After inmate's death, Va. lawmakers pledge mental health reform
Lawmakers say there is bipartisan support for reforming the state's mental health care system and the way inmates receive treatment
By Sarah Rankin
RICHMOND, Va. — The family of a man whose death in a Virginia jail helped lead to a federal investigation of the facility implored lawmakers Wednesday to reform the state's mental health care system and the way inmates receive treatment.
Relatives of Jamycheal Mitchell, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, joined several lawmakers for a press conference in Richmond to discuss reforms being considered this session. Advocates hope Mitchell's death — from heart failure accompanied by severe weight loss — will spur change in Virginia, which lags behind much of the country in general-fund spending on behavioral health care.
"We don't want this to happen to any other young man in Virginia," said Roxanne Adams, Mitchell's aunt. "We plead with legislators to ensure that changes are made in the law to better protect young men like Jamycheal who suffer from mental illness."
Mitchell's mother, Sonia Adams, stood quietly with tears rolling down her cheeks. In an interview afterward, she said her son was good at math, loved to rap and was always clowning around. And while she's happy to see the reforms moving forward, she regrets that it took her son's death to make it happen.
Mitchell was jailed in April 2015 on charges he stole a Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar and a Zebra Cake from a 7-Eleven in Portsmouth. He was ordered to a state mental hospital, but his paperwork was stuffed in a hospital employee's desk drawer, and he was never sent there. He died at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail about four months later.
The Justice Department announced last month that it is investigating the jail, where a second inmate died last year. In particular, the probe will focus on whether the jail has violated the rights of mentally ill inmates.
Among the measures under consideration is a bill that would provide same-day access to mental health screening services. Another would require mental health first aid training for sheriffs, jail officers and correctional officers. Others establish rules for the way inmates are assessed for mental illness or inpatient psychiatric hospital admission.
Del. Patrick Hope, a Democrat who is sponsoring two measures, said there's bipartisan support for reform — although no Republicans spoke at the news conference. But he also cautioned against thinking that comprehensive changes can be accomplished this session.
"None of us are fooled," he said. "This is going to a take a multi-year effort."
The push also comes amid a challenging budget year during which lawmakers must find a way to close an estimated $1.26 billion budget gap. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has included $31.7 million in new funds to bolster mental health care and substance abuse treatment in his budget proposal.
Del. Matthew James, a Democrat from Portsmouth, said Mitchell's family has been brave. "We need to take their courage on the floor of the House and one the floor of the Senate to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.