Jamycheal Mitchell of Portsmouth, Virginia, was arrested for stealing $5 worth of goods from a 7-Eleven on April 22. Last Wednesday he was found dead in his cell.
Jamycheal Mitchell was arrested on April 22 for stealing a Zebra Cake, a bottle of Mountain Dew, and a Snickers bar from a 7-Eleven. For that crime the authorities in Portsmouth, Virginia, held him in a cell without bail for about four months. Last Wednesday, the 24-year-old died behind bars—but it was only today that the Guardian's Jon Swaine broke the news of his death and the long detention that preceded it. (Local media had noted the death of an inmate in a short item.)
Nicknamed "Weezy," Mitchell was reportedly bipolar, unable to hold down work, and living with his mother at the time of his arrest. "He just chain-smoked and made people laugh," Mitchell's aunt Roxanne Adams told the Guardian. "He never did anything serious, never harmed anybody."
Mitchell, who grew up as an altar boy in Louisiana, according to an obituary, had a habit of stealing inexpensive items as a teenager. He had been arrested twice before, in 2010 and 2012, for petty larceny; the latter incident led to a monthlong stay in a state hospital. When he stole from the 7-Eleven, the items he took were worth about $5—for that, he was taken to Portsmouth City Jail for about three weeks, and then transferred to a regional facility.
A judge said he was not competent to stand trial, but the hospital he was supposed to be sent to had no open beds. So he remained in jail, where, his family told the Guardian, he eventually started refusing meals and medications, then died. "Officials from the court, the police department and the jail could not explain why Mitchell was not given the opportunity to be released on bail," Swain reported.
According to data just released by the Department of Justice, the number of people who have died behind bars has increased the three years in a row, from 2010 to 2013. Suicide has been the leading cause of death since 2000, the report notes. It does not break down data by race.
The deaths of people of color behind bars has been in the news this summer, however, amid greater public scrutiny of violence against black Americans by police officers. The most high-profile death was that of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old who was visiting Texas for a job interview and got pulled over for not using a blinker, thrown in jail, and was later found hanging there. That incident, which was ruled a suicide, sparked a social media campaign of people asking #WhatHappenedToSandraBland, because it seemed so farfetched that a woman who was just about to start a new career would kill herself over a traffic stop, no matter how unfair or unnecessarily violent it might have been.
Mitchell's case also has some parallels to that of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old who was arrested in New York on suspicion of stealing a backpack and held for three years in terrible conditions without being given a trial. Although he didn't die at Rikers, he tragically committed suicide in June.
On the same day Mitchell was arrested, police in Portsmouth shot an unarmed 18-year-old black man named William Chapman outside of a Walmart because he was suspected of shoplifting. A state prosecutor is pursuing an indictment before a grand jury in that case.
Yesterday, Mitchell's older sister Jasmine posted a tribute on Facebook. "I guess God needed you more than we did," she wrote. "But now we know you're in a place where there is no more struggles and no more pain." She's also set up a GoFundMe page to help raise money for a funeral.
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