Make This Death Not in Vain

How did a mentally ill man charged with a trivial crime waste away in jail for months?

In 2012, there were roughly 356,268 inmates with severe mental illnesses in prisons and jails, while only 35,000 people with the same diseases were in state psychiatric hospitals.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Thinkstock

Jamycheal Mitchell died last week in a Virginia jail, waiting for a hospital bed to open up in a mental health facility. He was arrested in April for stealing less than $5 worth of junk food (a Snickers bar, a Mountain Dew, and a Zebra Cake) from a 7-Eleven. He was charged with petty larceny and trespassing, and bond was denied. In May, a judge ordered him moved to a state mental health hospital, but no beds opened up. And so Mitchell sat in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail for four months, possibly starving himself to death, until he was found dead in his cell on the morning of Aug. 19.

If you haven’t heard about Mitchell, you’re hardly alone. Other than his family, it seems nobody at the jail, nobody in the criminal justice system, and nobody in the local media had spared much thought for the young man until Aug. 28, when Jon Swaine of the Guardian broke the story of his death from New York City. Beyond a glancing mention in the local news—noting that an unnamed young man had died in custody—the months-long incarceration of a mentally ill black man, arrested for stealing sugary snacks, raised no red flags anywhere.

We can certainly talk about systemic failures here: It’s the same predictable laundry list of negligence, incompetence, and bureaucratic blame-shifting that plagues a criminal justice system that warehouses hundreds of thousands of mentally ill patients under often intolerable conditions.

We know that Mitchell was almost certainly mentally ill. His aunt Roxanne Adams told the Guardian he suffered from schizophrenia and mood disorders. As the Chicago Tribune reports, records from a bail hearing two hours after his arrest showed Mitchell with a lifelong disability, yet at that same hearing, he was allowed to waive his right to be represented by a lawyer. When forensic psychologist Evan Nelson evaluated Mitchell to determine if he was competent to stand trial, he found him “manic and psychotic,” noting in his written report that “Mr. Mitchell’s thought processes were so confused that only snippets of his sentences could be understood, the rest were mumbled statements that made no rational sense.”

We also know that Mitchell’s mental-health troubles dated back years. The Chicago Tribune located an earlier competency assessment, dated 2010, finding Mitchell “acutely psychotic” and another one finding him “unrestorably incompetent to stand trial” on an earlier charge of petty larceny.

We also know that Mitchell’s bail was set at $3,000, for reasons that seem inexplicable for a nonviolent, trivial misdemeanor that should have seen him sent straight home to his family. The Tribune found an online record that he was eventually assigned a public defender but could not reach her for comment. Nobody in her office would comment to that paper on the case.

We know that Mitchell was not in contact with his family while in prison. Adams, Mitchell’s aunt, told the Guardian that his relatives were not allowed to visit him, because Mitchell hadn’t given their names as approved visitors: “His mind was gone because he wasn’t taking his meds, so he didn’t have a list for anyone to see him.”

That Mitchell was not mentally fit to stand trial was never in dispute either, which is why, in May, General District Court Judge Morton Whitlow ordered him transferred to Eastern State Hospital. A jail official told the Guardian that there were simply no beds available for him. For months.

The lack of beds for the mentally ill in Virginia has been a longstanding problem, a problem politicians pledged to fix in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, and again after state Sen. Creigh Deeds was almost killed by his son, after state authorities could find no psychiatric bed for him in a crisis. Gus Deeds killed himself after that attack. Natasha McKenna, suffering from schizophrenia, was shocked to death with a stun gun in a Fairfax County jail in February.

As the Richmond Times-Dispatch notes, very little has changed since the Virginia Tech shootings, despite a lot of big talk at the time: “Media outlets, including this one, have produced shocking exposés of the problem. But little of substance has been done. Lawmakers did increase funding for mental-health services after Virginia Tech, but cut it back again after the recession. Republicans have not agreed to expand Medicaid in any form, which would provide many more resources for mental-health care.”

Stories about the escalating crisis of mentally ill prison inmates no longer surprise us, nor do the statistics that increasingly show that the mentally ill are not only disproportionately incarcerated, but also disproportionately mistreated in custody. As Stephanie Mencimer reported in Mother Jones in 2012, there were roughly 356,268 inmates with severe mental illnesses in prisons and jails, while only 35,000 people with the same diseases were in state psychiatric hospitals. And as ThinkProgress points out, these prisoners are far more likely to be harmed, to harm themselves, and to have necessary treatment withheld. But it’s hard to effect massive reforms if these stories begin to sound routine.

In perhaps the cruelest irony Virginia might have coughed up this week, the U.S. Supreme Court has just ensured that former Gov. Bob McDonnell will avoid serving time in prison while the justices consider taking up his appeal of his public corruption conviction. This, as Jamycheal Mitchell didn’t even get a chance to post bail.

In the meantime, we will have to wait to see what the official cause of death will be. That could take months. The case is under investigation by the state medical examiner, although Master Jail Officer Natasha Perry told the Associated Press Mitchell died of natural causes, in that there was no obvious injury to his body.

The jail staff disputes the family’s claim that Mitchell refused food and medication while he was incarcerated. Attorney Mark Krudys, retained by the family, said that it was clear to his family that he wasted away in prison, and that when his relatives saw Mitchell at a hearing in May, they hardly recognized him: “[The] family saw him previously in a very emaciated condition at a hearing, and the information that they had received is that he was not eating, and so the concern is that he was not being properly cared for,” Krudys told a local ABC affiliate.

The story, broken by a reporter for a British newspaper in New York, has engendered surprisingly little local coverage. Apparently we are no longer all that shocked or horrified that a mentally ill black American can be disappeared into the criminal justice system for boosting a few bucks worth of snacks. And we aren’t even all that stunned anymore that a severely ill prisoner—ostensibly under the care of prison staff, various lawyers, mental health experts, and a judge—could simply die one morning without explanation, while waiting months for a hospital bed. When asked by the Guardian which state agency was ultimately responsible for making sure that Mitchell was actually transferred to the hospital as ordered, the court clerk said: “It’s hard to tell who’s responsible for it.”

It’s one thing to say Jamycheal Mitchell’s life was not a story. But it’s a national tragedy to say his death will not be one either.