- Associated Press - Monday, December 12, 2016

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - The Justice Department on Monday said it will investigate a Virginia jail after the deaths of two inmates and criticism of health care services continued to mount from state officials and civil rights groups.

The department said in a press release that it will determine if prisoners at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth receive proper medical treatment and psychological services. In particular, the probe will focus on whether the jail violated the rights of mentally ill inmates.

Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, an inmate with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, died there last year. A medical examiner said the cause was heart failure accompanied by severe weight loss. His family filed a lawsuit in May in which other inmates said correctional officials physically abused him and withheld food.

Earlier this year, inmate Henry Stewart, 60, filled out an emergency grievance form saying he had blacked out twice in less than 24 hours and couldn’t hold down food or water. He died two days later.

The grievance form said a nurse determined his concerns “not to be an emergency.” It said Stewart had refused medication and had been evaluated by off-site specialists. Stewart’s family found the form among his belongings at the jail.

“All prisoners, including those with mental illness, have a constitutional right to receive necessary medical care, treatment and services,” Vanita Gupta, head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said in statement.

The jail has denied any wrongdoing. It is run by a local board, and medical service is provided by a contractor. The facility has been under new leadership since September.

Interim Superintendent Robert J. McCabe said in a statement that the jail is working to improve services and welcomes the probe.

“We are confident that DOJ will recognize the positive efforts being made,” he wrote.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring had asked the Justice Department to investigate earlier this year. He praised its decision Monday, saying in a statement that the public “needs to know what has been going on in this facility.”

For months, advocates for the mentally ill and civil rights groups had been expressing concerns about the “likelihood of future deaths” at the jail. The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union reiterated that stance Monday, saying inmates there are at “serious, imminent risk.”

Mark Krudys, an attorney representing the families of both men who died, said in a phone interview that they’re happy about the investigation into what they believe is a “systemic problem.”

Since the Mitchell family filed its lawsuit, Krudys said his firm has received numerous inquiries from other inmates and their families.

Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore, said federal investigations can result in recommendations for more staffing to a government takeover of health care services.

“I’ve never known one of these investigations not to find something problematic,” he said. “It just depends on how much.”

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