PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — The Justice Department announced Monday that it has opened an investigation into the Hampton Roads Regional Jail (HRRJ).
The agency is looking into whether the jail violates the constitutional rights of inmates who have mental illness by secluding them in isolation for prolonged periods of time, violates inmates’ rights to adequate medical and mental health care and violates the rights of inmates with mental illness by denying them access to services, programs, and activities because of their disability.
“All prisoners, including those with mental illness, have a constitutional right to receive necessary medical care, treatment, and services,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “The Justice Department will conduct a thorough investigation, led by the facts and the law, to review conditions in the jail.”
Since 2012, 18 inmates at HRRJ have died. The causes of death have ranged from internal bleeding to heart problems to a suicide. Among them is Jamycheal Mitchell.
Mitchell, 24, died of starvation at the jail on Aug. 19, 2015. A judge ordered him to be transferred to a mental health facility, but he was never moved.
In May, Mitchell’s family filed a $60 million wrongful death lawsuit.
Attorney General Mark Herring had asked the department to investigate the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth. The attorney general’s office released a statement in response to the opening of the investigation Monday, which reads:
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. The public needs to know what has been going on in this facility and whether people’s constitutional rights are being protected.”
Jail officials said Monday that staff will cooperate fully with the Justice Department during their investigation.
Sheriff Bob McCabe, who took over as the jail’s interim superintendent after Col. David L. Simons’ retirement, also responded with the following statement:
We expected to hear from DOJ and look forward to cooperating with the DOJ investigation going forward. The Hampton Roads Regional 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.”
The ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said about the DOJ investigation:
We are encouraged that the U.S. Department of Justice has seen fit to fully investigate whether the Hampton Roads Regional Jail violates prisoners’ rights, particularly those in need of medical and mental health care. It is our belief that any mentally ill inmate at HRRJ 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. The Department should act swiftly and leave no stone unturned to bring justice to Mr. Mitchell and look beyond his case to examine generally the process of incarcerating rather than treating mental illness.”
The Portsmouth NAACP also supported the opening of the investigation, the organization said in a statement.
The DOJ says as of now, it has not reached any conclusions regarding the allegations in the matter.
The investigation will be conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) and under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under CRIPA, the department has the authority to investigate violations of prisoners’ constitutional rights that result from a “pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights.”
The department has conducted CRIPA investigations of other correctional systems before. When violations are found, the resulting settlement agreements have led to important reforms.
The Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Virginia are conducting this investigation. If you have any information that could be relevant to the investigation, you’re asked to call the department at 844-644-0225 or send an email to Community.HamptonRoads@usdoj.gov.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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