By PETER DUJARDIN | The Daily Press | September 17, 2016 6:03 PM
The new interim head of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail is vowing more public transparency regarding the jail’s operations — including two high-profile deaths over the past 13 months.
Norfolk Sheriff Bob McCabe, a board member of the regional jail and its acting superintendent, said he would decide this week whether to publicly release the internal investigation report into the death of inmate Jamycheal Mitchell, who died at the Portsmouth facility in August 2015.
And soon, McCabe said, he would likely have more to say about the death of a 60-year-old Newport News inmate who died in custody at the regional jail in early August.
“Whatever we can release, we need to release,” McCabe said Thursday. “And if we can’t release it, then somebody needs to give me a good, valid reason why we can’t. If there’s a screw-up, then you know what, you gotta own it.”
As for the Aug. 6 death of Henry Clay Stewart Jr., 60, of Newport News, McCabe said jail officials told the board last month “that it was a natural death, and that there was nothing out of the ordinary.”
Because the jail houses many inmates with health issues, he said, “that’s what we accepted.” Now, however, he’s not so sure.
“After some documents that I’m seeing … I’m not so sure that’s going to be acceptable once I get my hands on everything that I need to in reference to that,” McCabe said. “I can’t say anything more because I don’t have my hands on all those things.”
But he’s “certainly looking at” Stewart’s death, he said, and will be talking to the jail’s medical staff about it on Monday.
After the second death, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring asked the U.S. Justice Department for a federal investigation into practices at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail.
“I write to you with urgency,” Herring wrote to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Sept. 2. “Virginia is once again confronted with significant questions about the provision of medical care at this regional jail.”
The Justice Department has not yet announced whether it will investigate.
A week after Herring’s request, the board’s personnel committee voted to accept the retirement of Superintendent David L. Simons, effective Oct. 1.
Simons had put in that retirement date months ago, volunteering to stay until his replacement could be found. But at the Sept. 9 meeting, board members declined that offer, putting McCabe in the interim spot beginning three days later.
McCabe said Thursday that the jail’s “lack of transparency” under Simons was a “major reason” for their decision.
Hampton Roads Regional Jail: By default, Virginia’s largest mental hospital
Hampton Roads Regional Jail: By default, Virginia’s largest mental hospital
“The superintendent was listening to legal counsel and the lawyers,” who told him not to say much, McCabe said. “That’s what lawyers do. But I was always taught that there’s legal recourse and the court of public opinion. … For us, I think the public deserves to know, because let’s face it, they pay our salaries, they pay for these facilities.”
Last week, the AG’s office also revealed that Herring wrote to Simons in June, urging him to release the jail’s internal report into Mitchell’s death, pointing out that it occurred more than 300 days earlier.
“The public expects and deserves answers about the chain of events that led to this death,” Herring wrote in the two-page letter June 17. “As policymakers and public servants, we have an obligation to learn any lessons we can to make sure such a situation does not occur again.”
Though other agencies have investigated the death, he wrote, “a critical piece of the puzzle” is missing, “with the public and commonwealth left to surmise or speculate” about what happened. “In my view, this is untenable and unacceptable,” Herring wrote.
But Simons rebuffed the attorney general’s request.
“I appreciate your opinion,” Simons wrote, in part, on June 30. He told Herring the report is exempt from mandatory release under state open records law, and said he provided the results of the internal investigation to both the Virginia State Police and Portsmouth police.
“On the advice of counsel, we have not released our internal documents since we are involved in a federal court lawsuit,” Simons wrote. “The Hampton Roads Regional Jail has cooperated in all investigations concerning Mr. Mitchell’s death and will continue to do so.”
But Simons never told the jail’s 15-member board — made up mostly of local sheriffs and city managers — that Herring had asked him for the report. McCabe, for his part, said that request should “without a doubt” have been shared with the board.
“We were not aware of the attorney general’s letter, or even that there was a letter,” he said. “When we have our monthly board meeting and we are briefed on things and ask about things, we are presuming that we are being told things like that.”
After McCabe told the Daily Press Thursday that he had still not seen the letters, the newspaper — which got the correspondence from Herring’s office last week — emailed them to McCabe.
Simons declined Thursday to speak to a Daily Press reporter who knocked on the door of his home in Hampton.
The Hampton Roads Regional Jail, with just over 1,100 inmates, is a publicly owned facility that houses inmates from Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Chesapeake and Portsmouth. Its governing board is appointed by those five cities.
Mitchell, the man accused of stealing snacks from a Portsmouth 7-Eleven, suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. When he was found dead — of a heart problem and a “wasting syndrome” — his family’s lawyer said urine and feces lined the cell.
It was later discovered that court clerks and staffers at Eastern State Hospital had bungled the paperwork needed to get Mitchell transferred to a state hospital for court-ordered psychiatric treatment.
Less than a year later, Stewart died in August.
He was arrested in early May outside the family’s home on 31st Street in southeast Newport News, picked up on a warrant charging him with violating the terms of his probation on a 2011 shoplifting conviction from Hampton.
On Aug. 4, in a one-page “emergency grievance,” Stewart begged jail staffers for medical help.
He wrote that he had “blacked out twice in less than 24 hours,” but didn’t know why, adding that “I can’t hold water down or food.” “I need emergency assistant right away,” Stewart wrote in larger lettering.
Another inmate would say later that Stewart had been coughing up blood for weeks, and had also fallen and hit his head on the jail’s concrete floor the day of that request.
But a jail staffer determined that Stewart’s request was “not an emergency.” Two days later, on Aug. 6, he was found dead in his cell.
The lawyer representing both inmates’ families, Mark Krudys of Richmond, said he hoped the jail’s new leadership is serious about public transparency — and isn’t just touting it as a way of making the media scrutiny go away.
Jails in Virginia, Kudrys said, are notoriously closed-mouth after an inmate death. He compared that to a more open atmosphere when a child dies or is injured in school.
“If something happens to a child at a school, you’d expect the principal to bring the parents in and describe the circumstances,” Krudys said. “The principal says, ‘Here is what we know, and I’m trying my best to find out what occurred.’ They don’t do that (with jails). There’s a total information shutdown. And you have to basically resort to the courts to find out in detail what occurred.”
Krudrys has filed a $60 million federal wrongful death lawsuit in Mitchell’s death last year, with that case now pending.
For his part, McCabe vowed that the regional jail would do better.
Jail officials, he said, could have done a better job communicating that the regional jail is different from other jails in that a greater proportion of its inmates have health issues, so a higher death rate is expected.
But in his first week on the job, he said, longstanding frustrations about jail communications rose to the surface.
“It’s not just the media who hasn’t had contact with the leadership,” McCabe said. “I’ve talked to quite a few people who have called the jail, concerned about their loved ones, who haven’t gotten their phone calls returned.”
“There’s going to be a need for a huge improvement in communication all the way around.”