POLITICS
09/28/2016 11:10 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

The Cities That Feed Virginia’s Deadliest Jail Lock Up Hundreds Over Simple Pot Possession

At least eight people have died at Hampton Roads Regional Jail in the past 17 months.

WASHINGTON ― Mark Goodrum died last year after spending a month in Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Virginia. He had been charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession and was unable to come up with the money he needed ― approximately $100 ― for a bail bond.

Getting locked up in connection with a simple marijuana possession charge isn’t particularly rare in the area served by Hampton Roads Regional Jail. Norfolk Sheriff Robert McCabe, who took over management of that jail on an interim basis two weeks ago, said that as of this week, it wasn’t holding any inmates on simple marijuana possession charges. His Norfolk City Jail, though, was holding dozens.

“We had 86 inmates that were in [Norfolk City Jail] for simple possession of marijuana,” McCabe said in an interview with The Huffington Post this month. McCabe says he looked up those numbers for Norfolk City Jail in early September.

Norfolk is one of five cities, along with Newport News, Hampton, Portsmouth and Chesapeake, that send inmates to Hampton Roads Regional Jail. Most often these jurisdictions send those inmates with medical issues to the facility. Eighteen people have died at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail since 2012, including at least eight in the past 17 months.

Rates of incarceration for marijuana possession in Virginia increased by more than 15 percent between 2009 and 2013, bucking a national trend. The number of arrests for marijuana possession over that period particularly rose in many of the jurisdictions that send inmates to the Hampton Roads facility, according to a Drug Policy Alliance report. In 2013 alone, arrests for possession numbered 898 in Newport News, 523 in Hampton, 223 in Portsmouth and 1,053 in Chesapeake, according to the report.

If Norfolk Jail’s 86 inmates represent the average for that facility, it would translate to a cost of roughly $1.84 million per year to lock people up for possession of marijuana in Norfolk alone (at a rate of $58.69 a day per inmate), according to McCabe. Another 300 or so inmates are charged with marijuana possession plus at least one other offense, McCabe said. (At the national level, FBI statistics released this week indicate that marijuana arrests are at a 20-year low of 643,000 per year, or about once every 49 seconds. The vast majority of marijuana arrests are for possession.)

Goodrum’s death was first reported as part of The Huffington Post’s jail deaths project, which seeks to chronicle every jail death that happened in the U.S. in the year following the death of Sandra Bland on July 13, 2015. Our analysis indicates that Hampton Roads Regional Jail is one of the deadliest jails in the country, and it has been named the most dangerous jail in Virginia by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The Justice Department is currently mulling whether to launch a civil rights investigation into conditions at the facility following a request from Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.

The Virginian-Pilot reported this month that federal authorities pulled immigration detainees out of the jail in 2014 because the facility had failed to meet detention standards. That was a $10 million hit to the jail authority, and it happened the year before the deaths of Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, and Henry Clay Stewart, 60, which have received significant media attention. (Mitchell’s case was particularly disturbing, as starvation ― or “wasting syndrome” ― was a major contributor to his death. Some inmates have alleged they were threatened for speaking up about Mitchell’s death.)

McCabe, who said he expects to be on the job at Hampton Roads Regional Jail for a few months until a permanent replacement is found, is familiar with the DOJ civil rights investigative process, as he was in charge of the Norfolk City Jail during a federal probe in the 1990s

“When I took over the Norfolk City Jail, it had some issues,” McCabe said. “I think that they thought maybe some of that experience would be helpful to take over here in the interim.”

McCabe has been on the board of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail for 17 years, and says the previous head of the jail hadn’t been keeping the board informed about important matters. Internal and external communication has been a major issue at Hampton Roads, McCabe added. He held his first press conference at the facility last week ― pledging firings, promotions and restructuring ― and said he’ll hold a press conference each Friday for the foreseeable future. 

“The challenge here is to restore confidence that if there are any problem areas here at the regional jail, that we’re going to make sure that they’re addressed and that the public feels confident that this jail is being well-managed and that the inmate health care is what it should be by all standards,” McCabe told HuffPost.

“At the very least, we can probably agree that the transparency and communication was not what it should have been,” McCabe said, noting that there were limits on what officials could tell the press due to litigation and health care privacy laws.

The facility was “not the easiest jail to work in,” McCabe said, “because out of the five jurisdictions, most of them send over their most chronically ill.” He estimated that 80 percent of the inmates have some sort of medical problem.

As part of his transparency push, McCabe has released video from the hours leading up to Mitchell’s death, as well as a list of all the inmates who have died at the facility in recent years. This has sent media outlets digging into additional deaths, like that of 69-year-old William Thrower.

“Please help me,” Thrower wrote on a medical grievance form in February, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Thrower said he was having sharp pains and could not sleep. On March 19, he once again asked for help, saying he hadn’t been able to sleep for four days and had been unable to use the bathroom. Someone made a note on his form indicating that it wasn’t an emergency medical grievance, according to the Times-Dispatch. Thrower was dead the next day.

As first reported in HuffPost’s jail death database, Thrower died from acute gallstone pancreatitis. Dr. David Buxton, a Richmond-area palliative care physician, told the Times-Dispatch that Thrower’s condition would have been very painful, and that it would likely have been obvious to a medical provider that he was seriously ill.

Gallstone pancreatitis is not typically deadly and can be fixed with surgery, Buxton told the Times-Dispatch. Such a surgery, of course, would have been costly for the medical provider, and could potentially have eaten into the private medical provider’s profit margin. The Times-Dispatch said it wasn’t even clear who was serving as medical director when Thrower died.

Thrower was not a pretrial detainee, but many of the individuals incarcerated at the facility have not yet gone to trial or been convicted. McCabe says the jail has little control over which inmates it receives, and that only the cities that send people there have the power to change policies to help people facing low-level charges to avoid incarceration.

“Each individual locality, the magistrates in those localities determine whether someone is going to get a high bond, a low bond or no bond,” McCabe said. “Some localities have pre-trial services where they don’t have to put up a bond, but they’ll let them out because of the nature of the offense.”  

Unlike some jurisdictions that determine whether someone can be arrested based on their threat to public safety, many jurisdictions that feed inmates to Hampton Roads Regional Jail are tied to a bail bond system that leaves indigent people locked up even though they are legally presumed innocent.

But Michael Crichlow, a 35-year-old black man who runs Michael’s Bail Bonds in Newport News, Virginia, and works with people incarcerated at Hampton Roads Regional Jail, is not swayed by arguments that the money bail system is unfair to the poor.

“They can afford to get drunk at the bar, but you mean to tell me that you can’t spend $100 to pay bail? It’s absurd to me,” Crichlow said. “Whatever these liberal social justice warriors want, it’s ridiculous. I don’t run across people who can’t afford $50, $100. In 2016, it’s absurd to think that somebody cannot afford $100 to get out on bail.”

Crichlow, a self-identified member of the Libertarian Party, says he’s been arrested three or four times, so he’s been on both sides of the bail system. About a year before the Newport News police knocked on Mark Goodrum’s door, they’d shown up to a party Crichlow was throwing.

In addition to possession of marijuana, Crichlow was charged for loud music and resisting arrest. He says his bond was $1,000, and he was able to get out of jail pretty quickly.

“I had to pay $100 to a bondsman that I know,” Crichlow said. He said he has little sympathy for someone like Goodrum, a bedridden 60-year-old who was arrested on an outstanding warrant in connection with his marijuana possession charge as he was being evicted from his apartment.

“They’ve got money to buy a half ounce of weed for $150,” Crichlow said. “You mean to tell me you can’t spend $150 to get out of jail?”

Goodrum’s friend T.J. Thompson, a disabled Navy veteran and medical marijuana advocate, said Goodrum really didn’t have any money.

“I knew he had absolutely zero dollars to his name,” Thompson said. “He couldn’t afford anything.”

Thompson, who said he bonded with Goodrum over music, told HuffPost that Goodrum typically received marijuana as a gift and would use it for pain relief in lieu of painkillers. Goodrum would give Thompson “that extra push” to do the type of medical marijuana advocacy that Goodrum couldn’t do on his own.

Goodrum was arrested on the warrant and arrived at Hampton Roads Regional Jail on Oct. 14, 2015. Although he went in with significant medical problems, there are major questions about the quality of the care he and other inmates received at the facility. Reviews of records held by the jail’s former medical provider have “raised significant concerns regarding the quality of assessment, care, follow-up, and documentation,” according to a report from the Virginia Office of the State Inspector General.

Goodrum died on Nov. 13, 2015, of “end stage renal disease” with history of “hemodialysis, hypertension, anemia of chronic disease, peripheral vascular disease, tobacco use, diabetes mellitus, and history of stroke contributing,” according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Virginia.

Like many people who knew Goodrum, Thompson found out he had died before he knew he’d been in jail. Thompson said Goodrum could be “somewhat difficult to deal with at times,” and that he’d lost touch with Goodrum in the last few months of his life. “If you’re in that much pain and suffering, you’re going to be mad at the world,” Thompson said. “It’s understandable.”

Life had “just been tough on [Goodrum], it seemed,” Thompson said. “We would just talk about music, and he’d forget about all the crap of the world.” 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated which jail was holding 86 inmates on charges related to marijuana possession. McCabe was referring to Norfolk City Jail, not Hampton Roads Regional Jail. The headline and article have been updated accordingly.

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