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Feds propose consent decree to ensure care at Virginia jail

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department proposed Wednesday that a Virginia jail comply with a consent decree requiring officials to improve medical treatment for inmates, marking one of the first times the department has proposed such a resolution in the Trump administration.

The rare action follows a multiyear investigation into the practices at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Virginia, which prosecutors said uncovered unlawful conditions for the inmates housed there. Federal officials allege, in part, that the jail “fails to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care to prisoners,” according to court documents.

The consent decree is essentially a reform agreement with the Justice Department that would force officials to put changes in place and would be overseen by an independent monitor. The agreement still must be approved by a federal judge.

The proposed agreement would require the jail to develop and implement new policies and procedures for medical and mental health care — including mental health screenings, treatment programs and suicide prevention programs — and would also require the creation of specialized housing units for inmates with mental illnesses.

“This agreement will ensure that prisoners are no longer at risk of serious harm as a result of the jail’s practices,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who leads the department’s civil rights division, said in a statement.

The investigation followed the 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24-year-old inmate who had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and had been jailed on charges he stole about $5 worth of snacks from a Portsmouth convenience store. Mitchell was ordered to a state mental hospital, but his paperwork was stuffed in a hospital employee’s desk drawer and he was never sent there. He died about four months later in the jail of heart failure accompanied by severe weight loss, a medical examiner said.

Federal officials launched a civil rights investigation in December 2016 to examine whether there was an ongoing or persistent pattern that deprived inmates at the jail of their constitutional rights. The Justice Department notified the jail in 2018 that it believed inmates were not receiving adequate medical and mental health care and that the jail’s restrictive housing practices discriminated against prisoners with mental health disabilities, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Justice Department in the Trump administration has rarely used consent decrees to resolve such allegations, compared to Obama-era Justice Department. The curtailed use has drawn scrutiny from congressional Democrats, who have proposed sweeping criminal justice legislation that would give specific subpoena power to federal civil rights prosecutors to conduct those investigations and would aid state attorneys general with conducting similar probes.

Attorney General William Barr has suggested consent decrees may have been previously overused to resolve so-called pattern or practice investigations, sweeping probes into law enforcement agencies that examine whether systemic deficiencies contribute to misconduct or enable it to persist. Prior consent decrees were enacted with the police in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown and in Baltimore following the police custody death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.

Hours before he resigned as attorney general in November 2018, Jeff Sessions signed a memo that sharply curtailed the use of consent decrees. The policy makes their use more difficult to enact and requires top Justice Department officials to approve the deals.

The Hampton Roads consent decree was signed by Barr. A woman who answered the phone at the jail Wednesday evening said no one would be available to speak to the press until Thursday morning. Earlier this year, Virginia’s Board of Corrections accused officials at the jail of failing to cooperate with an investigation into three other inmate deaths and sent a letter to the jail’s superintendent, saying the response to a request for investigative records of the inmate deaths “is wholly inadequate” and did not comply with board regulations.

Families of numerous other inmates have also filed lawsuits against the jail, alleging inadequate medical care and improper conduct by staff. A former correctional officer at the jail was indicted in 2019 on charges alleging he choked an inmate until the man lost consciousness and injured the inmate’s arm.

Associated Press writer Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.

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