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‘They’re Trying To Kill Us In Here’

At Virginia’s Hampton Roads Regional Jail, reform has been slow even after high-profile tragedies including the death of mentally disabled man incarcerated who allegedly stole $5 worth of snacks.

Cell with door
Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Mathieu Le Mauff/Getty images

Prosecutors wanted to know what happened to Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24-year-old man who died in his cell at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Virginia, on August 19, 2015, just months after he was arrested on charges of trespass and petit larceny for allegedly stealing about $5 worth of snacks from a 7-Eleven.

So, on May 24, 2017, prosecutors from the Portsmouth commonwealth’s attorney’s office attempted to empanel a special grand jury to investigate the jail’s treatment of Mitchell, who had a documented history of severe mental disability including a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. But just days later, a judge denied their grand jury request. Prosecutors then spent nearly two years interviewing employees of NaphCare Inc., the company that provided medical services for the jail, which houses approximately 1,100 people per day from cities including Portsmouth, Newport News, Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Hampton. Prosecutors, however, were able to speak with only 14 of the 22 NaphCare employees they sought to interview.

On Feb. 20, Portsmouth prosecutors released a 166-page report on Mitchell’s death, concluding that he had been subjected to abuse, “substandard conditions,” and inadequate care from jail staff. Prosecutors wrote that Mitchell’s family examined his signatures on certain NaphCare medical records and believed that they were forgeries, although prosecutors never proved that allegation. (NaphCare did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal.)

“If one [Hampton Roads] officer had enough compassion for Jamycheal Mitchell to take up his cause, demand that he be properly treated for his clear bouts of mania, psychosis, and refusals of medication, to generate the appropriate emergency reports documenting their requests, and to not rest until Mr. Mitchell was stabilized and his decompensation was reversed, this report would be unnecessary,” prosecutors wrote.

In the end, however, prosecutors acknowledged that they were “still missing a great deal of information” from the jail and could only cite “relevant case law on the potential crimes that could be charged” in the Mitchell case. “Our investigative process was marred by obstacles and delays because we were forced to deal with the medical services provider on their own time, without subpoena power,” Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie N. Morales wrote in a Feb. 20 open letter to Virginia lawmakers.

DOJ blasts restrictive housing

When Mitchell was booked at Hampton Roads on May 11, 2015, after being arrested for allegedly stealing a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew, a king size Snickers bar and a Zebra Cake from a Portsmouth 7-Eleven, he could speak intelligibly, one person incarcerated at the jail later told investigators with the Portsmouth commonwealth attorney’s office. But during the months that Mitchell was housed at the jail, this person said, his speech devolved into “gibberish.” On May 21, 2015, the Portsmouth General District Court found that Mitchell was not competent to stand trial or assist in his own defense. The court ordered him to receive treatment from Eastern State Hospital, either at the jail or the hospital itself. But that didn’t happen.

While incarcerated at the jail, correctional officers allegedly struck Mitchell on the knuckles with a flashlight, hurled profanities, mocked him, and called him “dirty,” all as punishment for being uncooperative. When Mitchell was found dead in his cell in August 2015, he was covered in urine. Portsmouth’s chief medical examiner said the cause of death was a “probable cardiac arrhythmia accompanying wasting syndrome of unknown etiology.” Mitchell’s death received extensive national media coverage, and his family settled lawsuits against the jail and NaphCare for approximately $3 million.

He was one of 68 in-custody deaths at Hampton Roads between 2003 and 2018. In 2016, the growing body count sparked a Department of Justice investigation into conditions at the jail. In December 2018, the agency released a scathing report on Hampton Roads, blasting its use of restrictive housing for the severely ill as well as the prevalence of people, like Mitchell, who were incarcerated for minor offenses.

Hampton Roads jail superintendent David Hackworth told The Appeal that increases in staffing and medical personnel began in 2016. When the DOJ visited during its investigation, he said, there were roughly 50 people from its medical services provider working in the jail. Now, there are more than 62, Hackworth said.

“The change was happening before I got here [and] changes continue to happen,” Hackworth, who became superintendent in March 2018, said during a recent phone interview. “I’ve increased the number of RNs that we have on site. I’ve increased the number of mental health professionals that we’ll have.”

But in its report, the DOJ cited the jail’s overuse of restrictive housing for severely ill people, meaning that people in poor mental or physical health were confined to their cells for most of the day. Approximately 25 percent of Hampton Roads’s 774 cells were designated as restrictive housing cells, according to the DOJ. “The jail’s practice of subjecting prisoners with serious mental illness to prolonged periods of restrictive housing under conditions, including the denial of access to adequate medical and mental health care, that places these prisoners at substantial risk of serious harm shows deliberate indifference to their health and safety,” the report stated.

On April 1, 2015, a 54-year-old who had a history of major depression identified by the DOJ only as “P.P.,” complained that he was being threatened by other people incarcerated at Hampton Roads and that he had a mental health issue not being addressed by staff. A supervisor agreed to refer P.P. to a mental health professional, but she also wrote him up for having contraband in his cell, for which he was placed in restrictive housing. On April 3, P.P. was found hanging in his cell. “Despite a history of serious mental illness, he did not see a psychiatrist during the nearly two months between his admission and his suicide,” according to the DOJ. “The only evaluation he received was by a social worker on the morning of his death.”

The DOJ also criticized the incarceration of 62 people with severe mental illness at Hampton Roads who had booking histories of “minor offenses,” such as shoplifting, trespassing, and violating their probation. During Virginia’s 2017 fiscal year, this group of people collectively spent 8,030 days at the jail and cost the local communities at least $505,890, according to the DOJ.

Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College in New York and the author of “The End of Policing,” said this population should never have been in the jail in the first place.“The ultimate solution is to quit using these facilities to manage the problems of poverty, such as mass homelessness, untreated mental illness, substance abuse and involvement in black markets, all of which are responsible for the vast majority of current jail populations,” he said.

Hackworth told The Appeal that mental health status is not a factor in the decision making process to put a person in restrictive housing. He also said there are fewer people in restrictive housing than were before he became superintendent. “I don’t put anybody in any type of restrictive housing because they’re mentally ill,” Hackworth said. “It would be based on the circumstances of what’s going on. I mean, if I’ve got somebody who is suicidal, of course we’re going to pull them out and we’re going to do appropriate suicide protocol. If I’ve got somebody who has a disciplinary issue, it’s going to be because of a disciplinary issue.”

In its December 2018 report, the DOJ gave the jail just over a month and a half to implement its recommendations. The agency also said it would sue if the jail did not “satisfactorily” improve its conditions during that time period. But when the deadline passed in February, the federal government had just emerged from the longest shutdown in history. As of early this month, the DOJ had not followed through on its threat to sue Hampton Roads. (The agency  did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment.) The jail continues to work with the DOJ on its recommendations, Hackworth said. He told The Appeal that he is awaiting more clarity from the agency on its more than 40 recommended remediations, such as auditing of administrative records regularly for completeness and accuracy, ensuring there are improved intake screenings and health assessments, and ending restrictive housing for people who say they are suicidal.

Changes not apparent to advocates

But after a coalition of advocates including the Virginia ACLU, the Portsmouth chapter of the NAACP and the Virginia branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) toured Hampton Roads on March 21, they told The Appeal that the DOJ’s recommendations did not appear to have been implemented. The inside of the jail was “dismal,” one advocate said. As they toured the locked-down restricted housing pod, some people yelled from their cells, “They’re trying to kill us in here!”

Coalition representatives said they were shocked and disappointed at the lack of a detailed plan in their discussions about mental health with jail staff.

“You don’t need to wait for the Department of Justice to tell you what good quality care and respecting people’s human rights looks like,” Rhonda Thissen, executive director of NAMI Virginia, said in a phone interview. “The staff that we met with didn’t really have a good handle on the details—how inmates were being treated, what kind of services were available.”

James Boyd, president of the NAACP in Portsmouth, said in a recent phone interview that the March visit convinced him that a court-ordered federal monitor was needed to ensure that Hampton Roads achieved real reforms.

“Jamycheal Mitchell is probably the worst civil rights injustice of our time,” he said. “There’s people in Guantánamo Bay, they get treated better than in the regional jail.”

Sheriff stops sending prisoners 

In-custody deaths continue to occur at Hampton Roads. On Dec. 31, 2018, an officer found Jakub Michael Plucinski, 33, unresponsive in his cell. In late February, Victor Rhea Fountain, 62, died at the jail after he was reported to be in “medical distress.”

Because of the jail’s persistent issues with conditions of confinement, Portsmouth Sheriff Michael Moore stopped transferring arrestees there. Before the DOJ’s 2018 report, Moore told The Appeal, he was sending 15 to 20 people to Hampton Roads per month. “We haven’t sent anyone to the regional jail this year,” Moore said in a recent phone interview. “It’s not that we don’t have confidence in the new leadership there. It’s just that it makes sense from our standpoint, until those issues can be addressed and we can see some improvement moving forward, we’re just not in a position to send an inmate to that facility.”

“I just still have that conscience, that I just can’t send people to an institution that I don’t feel comfortable with. So I have to treat them just like they’re a family member,” Moore added. “I wouldn’t want a family member in those certain types of conditions. All of these people belong to someone.”