcerated at the jail. At an estimated cost of $63 per person per day, incarcerating just those 62 people cost taxpayers about $1.1 million. The DOJ report notes that this sum far exceeds what the local communities would have spent on community mental health services (about $45 per day).

It’s likely that cost savings from decarceration would be significantly higher: In June 2017, approximately 400 out of 1,100 people incarcerated at the jail had a serious mental illness. According to a recent analysis by the Virginian-Pilot, the jail has more people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder than any other in Virginia—and in fiscal year 2018, the jail incurred $2.7 million in costs for mental health treatment and related medication.

“Why are they here?” asked the jail’s chief of security in 2018. “We’re not a mental hospital. We’re a correctional facility.”

Yet Hampton Roads correctional staff tends to respond to behavioral crises by placing these people in restrictive housing, according to the Department of Justice. Such practices most likely exacerbate mental health problems and reduce success rates for those exiting incarceration. The department’s report notes that there are about 70 people with serious mental illness in restrictive housing on any given day, but that figure sometimes went as high as 250 people.

The report also notes that more than half of the jail’s daily population (about 600 of 1,100) consists of pretrial detainees, the vast majority of whom most most likely do not need to be incarcerated to maintain public safety. In New York City, for example, courts only set bail in 23 percent of cases, and 86 percent of defendants return to court for their hearing after being released, far above the national average of 75 percent. Conversely, when courts treat pretrial detention as the norm, low-income Black and Latinx people are disproportionately punished.

Decarceration brings benefits

Decarceration has been successful in other counties. From 2008 to 2018, Miami-Dade County reduced its daily jail population from 7,000 to 4,000 after implementing its Criminal Mental Health Project. As part of the project, people who undergo voluntary treatment are diverted from the criminal legal process and sent to a mental health care provider who develops an individual treatment plan. If the plan is followed, criminal charges can be reduced or dropped.

The program has also provided crisis intervention team training to 5,600 law enforcement officers in Miami-Dade County. In 2017, crisis intervention teams responded to more than 11,000 calls, and only 19 of those calls resulted in arrest. Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit estimates that since 2008, the program has prevented the accumulation of over 15,000 jail days. In 2015, the program also contributed to the closure of a Miami jail. Together, these policies saved taxpayers some $17 million every year, and this calculation doesn’t even address the urgent, often entirely ignored social benefits of decarceration.

In Bexar County, Texas, one of the fastest growing and most populous counties in the U.S. with nearly two million residents, a jail diversion program for people with mental illness is associated with a $2,800 taxpayer cost reduction per person diverted. A 2013 study assessing the effects of that jail diversion program found “no evidence of changes in taxpayer costs beyond 6 months” following diversion, and also noted that diversion is “associated with improved access to treatment.”

Shrinking the system

“Down the line, medium or long term, we need to make sure that people are deflected from entering the system in the first place,” Leo Beletsky, a Northeastern University law and health sciences professor, told The Appeal. “And we really need to invest in avoiding these traumatic and counterproductive encounters with the criminal justice system for everybody.”

Community advocates like Rhonda Thissen, executive director of the Virginia branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told The Appeal that before millions are spent on guards at Hampton Roads, they want the jail to better meet the needs of its population. During a March visit to the jail with representatives of the Virginia ACLU and the Portsmouth NAACP, Thissen said, her request to review outcome metrics for healthcare in the facility was rebuffed by its medical provider, Wellpath (formerly Correct Care Solutions).

“If the contracted vendor is not providing sufficient quality and sufficient quantity of services, and the public has no way to verify that because quality assurance reports provided to a publicly funded entity are private, we have a huge problem with that,” Thissen said.

A spokesperson for Wellpath did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment.

“I don’t know, at this moment, what those 113 positions reflect,” Thissen added. “That may include staff that could provide services. My suspicion is that it’s probably not.”