PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WVEC) -- Next week, we will find out who will be the new leader of the troubled Hampton Roads Regional Jail.
The jail board is expected to decide between two finalists to be the new superintendent of the facility.
It has seen two high profile deaths in just a year's time.
In the past, it has been difficult for us to get information about what happens inside the Hampton Roads Regional Jail (HRRJ). In fact, after the superintendent stepped down amid controversy, Sheriff Bob McCabe admitted transparency was an issue.
After our request to new jail leaders, there was a change.
Inside the HRRJ, live some of the area’s most difficult inmates. Sixty percent of the average daily population at the jail have mental health, medical or behavioral issues.
Those numbers included Jamycheal Mitchell and Henry Stewart.
Jamycheal died inside the jail in 2015. He had been arrested just a few months earlier for stealing $5 worth of junk food.
A year later, Henry Stewart had asked for emergency medical help at the jail. He died two days later.
“One of the things I would say to reassure that family member is that we're in a preventive mode to make sure things like that don't happen again with the training and resources we have available,” explained Capt. Thurman Barnes, who is the chief of correctional services. “The staff is ready for the training. I think it's been long overdue.”
We wanted to know how Capt. Barnes is able to say that. Exactly what changes have been made? What training is being done?
Only 13News Now was allowed in for the first day of the mental health training officers are now getting. It is provided through a $939,000 grant.
This is the first of eleven classes, according to training supervisor Sgt. Valencia Michelle Phillips.
“They're going to learn how to talk to them,” she described. “They're going to learn how to not just push them to the side. They're going to let their immediate supervisors know 'hey we have an issue with this inmate, they need help’ and with this training we're going to know who we need to go to first.”
Officers are also working closely with mental health staff every single day. Providers meet with security personnel each morning to go over the most challenging cases.
“So if something does happen, it isn't too much of a surprise for everyone,” Mental Health Director Dr. Sarah Determan said. “So gaining more insight and having more of a collaborative, unified experience and understanding with what's happening with patients here.”
Dr. Determan told us they have to be creative in treating these "patients" because they're patients, who are also inmates.
“Even though you're in jail you can still receive care,” she maintained. “You can still find growth and meaning in your life and there doesn't have to be a pause in psychiatric and mental health treatment.”
They've created a tracking system to monitor individuals who have been diagnosed with severe mental health illnesses. Also, for the first time a psychiatrist will be on staff inside the jail.
In addition, the grant allows for a mental health professional at intake to prescreen any of the inmates. That immediate screening will make sure there's no gap in care between the time the inmate arrives at the jail and gets settled into the facility.
Eliminating any gap in care could also help eliminate part of the unpredictable nature of this kind of population.
“We look at another inmate, mentally he's stable; an hour later he's not stable,” Capt. Barnes depicted. “So that brings a lot of challenges on the staff.”
Staff are now able to be more transparent about what goes on inside the HRRJ.
“If people aren't able to talk to the people that are behind these doors then they don't know what's going on and they assume bad things,” Assistant Superintendent Linda Bryant said.
She believes in transparency not only for the media, but for family members who have loved ones in the jail and the public whose tax dollars pay for the care there.
“If the community feels that there is a lack of transparency then how are they ever going to feel like people in this facility are safe,” she added.
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