By Gary A. Harki
The U.S. Justice Department will investigate the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, looking into potential violations of the constitutional rights of inmates who have mental or physical illness.
"All prisoners, including those with mental illness, have a constitutional right to receive necessary medical care, treatment and services," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement Monday. "The Justice Department will conduct a thorough investigation, led by the facts and the law, to review conditions in the jail."
The DOJ plans to examine whether the jail violates inmates' rights by secluding the mentally ill in prolonged isolation and whether it violates the Americans With Disabilities Act by denying services, programs and activities because of an inmate's disability.
"We will also offer to provide recommendations on ways to improve conditions at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, when appropriate," reads a letter from DOJ to the jail.
The probe will focus, in part, on potential violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which is intended to protect the rights of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in correctional facilities, nursing homes and mental health facilities.
"We expected to hear from DOJ and look forward to cooperating with the DOJ investigation going forward," said Norfolk Sheriff Bob McCabe, who is the jail's interim superintendent. Jail "staff has been working tirelessly to improve jail operations and delivery of services. We are confident that DOJ will recognize the positive efforts being made. We look forward to DOJ providing additional expert insight and recommendations during their investigation."
Similar probes have been conducted into the Los Angeles County Jail and Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans. DOJ concluded its investigation into the Orleans Parish Prison in June after reaching an agreement with the facility to install a court-appointed independent compliance director. DOJ's involvement with the jail dates back to a 2008 investigation.
In April 2015, Jamycheal Mitchell, who had a history of mental health problems, was arrested and accused of stealing about $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store in Portsmouth. He died about three months later, alone in a Hampton Roads Regional Jail cell with feces on the walls and urine on the floor.
Several inmates have since claimed that Mitchell was abused by guards, an accusation the jail denies.
Attorney General Mark Herring called for an independent investigation into the jail following the August death of Henry Stewart, which was first reported in The Virginian-Pilot.
Stewart, 60, was locked up for violating his probation on a shoplifting charge. His repeated requests begging for medical help were denied, according to a man incarcerated there at the time and a jail document provided by Stewart's family.
"This is an important development that should help provide some answers about the troubling recent deaths at the jail, as well as a broader picture of how medical and mental health care have been provided and what changes have been made under the jail's new leadership," Herring said in a statement.
Several state and local advocacy groups -- including the Portsmouth branch of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia -- had already requested that the Justice Department investigate.
"We are relieved and heartened that the DOJ is taking this issue seriously and has opened an investigation," said Mira Signer, executive director of NAMI Virginia. "The high number of people with mental illness in jails is symptomatic of a larger issue: inadequate capacity in the community to treat people before they enter a period of crisis, inadequate diversion programs, lack of housing, and more. We look forward to the coming weeks as the investigation gets underway.
The jail has made a number of changes in how it treats mentally ill prisoners since McCabe became interim superintendent, including getting sentenced inmates out of the facility and into prison and getting mentally ill inmates in crisis transferred to a state hospital under a temporary detention order.
ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gustañaga said in a statement that the DOJ's investigation is encouraging.
"It is our belief that any mentally ill inmate at HJJR is at serious, imminent risk, and we appreciate the urgency with which the Justice Department is now pursuing answers and solutions to a mountain of troubling human, procedural and operational issues," she said.
Mark Krudys, the lawyer for the Mitchell and Stewart families, says the investigation is a hopeful sign.
"It's a situatio that's been crying out for help for a long time," he said.
(c)2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)