The family of a mentally ill man who wasted away in a Portsmouth jail cell in 2015 pleaded with the General Assembly on Wednesday to reform the state’s mental health and criminal justice systems to prevent others from dying in custody.
“No young man should spend four months in jail for stealing a candy bar and soda,” Roxanne Adams, the aunt of Jamycheal Mitchell, said during a news conference at the General Assembly Building.
“The mentally ill should be in treatment centers, not jails.”
Mitchell lost 46 pounds over 101 days at Hampton Roads Regional Jail after he allegedly stole $5 in snacks from a convenience store. He died Aug. 19, 2015, of extreme weight loss and heart problems.
He was supposed to be transferred to Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, but instead he was kept alone in a cell at the jail because of a series of clerical errors.
The jail’s former administrators cleared their employees of wrongdoing but refused to release their internal report on Mitchell’s death and records related to his incarceration.
Subsequent investigations by state agencies failed to reach conclusions about how the bipolar and schizophrenic man died while under what was supposed to be close supervision.
Adams was joined by her husband and son and by Mitchell’s mother, Sonia Adams, who wept quietly throughout most of the news conference.
Also present were state lawmakers with bills aimed at preventing deaths like Mitchell’s and advocates from mental health and civil rights organizations.
Each took a turn apologizing to the family and promising change.
“We do not want Jamycheal Mitchell’s death to be in vain,” said Del. Roslyn C. Tyler, D-Sussex, chairwoman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
“We don’t want any other families to go through such trauma, and that’s why this bipartisan mental health reform legislation has been submitted, not only in the House of Delegates but in the Senate.”
Bills that have been proposed would shore up community-based mental health services, with the intent of keeping people with mental illness out of crisis and therefore out of jail.
Other bills would:
Mark Krudys, an attorney representing Roxanne Adams in a $60 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the jail, the jail’s former private health care provider and several other defendants, said he was most concerned with the lack of transparency in the case of Mitchell and others who have died.
Freedom of information laws give jail superintendents wide discretion to withhold records, Krudys said.
“Guess what? We don’t get them,” Krudys said of records he requests after inmates die. “Unless you have the bravery of inmates stepping forward and saying, ‘Look what is happening to this person,’ you will not see it.”
Asked after the news conference whether the state is doing enough in the wake of her nephew’s death, Roxanne Adams said, “I think it’s a start.”