A new mental health bill tells Virginia jails to set standards for dealing with mentally ill prisoners.

But will they abide by standards? The bill attempts to make sure that they will.

Filed by Del. Rob Bell and drafted and endorsed by the Deeds Commission, formed by Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, and on which Mr. Bell serves, the bill was prompted by the horrific death of Jamycheal Mitchell, who starved to death in a Hampton Roads jail. It was passed unanimously by both houses of the General Assembly.

The bill orders the state Board of Corrections to establish uniform standards for mental health care inside the commonwealth’s jails — including behavioral screening for the inmates and the sharing of records between jails and medical or mental health facilities in order to facilitate inmates’ care.

It also gives jails a role in ensuring that inmates are set up for mental health care after they are released from custody.

All of these safeguards address flaws in the current system that have been exposed by several high-profile cases, including that of Mr. Mitchell.

Mr. Mitchell literally wasted away in a jail cell, covered in his own filth, while awaiting transfer to a mental health hospital. An investigation later found that the paperwork for his transfer was stuffed into a hospital drawer. Jail staff apparently never followed up to make sure the hospital was acting on the transfer.

The jail denies wrongdoing.

An investigation was unable to adequately pin down blame because a medical provider refused to make certain witnesses available — and the state had no leverage to compel compliance.

But whether the jail was provably and legally at fault or not, it should have been obvious to staff that Mr. Mitchell was in extremis and needed help.

In addition to ensuring that mentally ill inmates are correctly transferred to mental health facilities when the severity of their condition warrants, it also is important to make sure they receive some sort of appropriate care while in jail.

It also is critical to ensure that they receive appropriate treatment after leaving jail and re-entering the community. Without treatment, mental health experts warn, they are at high risk of ending up in jail yet again.

But an equally important section of the bill is simply this: Each jail is subject to at least one unannounced inspection visit per year to determine whether it is complying with the law.

Such a provision also might have saved Mr. Mitchell’s life.

Although the kinds of formal standards envisioned by the bill were not in place at the time, basic standards of human decency were fully in force. Hampton Roads jailers should have known that it was wrong to let Mr. Mitchell starve, covered in his own waste.

But because the Mitchell case has shown that some jails can’t be trusted to employ good judgment, much less common decency, standards will have to be enacted — and steps must be taken to guarantee that standards are being met. 

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