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Mentally Ill Virginians Fill Jails, Risk Dying on Street

The death of Jamycheal Mitchell is sparking an examination of the number of mentally ill Virginians in jail or coming into conflict with the police. (The Mitchell Family/Youtube)
The death of Jamycheal Mitchell is sparking an examination of the number of mentally ill Virginians in jail or coming into conflict with the police. (The Mitchell Family/Youtube)
July 7, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. – Many Virginians with mental illness end up in jail, and some are involved in deadly altercations with police.

Jamycheal Mitchell suffered from delusions, and died in jail last year after being arrested for stealing $5 worth of snacks.

Surveys say 15 to 20 percent of Virginia jail inmates have mental health issues.

And Virginian-Pilot reporter Gary Harki says his team surveyed police shootings since 2010.

He says about 40 percent of those killed were mentally ill.

Harki says these people are not getting the right kind of care, and police officers and jailers are left to pick up the pieces.

"But they acknowledge that they have to, because there's nobody else to do it,” he states. “And I've had police chiefs tell me, 'It's not a good situation for us to be the first line of interaction with these people, but there's just nobody else.'"

According to a national survey by the Washington Post, slightly more than 25 percent of 1,000 or so people shot by police across the nation in 2015 "showed signs of mental illness."

Harki says a big part of the problem seems to be the simple fact that it costs a lot to provide mental health care.

"You have some terrible incident happen,” he points out. “The legislature, they do something, but it never gets at the overall arching issues of funding for a lot of the community-based services that the mentally ill need."

Harki says preventing the deaths may require stepping back from particular cases.

"The problems that lead to a police officer standing in front of a mentally ill person who is armed,” he says. “What happened in the five, six, seven steps before that, that led to that interaction?"

The state police are now investigating the Mitchell case.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA