RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — On Wednesday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed legislation at the Department of Corrections Headquarters that he believes will result in fewer deaths and better outcomes for people behind bars.
“We are here today to right some wrongs that unfortunately led to the death of a young man here in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he told the crowd gathered at the bill signing.
McAuliffe was talking about Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24-year-old man who was arrested in 2015 after stealing $5 worth of junk food from a convenience store. Mitchell, who had a mental illness, died of starvation at Hampton Roads Regional Jail.
“It was a very difficult situation after Jamycheal Mitchell’s death that nobody seemed to have responsibility or was willing to take responsibility of how this actually occurred,” he said.
The governor is still pushing for funding to provide mental health screenings for inmates as soon as they arrive at a jail.
“We need to do that immediately because there are people who should not be put in our local jails [and] should be treated.”
But what legislators could agree on, McAuliffe says, is SB1063.
The bill does two things.
First, it redefines the membership of the nine-member State Board of Corrections by requiring those appointed to have specific areas of expertise like mental health, correctional facility management and health care, according to McAuliffe.
It also authorizes the Board to review deaths in local and regional jail facilities.
“No way does this legislation in any way rebuke the great work that they have done,” said the governor. “We’re just taking it to the next level.”
Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran says, when Mitchell died, it was unclear if any state entity had the authority to investigate deaths in jails.
The bill will clarify that.
“Sometimes good bills result from bad outcomes,” said Moran. “Tragic loss can shine a spotlight on issues that have been lost in the shadows.”
Moran says it has multiple benefits.
“It’s good for jail facilities to know that the Board of Corrections has the clear authority now to review the circumstances if an inmate dies in custody. It’s good for the state’s Board to have the specific expertise needed — not just to review these circumstances, but also to have the authority to make and ensure compliance with recommendations that can prevent future tragedies,” said Moran. “And it’s good for Virginia citizens to know that an independent review of deaths will occur.”
Bobby Russell is superintendent at Western Virginia Regional Jail and also serves as president of the Virginia Association of Regional Jails.
He says inmates deserve the review.
“Each and every person that’s incarcerated is someone’s brother, sister, father, mother, cousin and friend,” he said. “Yes, they did commit a crime, but they are still human.”
The law will go into effect July 1.
“While we can never bring Jamycheal back, we can do everything in our power to make sure that no one ever faces what Jamycheal faced under those same circumstances,” said McAuliffe.
On Wednesday, the Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney requested a special grand jury in Mitchell’s case. The governor said he supports that request.