Seven people locked up in Virginia’s local and regional jails have died since Feb. 25, the day the General Assembly passed a law requiring official reviews of inmate deaths.
The reviews, however, haven’t started yet because the funding for an investigator won’t be available until after the law goes into effect on July 1 — and the body that’s supposed to oversee the reviews, the Virginia Board of Corrections, is in a state of limbo.
The deaths since Feb. 25 include two at Hampton Roads Regional Jail, where Jamycheal Mitchell and Henry Stewart died previously; two at Riverside Regional Jail, north of Petersburg; and one at Henrico County Jail’s western facility, according to data from the Virginia Department of Corrections, which tracks serious incidents at local and regional jails but does not oversee them.
It’s unclear if any of the seven deaths that have occurred since the law was passed — or the six other deaths that took place earlier this year — will be reviewed retroactively once the investigator is hired to assist the Board of Corrections.
Mitchell’s death in 2015, followed by Stewart’s in 2016, sparked a public outcry over the lack of oversight of Virginia’s local and regional jails.
Mitchell, a 24-year-old Portsmouth resident who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, died of extreme weight loss and heart problems at Hampton Roads Regional Jail. The jail’s top officials cleared employees of wrongdoing, and though there were several reviews of Mitchell’s death, no state agency claimed it had enough authority to get to the bottom of how he was allowed to waste away in plain sight of guards and nurses.
Virginia State Police investigators have been looking into Mitchell’s death, and the U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating the treatment of inmates at Hampton Roads Regional Jail, but the results of those investigations have not been released to the public.
On Wednesday, the members of the Board of Corrections heard from Victoria Cochran, deputy secretary of public safety and homeland security, about the upcoming changes facing the board, which include the likely replacement of most of its members.
The law passed in February requires the members of the board to have certain qualifications, such as experience running a jail, working in the mental health system or investigating deaths.
“We feel very strongly that anyone who currently is serving on the board who would like to continue to serve on the board and feels that they meet any of these criteria ... we would encourage you to resubmit your applications if you want to continue serving,” Cochran said.
To a certain extent, the Board of Corrections has heightened scrutiny of the state’s local and regional jails.
During the meeting on Wednesday, the board invited law enforcement officials from two jails to explain why inspectors had discovered deficiencies in their facilities and what they were doing to correct the problems.
Bobby Vassar, vice chairman of the board, who led the meeting in the absence of Chairwoman Phyllis Randall, said the board wanted to hear directly from jail officials because of “sensitivity to or cognizance of issues that led to the restructuring of the board ... in response to incidents such as the Jamycheal Mitchell incident.”
The board, he said, wanted to be “extra careful to not appear to be simply going along with or rubber-stamping issues that might be there.”
Still, board members heard reports from the jail officials, but asked no questions.