State board clears local jails of responsibility in 23 deaths but won’t release details of investigations

By: - July 18, 2018 4:06 pm


The Virginia Board of Corrections wrapped up its first batch of inmate death investigations Wednesday, voting unanimously to clear about a dozen jails in 23 deaths that occurred in 2017 and 2018.

The new review process was established by the General Assembly last year in a bid to increase oversight of local jails following the 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell in Hampton Roads Regional Jail and subsequent allegations that he was denied necessary health care.

But while the board is satisfied that the jails it has investigated so far acted appropriately, the public won’t get a chance to review those findings.

The board told reporters no information about their reviews will be made public beyond the date of the death, the name of the facility in which it occurred and the internal case number of the investigation. Copies of the reports will only be distributed as “confidential working papers” to the governor, the speaker of the House of Delegates and the president pro tempore of the Senate.

Likewise, the board has been hearing from their investigators and discussing findings in lengthy closed meetings. In each case, they justified the decision by citing the discussion of “medical and mental health matters.”

The board’s vice-chairman, Bobby N. Vassar, said the board has no choice, citing federal regulations governing medical information.

“That’s the law,” he said. “We have to.”

He said that when the board finds that a jail broke Department of Corrections operating guidelines, the nature of that violation will be made public.

And he said that even in cases where a jail is cleared of direct or indirect responsibility, that doesn’t mean the board’s reviews won’t result in new or reconsidered policies.

“When we say no standards were violated, it doesn’t mean that we conclude that there doesn’t definitely need to be a standard that more nearly affects this or addresses that.

“I know it feels frustrating. We share the same kinds of frustrations, but the reality is the reality. We can’t say, ‘We didn’t have the standard in play but you should have followed it anyway.’”

A spokesman for the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the board’s approach to its new oversight is not in keeping with the intent of the legislation.

“I think it’s hardly what the legislature and former governor had in mind,” said Bill Farrar. “To not even have the decency to say the names of the deceased is dehumanizing and unkind to families of these inmates.”

In the 23 investigations concluded Wednesday, the board voted unanimously that the deaths “were reviewed and revealed no evidence of any act of or by omission by the facility or any employee or agent thereof that may have directly or indirectly contributed to the inmate’s death.

“The jails were in compliance with the regulations promulgated by the Board of Corrections and no deficiencies noted within the provisions of the Virginia Administrative Code.”

The investigations included deaths in the Piedmont Regional Jail, Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office, Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office, Chesapeake City Sheriff’s Office, Newport News City Sheriff’s Office, Hampton Roads Regional Jail, Roanoke County Sheriff’s Office, Rappahannock Regional Jail, Northern Neck Regional Jail, Southwest Virginia Regional Jail, Western Virginia Regional Jail and the Meherrin River Regional Jail.

About 20 more investigations are currently outstanding, board staff said. Mitchell’s death is part of a separate investigation that is ongoing.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.