State officials are preparing to write new standards for health care and mental health services in local jails.
The move arises from legislation sent to Gov. Ralph Northam this year during an increased focus on jails in Virginia following the 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. Mitchell, 24, had severe mental health problems and was not transferred from the jail to a state hospital as ordered by a judge.
The U.S. Department of Justice in December reported that medical and mental health care at the jail was so bad it violated inmates’ rights. A report by the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office last month said the jail’s then-medical provider should have inquired earlier and more often about how to transfer Mitchell into a better environment for his deteriorating mental state.
The new standards would require at least one unannounced inspection of every local jail annually.
“Local and regional jails do not have a lot of minimum requirements for mental health care that they provide. So what these bills do is require that, so it’s consistent throughout the state,” said Bruce Cruser, executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia, an advocacy organization.
The state Board of Corrections is in charge of creating the new standards, in consultation with the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and the Office of the State Inspector General, as laid out in House Bill 1942 from Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle.
The board needs to have the new standards in writing and issue a report by November on the costs of implementing them.
The board also would be required to set standards for health care in jails as required by House Bill 1918 from Del. Chris Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, and Senate Bill 1598 from Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico. Both lawmakers, who are siblings, are doctors.
Jails would be required to submit quarterly reports to the Board of Corrections to be published online.
Michael Schaefer, assistant commissioner of forensic services at the state’s behavioral health agency, gave the Board of Corrections an overview of the plans at the board’s meeting on Wednesday.
Knowing that the General Assembly would want new requirements, a group wrote a report last year on jail mental health standards, he said. The group included representatives of sheriffs who run jails, regional jails, mental health providers, and mental health advocates.
The results from the work group will be the starting point for the new standards, he said.
As far as the unannounced jail inspections, Schaefer told the board members they will need to decide if they want to hire staff to do them or if they want to delegate the inspections to the Department of Corrections, the agency that oversees state prisons.
The Board of Corrections members are unpaid and are appointed by the governor. They took on a more active role after the General Assembly and then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe funded an investigator to review all jail deaths as a response to the Mitchell death.
The investigator, Stephen Goff, started work in November 2017; he has found policy violations at jails where deaths took place, although the Board of Corrections opts to discuss the cases in closed session if they relate to medical care.