Death of a young black man in a Virginia prison sparks outrage

30 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Black Man With History of Mental Illness Found Dead in Virginia Jail Cell.

Last Wednesday, Jamycheal Mitchell, who had a history of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was found dead in his Portsmouth, Virginia, jail cell after spending four months behind bars without bail for stealing $5 worth of groceries, the Guardian reports. The 24-year-old Mitchell’s body is still awaiting an autopsy, but his family believe that he starved to death after refusing to eat or take his medication. “His body failed,” Mitchell’s aunt, Roxanne Adams, a registered nurse, said in an interview with the Guardian. “It is extraordinary. The department is waiting for the results of an autopsy, Detective Misty Holley, spokeswoman for the Portsmouth, Virginia, police department, told Al Jazeera. Mitchell’s family had not been able to visit him in jail, because he had not given officials his relatives’ 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,” Adams said.

Mitchell was arrested on April 22 this year for allegedly stealing a Mountain Dew, a Zebra cake and a Snickers bar from a 7-11 convenience store, according to The Guardian, adding that the 24-year-old’s family said they believe he died of malnutrition. On the same day of Mitchell’s arrest, Portsmouth police officer Stephen Rankin shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old William Chapman outside a Walmart. The person I saw deceased was not even the same person.” Corrections and court officials were aware of Mitchell’s mental illness, and a judge in May ordered Mitchell transferred to Eastern State Hospital, deeming him too ill to stand trial — but this never happened, The Guardian reported. “He was just deteriorating so fast,” Adams told the paper. “I kept calling the jail, but they said they couldn’t transfer him because there were no available beds. He was found unresponsive in his cell about 5:45 a.m. local time on Wednesday, Aug. 19, and he was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. “His body failed,” his aunt told the British newspaper the Guardian, saying that he had lost some 65 pounds while on a hunger strike. But the hospital said it had no vacancy and the 24-year-old was therefore detained in jail until his death on 19 August, according to Adams, Mitchell’s aunt, who said she had tried to assist the hospitalisation process herself but was left frustrated.

Asked which agency was ultimately accountable for ensuring Mitchell’s transfer to the hospital, the clerk said, “It’s hard to tell who’s responsible for it.” Senior prison officials said his death was not being treated as suspicious. “As of right now it is deemed ‘natural causes,’” said Natasha Perry, the master jail officer at the Hampton Roads regional jail. His death comes as law enforcement officials nationwide are rethinking how courts treat low-level, nonviolent offenses like the one Mitchell allegedly committed. In New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, a homeless man arrested for trespassing died last year of heat exhaustion in a solitary confinement cell with a malfunctioning heating system that made the room dangerously warm.

The 56-year-old homeless man, Jerome Murdough — a Vietnam veteran who also suffered from mental illness — was arrested in February 2015 for trespassing in a building where he was apparently looking for a warm place to sleep. Muhammad, told the Monitor that he agrees that Mitchell should not have been jailed over the alleged petty crime. “What we’re finding is that a young man who is accused of a crime that did not exceed five dollars is being held for four months,” he says. “We are also seeing that white people are not being charged in the same ways as black people in the communities here.

It should result in services.” If we charge ranchers and pet owners with criminal neglect for letting their animals waste away, says Muhammad, “what should be the process for a human being? Surely the jail personnel, the sheriff, the people in charge of that jail should have been aware that that young man’s situation had become extremely dire.” Pressley disagrees about the role of systemic racism, saying, “This is not a black issue, this is a humanity issue.

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