Bill that sets standards for how Virginia jails treat inmates with mental illness on governor’s desk
Jails in Virginia for the first time will be required to follow a set of standards for treating people with mental illness, assuming the governor signs a bill unanimously passed by the state legislature.
Sparked by the 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, House Bill 1942 also makes it easier for jails to obtain medical records for inmates too sick to give their consent and requires them to plan how inmates with severe mental illness will get services upon release.
“We are hopeful to divert many with mental illness out of the criminal justice system,” said Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, who sponsored the bill. “But ultimately, at least for the foreseeable future, there will be mentally ill people in jails. So ultimately we should try to improve the mental health care they receive, and then help them get services upon leaving the jail to help prevent them from cycling in and out of jail.”
Mitchell wasted away in an isolated jail cell with feces on the walls and urine on the floor. He had been arrested for stealing $5 worth of snacks and was twice ordered to a state mental hospital.
A recent report from Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales’ office claims that investigators are still missing a great deal of information on Mitchell’s death and are declining to press criminal charges.
The bill came out of work done by the Mental Health Services in the Twenty-First Century subcommittee chaired by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath. Deeds has focused on mental health care since his son attacked him and later committed suicide in 2013. Deeds’ family had tried and failed to find his son a bed at a mental health care facility.
The bill was designed to prevent what happened to Mitchell from happening again, Bell said.
John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association, says he knows the bill will end up costing jails money, but that the changes it makes are needed.
“Some jails could see it as an unfunded mandate and that is a concern, but … these people in jail need services,” Jones said. “We’ve been asking for this for a long time, and we know it costs money. Nothing is free, and we support it. It’s got to be done.”
Developing standards for treatment in jails is long overdue, said Rhonda Thissen, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia.
“Jail exacerbates mental illness. The goal is clarifying who can receive information on a person’s mental illness and maintaining a continuity of care,” she said. “The Mitchell case was a tragedy that opened a window to discuss all this.”
The standards for treatment will be created by the state Board of Corrections, which oversees jails in Virginia. It will also have the power to do an unannounced inspection each year.
Two of the biggest problems people with mental illness face after arrest is jailers not knowing the inmates’ diagnosis and medical history when they arrive at the jail and having nowhere to go when they leave.
The ability to obtain medical records and a requirement to provide a plan after an inmate’s discharge help close those gaps.
Hampton Roads Regional Jail Superintendent David Hackworth said his jail already provides some discharge planning — with more on the way thanks to a grant. He said the regional jail has a good relationship with local hospitals and medical care providers to obtain records. He believes setting minimum standards is a good thing for the whole state.
“It’s good to standardize it and hold everyone to a certain level in Virginia,” he said. “Right now, the standards haven’t been created yet. I don’t know how it will affect us.”
Bell said this is a step in the right direction but that Deeds commission isn’t finished. The push for better mental healthcare in Virginia will continue.
“This is about as nonpartisan an issue as you can find,” he said.
It’s an important step, Deeds said.
“The reality is that in a democracy, change is incremental at best,” he said. “This was an important step to get uniform standards of care. We need to take additional steps to make sure we provide the necessary care.”
Mar 14, 2019
By Gary A. Harki