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Virginia Jail Death Review Board Not Releasing Information About Investigations Or Findings

In October, 2017, we published a blog discussing that the Virginia Board of Corrections (the newly created panel of citizens legally responsible for overseeing jail deal investigations in Virginia) had yet to begin any death investigations. As of late October, the Commonwealth had not yet hired an investigator, preventing the Board from performing any meaningful investigative work.

That changed last November when part-time investigator T. Stephen Goff was hired. Goff has almost 34 years of employment with the Virginia State Police, as well as experience doing background investigations for the Department of Corrections for two years. The Board has also hired a second part-time employee (Brian Sutherland, former acting deputy superintendent of the now-defunct Peumansend Creek Regional Jail) to perform administrative duties. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that since November, Goff has been investigating cases back to July 1, 2017 (when SB 1063 went into effect). He has reportedly closed 17 jail death investigation cases, while 36 cases remain open.

Though this may seem like progress at first blush, it begs the question – what were the results of those 17 investigations that are now deemed “closed?” Further, what exactly does it mean when a case is “closed?” As the Board of Corrections conducts their panel discussions in closed sessions, information about these 17 deaths and the details of the investigator’s findings have not been made available to the public. Of the 36 death cases that have not been closed by Goff and the Board of Corrections, Goff indicated on Wednesday that 11 of the deaths were from suicide, 22 from natural causes, one is from unknown causes, as well as two deaths from homicide. No further information has been made public, and the Board has invoked an exception to open public meeting laws that permits them to close their meetings for discussions of information relating to medical or mental health records.

When asked about the lack of public information from the Board, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, Michael Kelly, indicated that “Any policies on this will be set the board itself. We will of course advise the board on its obligations, responsibilities and authorities under the law, but ultimately, it will be up to the board to decide how they want to handle these situations.”

Advocacy groups and others have questioned this lack of information-sharing and transparency, wanting to know why the Board has chosen not to make this information public. Bruce Cruser of Mental Health America of Virginia, for example, would like to know the number of deaths that have occurred which involved mental illnesses or substance abuse issues.

Certainly not all deaths in custody are suspicious. However, many jails and prisons including many in the Commonwealth of Virginia, have a history of civil rights abuses, medical neglect, poor treatment of prisoners, inhumane conditions of confinement, a failure to properly supervise inmates, and other issues that constitute deliberate indifference, medical malpractice, or other negligence which can lead to unnatural or wrongful deaths in the correctional system. There are many complex legal, medical, and correctional issues that need to be examined in order to make a determination of whether or not an in-custody death was the result of negligence, medical malpractice, or a violation of an inmate’s civil rights. The purpose of the legislation behind Virginia’s Board of Corrections was to gather information about and determine the causes of inmate deaths in order to reduce and, hopefully, eliminate wrongful deaths in custody in the Commonwealth. If the Board’s investigatory findings are not shared with the public, the families of inmates, civil rights lawyers, and advocacy groups, however, it is difficult to see how real change in our correctional system can be effected. Further, it is impossible for others to know if full investigations are being conducted, to know what information is being considered, and to determine the potential biases of any of the Board members or employees.

In the first five and a half months of 2018 alone, 21 in-custody deaths have been reported in Virginia, including Davageah Jones, 18, in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, and Wayne Burnett Marshall, 45, in the Henrico County Jail on May 15th. Inmate deaths reported in Virginia thus far in 2018 include:

1/5/18 – Danville City Jail –Medical Furlough

1/8/18 – Virginia Beach City Jail

1/17/18 – Hampton Roads Regional Jail

1/18/18 – Portsmouth City Jail –Apparent Suicide

1/20/18 – Northern Neck Regional Jail –Apparent Pneumonia

1/22/18 – Rappahannock Regional Jail –Hospital/Cancer

1/29/18 – Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority

2/13/18 – Southside Regional Jail

3/1/18 – Martinsvillle City Jail –In Hospital Following Medical Emergency

3/20/18 – Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority

3/21/18 – Richmond City Jail– Following Hospitalization

3/28/18 – Culpeper County Jail –Following apparent Suicide Attempt

4/10/18 – Prince William/Manassas Regional Jail

4/10/18 – Hampton City Jail –Suicide by Hanging

4/12/18 – Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority – Tazewell –Suicide by Hanging

4/13/18 – Chesterfield County Jail

4/14/18 – Riverside Regional Jail –Suicide by Hanging

4/15/18 – Hampton Roads Regional Jail –Following Brief Hospital Stay

4/24/18 – Southwest Virginia Regional Jail

5/15/18 – Hampton Roads Regional Jail

5/15/18 – Henrico County Jail – Following Hospitalization

It is not known at this time if Goff or the Board intend to make future reports or information available. At the Halperin Law Center, our civil rights and wrongful death attorneys are advocates for inmates’ rights. As such, we hope to see the dissemination of this information in the near future, as we feel it is invaluable to ensuring that the constitutional rights of inmates are protected.

If a loved one died in a Virginia jail as a result of medical malpractice, negligence, or a violation of their constitutional rights, contact the Halperin Law Center today at 804-409-3632 for a no-cost case evaluation.