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State agency wants to close jail where 53 people have died

Posted at 2:26 PM, Apr 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-27 14:32:13-04

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (AP) - The state agency that oversees jails in Virginia is calling for the closure of a regional jail where 53 people have died since 2008, according to a published report.

The Virginian-Pilot reported Tuesday that the Jail Review Committee found that the Hampton Roads Regional Jail has shown “an egregious lack of concern for the health and safety of all who enter” and is “a significant public safety threat to inmates and correctional officers.”

The committee summarized its preliminary findings in a 23-page letter, a copy of which was obtained by the newspaper.

The committee will present its findings to the Board of Local and Regional Jails at a public hearing on May 19. The board will then rule on whether to close the jail. That ruling could be appealed by the jail.

The April 22 letter addressed to the jail's interim superintendent, Jeff Vergakis, summarizes the committee's investigation into the deaths of three people in the jail's custody. Vergakis did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment. A message was left at his office.

In each case, the committee found the jail failed to meet the board’s minimum standards. It recommended that the jail be decertified and everyone housed there be sent back to the city jails where they were originally housed.

“Given all of these factors, this Committee will RECOMMEND that the Board of Local and Regional Jails FIND that there is no reasonable chance of bringing your facility into compliance with minimum standards," the report states.

The regional jail is the deadliest in the state and one of the deadliest in the nation, the newspaper has reported. It has had a severe staffing shortage, a recent homicide, and a loss of accreditation from an outside group, according to the newspaper. All of this has happened while the jail has been under federal oversight from the Department of Justice after a 2018 report that found conditions there violated inmates’ constitutional rights.

Citing staffing levels that hadn’t improved, Norfolk Sheriff Joe Baron and Chesapeake Sheriff Jim O’Sullivan decided last month to pull all their inmates out of the regional jail.

That will leave the jail with only inmates from Hampton and Newport News, two of the five cities that pay to house incarcerated men and women there. Portsmouth hasn’t sent inmates to the regional jail since early 2019.

The jail has been under increased scrutiny since the 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24-year-old inmate with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia who 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.

The three deaths examined in the jail review committee’s report highlight long-standing problems at the jail, including chronic staffing shortages and the inability to properly care for people with physical and mental illnesses.

Jakub Michael Plucinski died by suicide on Dec. 31, 2018. He had previously been placed on suicide watch and had a history of seizures, depression, PTSD and psychiatric hospitalizations.

In the hours leading up to Plucinski’s death, an officer completed only nine of 13 required physical well-being checks on him, an internal affairs investigation found, according to a summary of the Jail Review Committee’s preliminary findings.

An internal investigation found security checks also were not done properly the day before and the day of Victor Rhea Fountain’s death on Feb. 23, 2019.

About six hours before Fountain’s death, a sergeant saw Fountain lying on the bottom bunk in his cell, in the fetal position, clutching his abdomen. The jail’s internal affairs investigation found that the sergeant failed to have Fountain assessed by medical staff “when he was in obvious distress” and a nurse failed to give medical treatment when told he needed it.

Tyrone Lee Bailey died April 19, 2019. He had lung cancer.

Several of Bailey’s chemotherapy treatments were delayed - in one case by 77 days. One of the reasons for the delays: The medical scheduler limited the number of outside appointments to five per day “due to workload of the transportation officers,” according to the summary.