Police are investigating the death in a Virginia jail of a mentally ill black man, who was incarcerated for four months after allegedly stealing $5 worth of snacks, police officials in the city of Portsmouth said Friday.
The department is waiting for the results of an autopsy, Detective Misty Holley, spokeswoman for the Portsmouth, Virginia, police department, told Al Jazeera.
Jamycheal Mitchell suffered from schizophrenia and mood disorders, The Guardian newspaper quoted his aunt, Roxanne Adams, as saying. Mitchell was arrested on April 22 this year for allegedly stealing a Mountain Dew, a Zebra cake and a Snickers bar from a 7-11 convenience store, according to The Guardian, adding that the 24-year-old’s family said they believe he died of malnutrition.
Mitchell died Aug. 19 at about 5:45 p.m. at Hampton Roads Regional Jail in southeastern Virginia, Holley said.
He had been held without bail for reasons officials could not explain, The Guardian said. The Commonwealth Attorney for the city of Portsmouth did not return Al Jazeera's request for comment.
David Fathi, prison policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union, told Al Jazeera he found it "baffling" that Mitchell wasn't granted bail or simply released and told to come to court later.
"Given his lack of any kind of serious criminal background, it’s amazing to me that he spent even one day in jail," Fathi said, adding that denial of bail is usually meant for people a judge believes might pose a danger to the community. "That he spent four months in jail is beyond belief."
During his time at the Hampton Roads jail, Mitchell refused to take food and his anti-psychotic medication, Adams told The Guardian, adding that he became confused and disoriented without his medication and neglected to list family members on his list of approved visitors.
“His body failed,” Adams was quoted as saying, estimating that he had lost 65 pounds in custody. “It is extraordinary. The person I saw deceased was not even the same person.”
Corrections and court officials were aware of Mitchell’s mental illness, and a judge in May ordered Mitchell transferred to Eastern State Hospital, deeming him too ill to stand trial — but this never happened, The Guardian reported.
“He was just deteriorating so fast,” Adams told the paper. “I kept calling the jail, but they said they couldn’t transfer him because there were no available beds. So I called Eastern State, too, and people there said they didn’t know anything about the request or not having bed availability.”
Virginia law enforcement officials were not able to explain why Mitchell never went to Eastern State, The Guardian said, quoting an unnamed court clerk as saying: “It’s hard to tell who’s responsible for it.”
Fathi said that there is a nationwide shortage of beds for mentally ill inmates, and that many languish behind bars despite judges' orders. States say they just don't have room, he said.
"It's not an excuse," Fathi said. He pointed to a federal judge's ruling announced in April requiring prisons to provide mental health care within seven days of a court order. The ACLU along with other prisoner advocacy groups had brought that case before the court.
"If that had happened in this case, that young man might be alive today," he said of Mitchell.
His death comes as law enforcement officials nationwide are rethinking how courts treat low-level, nonviolent offenses like the one Mitchell allegedly committed. High-profile incidents of people dying in jail after arrests for minor crimes have put a spotlight on the issue.
In New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, a homeless man arrested for trespassing died last year of heat exhaustion in a solitary confinement cell with a malfunctioning heating system that made the room dangerously warm. The complex has been the target of federal probes into its treatment of inmates.
The 56-year-old homeless man, Jerome Murdough — a Vietnam veteran who also suffered from mental illness — was arrested in February 2015 for trespassing in a building where he was apparently looking for a warm place to sleep. In solitary, he “basically baked to death,” officials said, according to The Associated Press. The city paid out $2.5 million to Murdough’s family last year, the New York Daily News reported.