Another young black man has died in jail, the Guardian reports, after spending four months in jail without bail for allegedly stealing $5 worth of snacks: a Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar and a Zebra Cake.
Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, according to his aunt, and was deemed unfit to stand trial after being arrested in Portsmouth, Virginia on April 22. That should have meant he would be transferred to a mental health facility, but the hospital had no beds available. Instead, he ended up in jail.
His family told the Guardian they believed Mitchell starved to death because he was refusing food and medication in the jail. He was found dead in his cell on August 19.
“He was just deteriorating so fast,” Mitchell’s aunt told the Guardian. “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.”
The death of Sandra Bland in Texas last month brought to light how poorly mentally unstable people are treated in jails. Her death prompted an investigation into Texas jail safety. But all over the country, jail suicides are unsettlingly common. The rate of jail suicides exceeds that of the general population and even that of the prison population.
The reason for the high rate of deaths in jail is unclear, but it could have to do with lax mental health screening and care — Bland told the jail that she had previously tried to kill herself, yet no red flags were raised. People who have been accused of minor offenses can also end up sitting in jail for months awaiting trial if they can’t afford bail. That process, especially for people unaccustomed to the brutality of prison, can take a serious toll on mental health and exacerbate problems that may not have manifested in daily life. Bland was attempting to get her $5000 bond together when she was found dead in her cell. Kalief Browder killed himself after three years in jail awaiting trial for a crime he didn’t commit because he couldn’t afford the $3000 bail.
It’s become increasingly clear that the criminal justice system is unequipped to handle mental illness and often ends up worsening people’s conditions. Prisons and jails have become the nation’s de facto mental health institutions, as the prison system hosts ten times as many mentally ill people as state hospitals. Most facilities are notoriously abusive, often withholding crucial medication, ignoring clear signs of illness, or punishing erratic behavior with solitary confinement.
Mentally ill people are also very likely to be killed by police, whose instincts when dealing with erratic behavior tend toward deadly force.
Portsmouth, where Mitchell was arrested, has also seen several police shootings recently. The Guardian notes that an officer in the city killed an unarmed 18-year-old the same day Mitchell was arrested. A month earlier, another police officer shot and killed a 29-year-old man after chasing him to his home. It was later revealed that that officer had also killed two other men in 2009.