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Feds: Virginia jail violates rights of mentally ill inmates

December 20, 2018

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A Virginia jail where several inmates died is violating prisoners’ rights by failing to provide adequate medical care, according to the findings of a federal investigation released Wednesday.

The federal report described the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth as a place crammed with a high number of physically sick and mentally ill inmates, many of whom are locked up repeatedly for minor offenses. The jail does not have enough medical staff to meet the inmates’ needs.

The report said the jail’s medical care system does not take prisoner requests for treatment seriously and often ignores them. Grievances about a lack of access to medical care aren’t taken seriously, either, “resulting in significant harm to prisoners, even death.”

Investigators found that getting care can be particularly difficult for inmates placed in “restrictive housing,” which means being locked in a cell much of the day.

The report said prisoners are kept in their cells for long periods “specifically because they are ‘mentally deficient,’ with no disciplinary or other reason given.”

The report concluded that conditions at the jail violate constitutional protections of prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment. The jail’s treatment of mentally ill inmates also violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, the report said.

The Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia conducted the probe. They threatened a lawsuit by the U.S. Attorney General if the jail doesn’t work with authorities to improve conditions.

“Officials at the Jail have been aware of the deficiencies in medical care for years and have failed to adequately address these deficiencies,” the report said.

David Hackworth, the jail’s superintendent, said in an email that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to comment because he just received the report. He said it was still being reviewed.

“Each of us here at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail are dedicated professionals and strive to provide the best service to the incarcerated individuals, our member jurisdictions, and the citizens we serve,” he wrote.

The federal probe was sparked by what the report describes as “tragic deaths” at the jail.

An inmate who died in 2015 was Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24-year-old who had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He was jailed 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 about four months later in the jail of heart failure accompanied by severe weight loss, a medical examiner said.

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