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The state's inhumane failures

The disgraceful and lonesome death of Jamycheal Mitchell in a concrete cell should compel state lawmakers to do whatever is necessary to prevent such a death from ever happening again.

The state's long neglect of Virginians with mental illnesses, however, has threatened to desensitize lawmakers and the public to the plight of people locked behind bars rather than provided necessary and humane treatment.

As The Pilot's Gary Harki reported, Mitchell had been diagnosed as "both manic and psychotic," and was ruled incompetent to stand trial on charges that he trespassed and stole $5 worth of snacks at a Portsmouth convenience store.

In May, a judge ordered that Mitchell be transferred to a state psychiatric facility. That never happened; Mitchell's lifeless body was discovered in his cell at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail on Aug. 19.

As terrible as Mitchell's neglect and fate were, perhaps more horrifying is that his experience may not be unique.

"My gut instinct," Brenda Spry, head of Portsmouth's Public Defender's Office, told Harki, "is that Mr. Mitchell wasn't treated any differently than anyone else. The system is just kind of broke."

That Mitchell's treatment might not be unusual is itself an indictment of Virginia's failure to provide reasonable, let alone compassionate, care to seriously disturbed men and women.

Across the commonwealth, city and regional jails house more than 6,000 inmates with mental illnesses; about half have serious conditions that demand consistent, professional treatment.

In this region, several localities send inmates, such as Mitchell, with the most demanding medical needs to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. But the facility isn't equipped to provide the level of care that state mental hospitals provide, said Newport News Sheriff Gabe Morgan, leader of the regional jail's board.

"There's a limit to what we can do, and that's our dilemma," he told Harki. "I've been trying to bring attention to that fact."

More attention is certainly required. So is more funding.

State leaders have steadily shifted dollars and people from public mental health institutions while promoting a more humane, more compassionate approach defined by community-based care. The problem has been that funding has been insufficient.

That has created a gaping hole in the commonwealth's safety net, one that widens every year. Jails have filled some of the void, but their mission - to hold suspects pending trial, and to punish and rehabilitate convicts - is incompatible with the task of treating people who lack the understanding of right and wrong.

A multi-year study aimed at evaluating and improving Virginia's woeful mental health system is under way, a product of the system's failings two years ago. That's when local and state officials proved incapable of finding a facility that could accommodate the disturbed adult son of a state senator. The young man went on to stab his father, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, before committing suicide.

Virginia's leaders have a moral and practical responsibility to outline improvements - and provide the funding necessary to enact them.

The preservation of a system that locks people in jail for months, and results in their suffering and death, stands as an outrageous failure of policy and humanity.

Fixing this system and repairing the safety net should be a top priority among lawmakers of both parties when the General Assembly convenes in January.

Posted to: Editorials Opinion

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