Prisons Aren’t Created Equal

The first time I saw photos from inside an Alabama prison, I remember thinking, ‘that can’t be here’. I would have thought it was a third world country. If animals were housed in those conditions, rescue organizations would be lining up to get them into better homes.

The visual left me thinking it was like a warehouse for humans. People piled in with very little space, swatting at flies and passing one more hot day in a sad, overcrowded, incredibly lonely place. Just like dirty laundry shoved in a closet and the door pushed shut, human beings are being hidden out of site in deplorable conditions, watched over by skeleton staffs, that often commit crimes of their own.   Unfortunately, a good number of C.O.’s receive tax funded salaries and benefits to spend their days at the same place, while blackmailing, smuggling in contraband, and trading items for sex, just to name a few of the things that go on.

Disregard for common decency behind the fences and cinderblock walls is a way of life.  Staff protect their own. They police themselves. They don’t answer to secret shoppers. There is no accountability system in place that is going to bring about change. There are honest, decent people who work in corrections, but not enough of them to change the system.

People in prison have told me that they don’t play sports because a simple injury can be a death sentence. Treatment, if given at all, is often given late and not up to the standard of care that a person should receive. People that don’t have to, die from easily treatable conditions that are ignored.   People suffer.

It get’s hot in the south. Prison wasn’t meant to be a vacation. It wasn’t meant to be hell either. In Alabama, prisons are operating at nearly 200 percent over what they were intended to. It’s scorching, and there is no air conditioning. People are piled in on top of each other in overheated conditions.

The staff is too shorthanded to maintain adequate security, leaving prisoners in fear. It isn’t safe for anyone. If a prisoner goes in a nonviolent offender, it’s very possible he learns violence while incarcerated. He surely learns about isolation and suffering.

I would call the Alabama prison system a tremendous failure and a disgrace to humanity. The jailers, in too many cases, abuse their power and only exasperate the growing resentment that is building behind the walls. Resentment isn’t the only thing growing in there. If people could see through the walls, they would see loneliness, desperation, fear, discomfort, ailing health, lack of nutrition, and a breeding ground for future crime.

When people think of prison, they don’t always think of the big picture. I was recently talking to a young man who was incarcerated as a teenager for a nonviolent crime. He has been in for nearly ten years and has over thirty to go. I asked him why he was living in a level four security prison. He told me it was because of the length of his sentence. So, essentially, a nonviolent child grew up in a level four security environment, because of the heartless length of his sentence, not because of his behavior. That’s not justice.

All prisons are not created equal. Sentences vary based on economic resources, connections, and even race. The prison system in our country is in crisis, and the system in Alabama is deplorable.

REFERENCES

 Cstephens@al.com, Challen Stephens |. “Averting Its Eyes, Alabama Lets Prisons Sink into Despair.” AL.com. N.p., 22 June 2014. Web. 28 Aug. 2016.                          

Snell, Rashad. “More Prisoners Across Alabama Join Prison Strike – Alabama News.” Alabama News. N.p., 11 May 2016. Web. 28 Aug. 2016.           

Should Not Taking a Plea Cost You Your Life?

Was Travion Blount sentenced to six life sentences plus 118 years because he killed someone? No. In my opinion, he was given six life sentences because he dared to go to trial. Travion did not accept a plea. If our justice system was meant to be ‘just’, Travion would not have received six life sentences, plus over 100 years more than the other two participants in the same crime. The other two each pled guilty and did not go to trial. One received ten years and the other received thirteen years.

Travion was involved in an armed robbery with two of his friends. He was the youngest of the three, at fifteen. The older boys were eighteen years old, and one of them struck a victim in the head. Otherwise, no one was injured in the crime.

All in a day’s work, a judge handed down six life sentences plus 118 years. People are fighting for Travion, but he still sits in prison. The robbery took place nearly ten years ago, in September, 2006. As of today, his release date is listed as November 13, 2043. I suppose that is an improvement from six life sentences plus 118 years, but it isn’t just.

From the first time I contacted Travion, he has never failed to ask me how I am doing. He asks me about my life and family. He tells me about his. He tells me about classes and programs he is trying to take or has taken. He has said more than once, he tries to stay ‘out the way’. He says he’s waiting, but it’ll work out. He doesn’t get to see his family much, not because they don’t want to see him, but because the state placed him in a prison on the other side of the state from them. Travelling that far is not only a challenge, it is also very expensive. In spite of that, Travion stays positive in the face of all that is negative.

Usually, I only read of support for Travion, but every now and then I will read an ugly comment about crime and ‘doing the time’. When I read those, I have to wonder how someone gets to a place in life where they feel there is no place for mercy in this world. Travion was only a kid when he was told there would be no second chance for him. His life was over. Yet, every letter I get from him includes, ‘how’s your family?’ or ‘how are you?’ He tells me things will work out. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t ask for anything.   He thanks me for caring. If I could talk to the man who sentenced him to six life sentences plus 118 years, I would have to simply ask him, ‘why?’

Jail Shows No Remorse in Death of Mentally Ill Boy

To say there is little accountability in corrections is probably an understatement. This country locks up a lot of people – more than any other country in the world. With those numbers, a lack of accountability in the corrections profession is ultimately going to be a problem. The smoke and mirrors used to deflect attention are getting a little old. The friends and family of those people behind bars are joining their voices together and, hopefully, where they were once individual whispers, they can all join together and become a roar. That’s my hope.

There is a long road ahead determining how we can better rehabilitate people. Treating them all like garbage is not working though. That is what is happening. The person I am writing about today has a name.   He is a ‘person’. Someone recently corrected me when I used different terminology. They are ‘people’ in prison. She was absolutely correct. They are not a number, or inmate, etc. They are people.

Jamycheal Mitchell is this boy’s name. I have written about him before. He was arrested in April of 2015 for stealing $5 worth of snacks.   He suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.   And – that is the correct word – ‘suffered’. Mental illness is an illness. It is a condition that no one would ‘choose’ for themselves. The boy deserved compassion, understanding and care for that reason alone – the fact that he ‘suffered’ from mental illness.

The boy who suffered from an illness and stole five dollars worth of junk food, was placed in jail. That in itself does not make any sense. But, the mentally ill are often kept in jails and prisons in this country, so, unfortunately, that is not unusual.

That is where all logic seems to end.   I have searched for every article and piece of material I can find about Jamycheal.   I was hoping I could find a public statement by the jail expressing sympathy for his family after he died in their care.  Yes, he died in jail. I have searched and printed and read everything I can find.   I have found absolutely nothing expressing sympathy.   I will tell you what I have found.

The system we have set up to hold people accountable for wrongdoing, isn’t accountable for anything it does. It doesn’t even come close to passing the standards of decency it holds the people that it imprisons to. That is what I have found.

After Jamycheal’s arrest, a judge ordered him to be sent to a hospital. Due to ‘clerical errors’ his name was not on the list of people waiting for beds at Eastern State Hospital. So he sat in jail. Anyone familiar with the environment in jail knows that it is not a place to treat a mentally ill person. It simply is not.   Nothing good can come from putting a person that suffers from mental illness into a jail cell. There are not a lot of requirements needed to get a job in corrections, and the staff is certainly not capable of caring for the mentally ill, although we could hope that some of them may be capable of compassion.

So, ‘clerical errors’ made by an ‘overwhelmed’ employee had him sitting indefinitely. On July 31 a jail employee contacted the Portsmouth Department of Behavioral Healthcare Services, requesting an evaluation of Jamycheal, but the evaluation did not happen. On August 19, 2015, Jamycheal was dead. He had lost over 34 pounds in the care of the jail over those few months and died of ‘wasting’.

One article I read stated that he was ‘overlooked and forgotten’. That is too forgiving and gives the jail undue credit in my opinion.   He wasn’t ‘forgotten’. If you can see him, how can you forget him? He wasn’t misplaced. Employees saw him every day.   Absolutely nothing was done. If they had seen a dog chained to a post out front and walked by it every single day as it withered away, could we say they ‘overlooked’ the dog and ‘forgot’ him? The fact is, they looked at him and they did not ‘forget’ he was there.

The article also indicated that there was an employee hired to monitor people waiting for state hospital beds. The article said that the employee had not met with Mitchell the entire four months that he was in jail.

For the sake of argument, I am going to discount a majority of the things that have been reported about the Hampton Roads Regional Jail’s care of Jamycheal. I am going to make many assumptions to give weight to the Jail’s claim that an internal audit found no responsibility in this death.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is not one valid statement made by the other people detained in the jail at the time. There have been statements made and letters written by them that I will pretend I haven’t read.

Let’s assume that Mitchell was not kicked in the knees to get him to sit down, when he was standing naked against the wall outside his cell, while it was being cleaned.

Let’s assume he didn’t live naked with no pillow, blanket, cup, or water to flush his toilet.

Let’s assume that all his meals were given to him.

Let’s assume that his cell didn’t smell so bad that it was hard to walk past without gagging.

Let’s assume that all claims by fellow people held in the jail who claim to have witnessed abuse are all lies. I don’t see how it would benefit them to testify against the correctional staff who are housing them, but let’s assume they are all lying. In my experience, the people that I know on both sides of corrections know that you need to be careful when complaining about staff, as you often pay the price. But – for the sake of argument, let’s assume these people are all lying.

With all of those assumptions, here are the highlights of a statement issued by The Hampton Roads Regional Jail on June 24, 2016. That is a couple months shy of a year after Mitchell passed away. In the statement, the Jail says it notified the police immediately of Jamycheal’s death. They claim to have provided the police with all of the files they requested. The police found that there was no evidence of a crime. What strikes me with that is – the party being investigated provided the evidence the police reviewed. We wouldn’t have any crime if we were all permitted to submit the evidence to be reviewed in investigations into wrongdoing. But, again, let’s overlook that.

The statement says that the scene was preserved and photographed. I have to wonder who took the photographs. The statement says that Hampton Roads Regional Jail’s investigation into this case revealed no breach of Hampton Roads Regional Jail’s policies or procedures, and no criminal action or negligence by Hampton Roads Regional Jail staff. Basically, what that says is, the jail’s investigation into itself reveals no wrongdoing. Let’s also overlook just how ridiculous that is.

The statement says that Hampton Roads Regional Jail has done an investigation into the claims by ‘inmates’ that the jail acted improperly towards Jamycheal and the jail has found all of those complaints unsubstantiated. So, what we are hearing here is, jail employees looked into the inmates’ complaints of abuse. Jail employees then determined that the inmates accusing jail employees of misconduct are lying. I can’t decide what part of that is stranger – the fact that the employees claim that no one’s complaints are valid or that the very staff the inmates were accusing of wrongdoing were the very people who questioned them.

In its statement, the Hampton Roads Regional Jail says that it contracts with an outside company to provide medical and mental health care and treatment to ‘inmates’. That means – you guessed it – Hampton Roads Regional Jail has no control over when Mr. Mitchell was to be evaluated by Eastern State Hospital and also implies his medical care was not their responsibility. This, in my opinion, is a pathetic attempt at shoving blame away. If the jail hired the company, they are responsible for ensuring that the people they are housing are being treated properly by that company.   I will, for the sake of argument, say that I agree with this disgraceful shirking of responsibility, even though I don’t.

Hampton Roads Regional Jail also is proud to say that a few weeks before his death, Mr. Mitchell went to the hospital for treatment because his legs were swollen. The jail quotes the hospital as recording that Mr. Mitchell was “well developed and well nourished”. This I find interesting, since an exam of the body revealed he died of ‘wasting’. Not only wasting, but he lost more than 10 percent of his body weight while he was there. Trying to imply that the young man was the picture of health, I would have thought would have been too low, but I guess not in the case of Hampton Roads Regional Jail.

Hampton Roads Regional Jail stated that it offered Mr. Mitchell 297 meals and he refused three of those. They also claim he was seen by medical and mental healthcare providers on 70 different occasions. What I have to say to that is – how can professionals looked at him on seventy occasions and not have raised hell to get him help? But that’s just me.

In closing, the statement issued by Hampton Roads Regional Jail says, “We do not intend to try this case in the press, but we are confident that the care and treatment we provide to all our inmates is appropriate and meets or exceeds both Virginia and National Standards.” I simply must say that I am biting my tongue reading that paragraph. For the love of God, what does that say about Virginia and National Standards?

I have read everything I can find on this. And – as I stated throughout – I am going to assume everything that the jail claims is true. There is still something missing though. I have not been able to find it. There is not one single word of remorse. Not one single acknowledgement that this kid died in their care and maybe they need to look at themselves a little closer.   Not one single word to the family. He died. He wasted away in front of your eyes and on your floor.   Jamycheal Mitchell was a person. Had a person starved to death locked in a room in my home, I would be in jail.  Where is the accountability?

REFERENCES

Earley, Pete. “VA. NAMI, Former IG, Local NAACP Call For Fed Probe Of Mentally Ill Prisoner’s Death From Starvation In Virginia – Pete Earley.” Pete Earley. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.

Kleiner21, Sarah. “Report: Clerical Errors Preceded Death of Va. Man Jailed for Stealing Junk Food.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. N.p., 21 Mar. 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.

LeBlanc, Deana. “Only On 10: Inmate Who Found Jamycheal Mitchell Dead Speaks out.” WAVYTV. N.p., 13 May 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.

LeBlanc, Deanna. “Sheriff Responds after Inmates in Jamycheal Mitchell Lawsuit Claim Intimidation by Jail Staff.” WAVYTV. N.p., 22 June 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.

Satchell, Emily. “Hampton Roads Regional Jail Releases Details on Jamycheal Mitchell’s Death.” WAVYTV. N.p., 24 June 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.

Satchell, Emily. “State Police Open Criminal Investigation into Jamycheal Mitchell’s Death.” WAVYTV. N.p., 22 June 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016.