crimesider

Arrested for allegedly stealing $5 of food, mentally ill Virginia man dies in jail

Jamycheal Mitchell

WTKR

PORTSMOUTH, Va. -- At a little after midnight on April 22, Jamycheal Mitchell was arrested for allegedly stealing $5.05 worth of junk food - a Snickers, a Zebra cake and a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew, to be exact - from a 7-11 store in Eastern Virginia.

Mitchell, who was two days past his 24th birthday, was severely mentally ill, having been diagnosed years earlier with paranoid schizophrenia. He was ordered held without bail on misdemeanor charges of theft and trespassing (he had been banned from the 7-11 previously) and in May a judge ordered that he receive treatment at Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Va., about 55 miles away.

But Mitchell never left jail.

For three months, jail officials say no beds were available at the state mental health facility, and on Aug. 19, jail personnel found him unresponsive in his cell. His family told CBS affiliate WTKR that he had lost weight while incarcerated and was "unrecognizable." The medical examiner has yet to determine the cause of his death, but jail officials reportedly say he had no signs of assault or injury on his body.

Mitchell's death is an example of the collision of two major problems plaguing our criminal justice system today: lack of adequate treatment for the thousands of mentally ill inmates, and a bail bond system that some call unduly punitive and ineffective.

Until the 1990s, when "tough on crime" policies came into vogue, it was typically only people accused of serious felonies who were held without bail, according to Cherise Burdeen, the executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a non-profit organization that works to promote fair and effective pretrial practices. But in the past few decades that has changed, and Burdeen says that many more people - like Sandra Bland and Kalief Browder - are being detained for long periods of time on relatively minor offenses and without having been convicted of anything.

As Mitchell's death reveals, the change is not without consequences.

"Wielding this tool has a very big impact on people who are low and medium risk," Burdeen told 48 Hours Crimesider. In fact, she says, research shows that denying bail or putting a very high price on freedom, actually increases the likelihood that low-level offenders will re-offend.

The impact is particularly great, says Burdeen, on people with mental health issues, like Mitchell. In jail, "their condition gets worse."

Professor Robert Morris, a criminologist who researches bail and bond issues at the University of Texas at Dallas, says that judges and magistrates have "a lot of discretion" in how they determine bail for a defendant, and that there is "huge variation between jurisdictions."

In Virginia, bail or bond is determined, in part, by a pretrial risk assessment that is supposed to help gauge a defendant's likelihood of returning for trial and whether releasing them would pose a risk to public safety. According to documents obtained by WTKR and shared with Crimesider, a Portsmouth magistrate determined that Mitchell should be held without bail, although what risk the alleged shoplifter posed remains unclear. Calls to the office of the magistrate that determined Mitchell's bail were not returned.

Morris called the lack of bail for a misdemeanor "peculiar," and wondered if the magistrate that issued the no bail order had information about Mitchell that hasn't been made public - perhaps that might have pointed to his possibly being a danger to himself or others. If not, he said, "it's outrageous."

Court documents show little in the way of a criminal record for Mitchell. He was arrested for misdemeanor petty larceny in 2010, and a mental health evaluation indicated he was "acutely psychotic" at the time of his assessment and incompetent to stand trial.

Despite this history of mental illness, after his April 2015 arrest for shoplifting, Mitchell was allowed to waive his right to have an attorney represent him.

Still incarcerated a month later, Mitchell received another court-ordered psychiatric evaluation and the doctor who evaluated him again deemed him incompetent to stand trial. The doctor wrote that Mitchell "was not mentally capable of participating in a sanity evaluation."

On May 21, Judge Morton Whitlow ordered that Mitchell be transferred from Hampton Roads Regional Jail to Eastern State Hospital for mental health treatment, but according to Lt. Col. Eugene Taylor, the Assistant Superintendent of the jail, Eastern State said there were no beds available.

Days went by. Weeks, and then months. And still, no beds. According to a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, the state of Virginia has 1,455 beds in state-run hospitals like Eastern State to serve adults with mental illness - but only 385 of those are designated for people who are incarcerated, including those deemed incompetent to stand trial, like Mitchell.

According to Lt. Col. Taylor, Mitchell was being medicated for his mental illness and eating meals before his death. Taylor told Crimesider that as of June, more than one-third of the inmates incarcerated in Hampton Roads were receiving treatment for mental illness, a situation that puts a "tremendous burden" on the staff. He said it was "not uncommon" for inmates to wait days or weeks for a treatment bed to open up.

"There are things a treatment facility can do that we just can't," said Taylor. And yet, he said, Hampton Roads has been called "the state's largest mental health facility."

Virginia's mental health system has come under scrutiny before, most recently in November 2013 when State Senator Creigh Deeds' son, Gus, stabbed his father and then committed suicide after reportedly being denied mental health treatment at a hospital because of lack of space. According to Mira Signer, the executive director of Virginia's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in the aftermath of Deeds' death, the state passed a law assuring that no one ordered by a judge to receive inpatient mental health treatment - as Deeds' son had been - would be turned away.

However, she said, that law does not apply to people who are incarcerated.

  • Julia Dahl

    Julia Dahl writes about crime and justice for CBSNews.com