Heartbreak swelled on Friday afternoon after the news broke that a mentally ill black man from Virginia died in a jail cell on August 19 after spending four months behind bars for allegedly stealing a bottle of Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar, and a Zebra Cake worth a total of $5 from a 7-Eleven.
Response on social media reflected growing public awareness—and outrage—about the overlapping scourges of institutionalized racism, a dysfunctional criminal justice system, and a troubling gap in mental health care for the disadvantaged.
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According to news reports, 24-year-old Jamycheal Mitchell was arrested by police on April 22 in Portsmouth, Virginia, the same day that one of the city’s officers fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old named William Chapman in a Walmart parking lot.
After spending almost three weeks in a city jail, Mitchell was moved to a regional facility on May 11. Ten days after that, a judge ruled Mitchell was not competent to stand trial and ordered that he be transferred to a state-run mental health facility for treatment. However, according to the Guardian, which on Friday became the first outlet to substantively report on Mitchell’s death, the hospital said it had no vacancy. Mitchell was therefore detained in jail without bail until his death.
The Guardian reports that “Mitchell’s family said they believed he starved to death after refusing meals and medication at the jail, where he was being held on misdemeanour charges of petty larceny and trespassing.”
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Mitchell’s aunt, Roxanne Adams, told the Guardian that Mitchell had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia for about five years. Adams, who is a registered nurse, said her nephew had practically no muscle mass left by the time of his death: “His body failed. It is extraordinary. The person I saw deceased was not even the same person.”
Mitchell’s obituary states that he was born in Louisiana and was an altar boy at his local Catholic church.
Heavy reports that Mitchell’s sister, Jasmine Adams, paid a “heartbreaking tribute” to her little brother on Facebook saying: “If it’s one thing jamycheal made sure he did, he was gonna put a smile on your face….no matter what, he touched soooo many ppl & he didn’t even know it. It’s gonna take a long time for our hearts to heal and for us to accept it but we are taking it one day at a time cause we know that God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers… Rest on Lil Brother (Jamycheal) I guess God needed you more than we did. But now we know you’re in a place where there is no more struggles and no more pain.”