Jamy­cheal Mitchell’s ghastly death

For want of a bed in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal, a young man who shoplifted $5 of goods wasted away in jail.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

FOR WANT of an avail­able bed in a state psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal, Jamy­cheal Mitchell, men­tally ill young man in Vir­ginia who shoplifted a soda and two snacks worth $5.05 from a 7-Eleven, wasted away be­hind bars for four months, all but ig­nored by jail staff who should have no­ticed his cat­a­stroph­i­cally de­te­ri­o­rat­ing health. In­co­her­ent, ema­ci­ated and filthy, he died in his cell in Au­gust. Po­lice are now in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

Mr. Mitchell’s ghastly death, at age 24, is all the more sense­less given that the clos­est state psy­chi­atric fa­cil­ity, Eastern State Hos­pi­tal, in Wil­liams­burg, should have had a bed avail­able for him.

In fact, of Eastern State’s fewer than 300 psy­chi­atric pa­tients, some two dozen faced no crim­i­nal charges and had been des­ig­nated as ready for dis­charge even as Mr. Mitchell lan­guished at the Hamp­ton Roads Re­gional Jail. De­spite that, those pa­tients re­mained at Eastern State, oc­cu­py­ing scarce beds while a judge re­peat­edly or­dered Mr. Mitchell trans­ferred from the jail to the hos­pi­tal.

There are sev­eral causes for the grid­lock at Eastern State, the largest state psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal in Vir­ginia, and other sim­i­lar fa­cil­i­ties around the com­mon­wealth. One is a sharp spike in de­mand for beds re­sult­ing from leg­is­la­tion last year that com­pels state psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tals to ad­mit pa­tients in the event of men­tal-health crises. Heavy de­mand is com­pounded by a short­age of op­tions for the men­tally ill who are no longer clin­i­cally re­quired to stay in the hos­pi­tal. In­many cases, pa­tients deemed ready for dis­charge re­main stuck in the hos­pi­tal be­cause there is no suit­able hous­ing or care (in­clud­ing skilled nurses, so­cial work­ers or psy­chi­a­trists) in their home com­mu­ni­ties. That re­flects in­ad­e­quate fund­ing by state and lo­cal gov­ern­ment.

In the latest cen­sus of Eastern State, in Septem­ber, some 40 pa­tients — more than half of whom face no crim­i­nal charges — were des­ig­nated as “ready for dis­charge” for weeks and of­ten months. Had they de­parted, a psy­chi­atric bed and suit­able treat­ment would have been avail­able for Mr. Mitchell. In­stead, he with­ered in jail, un­con­scionably ne­glected. In the ac­count of fel­low in­mates and his rel­a­tives, as re­ported by The Post’s Justin Jouvenal, the hor­rors en­dured by Mr. Mitchell were Dick­en­sian. He lost at least 36 pounds. He cast off his clothes and was of­ten smeared with his own filth. He uri­nated on his cell floor. His legs swelled — “ele­phant like,” in the de­scrip­tion of an in­mate who worked in his cell block.

As Mr. Mitchell’s health de­clined, Judge Mor­ton V. Whit­low of Portsmouth Gen­eral Dis­trict Court or­dered him trans­ferred to Eastern State. The judge is­sued the or­der May 21, and re­it­er­ated it May 29 and again July 31, in a court hear­ing af­ter which Mr. Mitchell’s rel­a­tives were so stunned at his ap­pear­ance that one of them, his aunt, begged jail of­fi­cials to send him to the emer­gency room. Her plea was ev­i­dently ig­nored.

The men­tally ill pop­u­la­tion has soared in jails across the United States as states, en­am­ored of de­in­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion, have closed psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tals. In Vir­ginia, fewer than 1,300 beds re­main in state psy­chi­atric fa­cil­i­ties, down from some 6,000 in the mid-1970s.

As Mr. Mitchell’s case il­lus­trates, jails are ille­quipped to treat the men­tally ill. Yet with­out ad­e­quate re­sources al­lot­ted for care in lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, jails will con­tinue to ware­house peo­ple who need help, not con­fine­ment.

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