Long before the U.S. Department of Justice decided to investigate the jail where Jamycheal Mitchell wasted away in plain sight of guards and nurses, inmates in Virginia were dying at a rate of roughly 110 a year.
Many of their families filed lawsuits that have carried a hefty price for taxpayers — one that stands to grow.
The state has spent more than $38.6 million defending and settling claims against jails, sheriff’s departments, prisons and mental health facilities during the past five fiscal years, according to data from the Virginia Department of the Treasury.
While some of the claims involved accusations of excessive force by deputies, wrongful arrests and other negligence, many of the most expensive cases were filed by the families of those who died while incarcerated, according to court records and treasury data.
- The state spent $2.2 million to defend and settle a case brought by the family of Billy Creed, a delusional and paranoid Northern Virginia man who stole a car, went to jail and died within a few days of his 2006 arrest. His family accused guards at the Prince William-Manassas Regional Adult Detention Center of beating, pepper-spraying and choking Creed before he died. The final payment was made in 2013.
- Two years after Creed’s death, James Robinson had a seizure while driving in Richmond, crashed his car into a house and was taken to the city’s jail, where he died within two weeks. A lawsuit filed by his family said he was not given his seizure medication and developed a painful infection in his lungs that was ignored by guards and medical staff. The case cost the state $1.2 million to defend and settle.
- About the same time, Guido Newbrough, a German national who was in the U.S. legally, was taken to Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville to await deportation because of a felony criminal conviction. He died within eight months of his arrival — after his family said he developed a staph infection so severe he couldn’t walk. He sobbed throughout most nights because his back pain was so intense, according to the lawsuit filed by Newbrough’s family, which cost the state $677,000 to defend and settle.
Plaintiffs in four pending wrongful death lawsuits against jails — including one filed by Jamycheal Mitchell’s aunt — have requested a collective $115 million in damages.
If the past is any indication, the families that choose to settle may get much less than they’ve requested, according to the analysis of records.
In Newbrough’s case, his surviving family members received a fraction of the $677,000 it cost the state to resolve. His three children and his mother received $30,000 apiece, stepfather Jack Newbrough said recently. The rest covered the cost of defending the case.
Most of the lawsuits have been resolved with little to no fanfare.
No single state agency is charged with reviewing deaths in local or regional jails, nor is any state agency responsible for ensuring that jail officials review or change their policies and procedures when someone dies in their custody.
Moreover, many jail records remain hidden from the public because of exemptions in the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Requests to obtain Hampton Roads Regional Jail’s internal report on Mitchell’s death and records that would have shown how often he was fed and checked by guards and medical staff were denied by the jail.
Without a state agency investigating jail deaths and writing reports about facilities, lawsuits are often the only windows into what occurs behind bars. But experts are divided over their effectiveness.
“The taxpayers are getting robbed twice and the attorneys are getting rich; and the attorneys who are even representing sheriffs are getting rich,” said Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody, who administers the city’s jail and has been sued in that capacity several times.
“If you spent that money that you spent to defend me and pay for [settlements], we would have enough to build a mental health facility and provide treatment for people.”
For Jack Newbrough, no amount of settlement money could bring back his stepson, Guido.
“How do you put a price on a life?” he asked. “You can’t.”
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It’s difficult to track exactly how much public money is spent defending jails and prisons against claims of wrongdoing.
Aspects of settlements sometimes are sealed, and even when they’re not, records are scattered across the state. The results of lawsuits — just like the deaths and injuries that led to them — often go unannounced.
The price for resolving claims in the past five fiscal years likely is much higher than $38.6 million spent by the Division of Risk Management, because the state provided records only for claims that have been closed.
Open claims — the ones still being paid off — are considered confidential, said Don LeMond, who leads the state’s Division of Risk Management within the Department of the Treasury.
Taxpayers also pay out money on behalf of localities, which sometimes are included as parties to lawsuits but are not included in the state treasury’s data.
Such was the case in the $50 million lawsuit filed by Stefan Woodson after he suffered a life-altering heatstroke in the former Richmond City Jail, a facility that lacked air conditioning on the men’s side and was replaced in 2014.
The state spent $1.3 million defending and resolving Woodson’s case, though it was not disclosed how much of that went to Woodson on behalf of the sheriff’s office.
Richmond agreed to pay $2.99 million to Woodson as part of the settlement agreement. The city itself paid $500,000, according to Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman for Mayor Dwight Jones.
A lawyer representing Woodson said insurance covered the rest.
In Woodson’s case, as in most others, it appears the Richmond Sheriff’s Office did not issue a news release when the settlement was reached.
The costliest case in the state’s claims records was brought against the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office by a man who said he was falsely arrested and charged by a deputy. That case cost $2.2 million to resolve.
“Typically we wouldn’t put a release out about a lawsuit or a settlement of a lawsuit,” said Kraig Troxell, public information officer for the Loudoun Sheriff’s Office.
A real or perceived lack of transparency on the part of authorities perpetuates systemic problems, said Jonathan Smith, a former justice department lawyer who now leads the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
“Not only do jail walls keep people inside,” he said, “they keep everybody else from seeing what’s going on inside.”
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About 16 months have passed since Mitchell was found dead in his cell at Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, and none of the six entities that investigated the circumstances of his death has explained how he was allowed to die.
The jail has had a death rate in recent years that is nine times the state average, according to a n analysis of state data, which was published five days before the jail’s then-superintendent announced he would retire early.
Nevertheless, the facility received a perfect score on an annual inspection by state Department of Corrections workers during the month Mitchell was jailed.
The Mitchell family’s lawsuit seeks $60 million. Mitchell, a bipolar and schizophrenic 24-year-old, was arrested after he was charged with stealing $5 in snacks from a convenience store near his home in Portsmouth. He died in August 2015.
The U.S. Department of Justice said last week it would examine conditions at Hampton Roads Regional Jail. Civil rights and mental health advocates had been pleading for an investigation for months.
The Virginia State Police investigated Mitchell’s death, and the Portsmouth commonwealth’s attorney is reviewing the information to decide whether to charge anyone.
Lawsuits are pending elsewhere, too: Earlier this month, the mother of Gregory Lee Hill filed a $20.4 million suit against Woody and 22 other defendants, including NaphCare, the company that contracts with Richmond’s jail to provide medical care to inmates; 11 NaphCare employees; and 10 of Woody’s corrections officers.
Hill’s mother said in the lawsuit he was treated for the wrong medical condition and then died after jailers strapped him to a restraint chair.
Lutalo Octave’s family filed a $20 million lawsuit after he hanged himself in Henrico County’s jail in September 2015; the parents of Erin Jenkins filed a $10 million lawsuit after their daughter died in the Richmond jail in August 2014; and a representative of Samah Yellardy filed a $5 million lawsuit after his November 2013 death in the Powhatan Correctional Center.
Gary DeLand, an expert witness who typically testifies on behalf of jails and prisons, said the system makes it easy for inmates to file “recreational litigation,” which can lead to wasted tax dollars.
“Inmates have a lot of time on their hands,” he said.
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Mark Krudys, a lawyer representing Mitchell’s aunt and Hill’s mother, said lawsuits can be a mechanism for change. The verdict in the case of James Robinson, for example, led to the outsourcing of medical care at the Richmond jail, he said.
But there is no guarantee that a financial award for inmates and their families will result in systemic improvements, Smith said.
“Lawsuits are an important part of the strategy to create reform, but there are significant limitations,” Smith said. “There’s no political constituency around prisons and jails, so we’re left looking to the courts as the primary mechanism protecting these people’s rights.”
The money used to pay claims does not come out of jail or prison operating budgets, Smith said, and therefore does not create real financial pressure to avoid litigation.
“It is very expensive for the state,” Smith said. “If you had that $38 million and you spent it actually on improving conditions, you could do a lot of good.”
Sheriffs are constitutional officers in Virginia, and their departments pay what essentially are insurance premiums to the state’s risk management division, LeMond said.
The premiums are placed in an account that earns interest and is used to pay expenses when lawsuits are filed against sheriffs or their employees.
In the past five fiscal years, the Richmond Sheriff’s Office topped the list of expenditures on resolved claims at nearly $6 million.
The Loudoun Sheriff’s Office was next with $4.5 million, and the Department of Corrections was third with about $3.6 million.
Among the reasons the data from risk management don’t include any claim payouts in the tens of millions of dollars: Virginia is among the most conservative states related to its caps on damages in certain lawsuits, LeMond said.
Also, both sides typically have an incentive to settle, even if the final amount is far less than what the plaintiffs originally requested, several attorneys said.
It’s risky to put a case before a jury involving an inmate because some jurors believe inmates deserve the harsh treatment they receive, said Seth Carroll, an attorney who represents plaintiffs in wrongful death cases against jails.
“A lot of people feel that way about inmates — that whatever happens to them, they deserve it because they did something to put themselves in that situation,” Carroll said.
Some people have such staunch biases that they can’t see the larger issues involved, he said.
“This isn’t about this criminal,” Carroll said. “It’s about our civil liberties.”