DOJ alleges unconstitutional conditions at Hampton Roads Regional Jail, discrimination against mental health prisoners

PORTSMOUTH, Va. - After a two-year investigation into conditions at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia concluded that there is reason to believe that conditions there violate the Constitution.

According to the DOJ, the conditions specifically violate rights of prisoners protected by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. It said that there is reasonable cause to believe that the jail fails to provide constitutionally-adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners, and places prisoners with serious mental illnesses in restrictive housing for prolonged periods of time under conditions that violate the Constitution.

The Department also concluded that the Jail’s restrictive housing practices discriminate against prisoners with mental health disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

On August 19, 2015, 24-year-old Jamycheal Mitchell's body was found inside the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. The lawsuit says he withered away in jail and died from wasting syndrome.

A judge’s order that would have sent Mitchell to a state mental health facility had been sitting in a file drawer for weeks before his death.

A Portsmouth judge ordered Mitchell to Eastern State Hospital for mental health treatment two times. A state investigation revealed the second order on July 31, 2015 made it to the hospital admission coordinator, but she never placed Mitchell on the waiting list.

Mitchell was arrested in April 2015 for stealing $5 in food from a Portsmouth convenience store.

Attorney General Mark Herring, who initially requested the investigation on September 2, 2016, released a statement on the DOJ's findings:

"The conditions detailed in this report should not exist in this facility or anywhere in Virginia. I requested this investigation because it was clear the Hampton Roads community needed and deserved answers about what was going on in this facility, especially in light of the deaths of Jamycheal Mitchell and Henry Clay Stewart, Jr. and the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding those deaths. The Department of Justice’s findings should be a serious wake-up call, and a catalyst for even more work at HRRJ and around the Commonwealth to ensure the safety and health of inmates, especially those with mental illness."

The full statement from the DOJ is as follows:

"Dear Messrs. (Martin) Thomas (Chairman of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail Authority) and (David) Hackworth (Superintendent of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail):

The Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia have completed the investigation into the conditions of confinement at Hampton Roads Regional Jail (the "Jail"), conducted under the Civil Rights of lnstitutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12132 (ADA). Consistent with the statutory requiremynts of CRlPA and the ADA, we provide this Notice of the alleged conditions that we have reasonable cause to believe violate the Constitution and federal law. We also notify you of the supporting facts giving rise to, and the minimum remedial measures that we believe may remedy, those alleged conditions.

After carefully reviewing the evidence, we conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that conditions at the Jail violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, we have reasonable cause to believe that the Jail fails to provide constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners, including by placing prisoners with serious mental illness in restrictive housing for prolonged periods of time under conditions that violate the Constitution. We also have reasonable cause to believe that the Jail violates the ADA by denying prisoners with mental health disabilities access to services, programs, and activities because of their disabilities.

We thank the Hampton Roads Regional Jail Authority and Superintendent Hackworth for accommodating our investigation and providing access to the Jail's facilities, staff, documents, data, and prisoners. We hope that we can continue to collaborate on a mutual resolution of the issues raised in this Notice.

We are obligated to advise you that 49 days after issuance of this Notice, the Attorney General may initiate a lawsuit under CRIP A to correct the alleged conditions we have identified if Jail officials have not satisfactorily addressed them. 42 U.S.C. § 1997b(a)(l).

We hope, however, to resolve this matter through a more cooperative approach and look forward to working with the Jail Board, Superintendent Hackworth, and Jail staff to address the violations of law we have identified. The lawyers assigned to this investigation will therefore contact the Jail Authority to discuss options for resolving this matter amicably. Please also note that this Notice is a public document. It will be posted on the Civil Rights Division's website."

On a Thursday Hampton Roads Regional Jail spokesperson released a statement saying:

“Yesterday the United States Department of Justice issued a report based upon their investigation of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail.  As I stated yesterday, we strive to provide the best service to those individuals incarcerated in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, our member jurisdictions, and the citizens that we serve.

We routinely review our policies, procedures, and practices to ensure we are providing our services to comply with State and Federal law. We will continue to do so as we move forward into the future. In addition, we look to utilize the best practices possible as evident by our accreditations with the Virginia Board of Corrections, National Commission on Correctional Health Care, and the American Correctional Association.  I feel that this report will be a beneficial tool to the Hampton Roads Regional Jail and we are looking forward to meeting with the United States Department of Justice in the very near future.”

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