‘The jail has become Arlington’s mental health hospital’: Latest inmate death sparks calls for change

Over the past 15 months, three inmates have died at the Arlington County Detention Center in Virginia. They are latest in a series of seven deaths that stretch back seven years.

The most recent was Tuesday, when a 41-year-old homeless man went into cardiac arrest at the jail’s infirmary.

Sheriff Beth Arthur said the man, Paul Thompson, should not have been there, pointing out he had no criminal history.

But she admits he did suffer from mental illness like most of the county’s inmates. As the head of law enforcement for the area, Arthur said she wants to know why so many of them are there.

Of the 280 current inmates, some 170 have mental health challenges; 66 of them are serious. Even the longtime sheriff wants to know why the county is “dumping these people in jail when they need serious care.”

Arlington’s chief public defender is exasperated. Brad Haywood said everyone knew Thompson had serious mental illness, but he was arrested for trespassing anyway. Haywood said Thompson wasn’t hurting anyone, damaging property or causing any acts of violence. But he was still “put in a cage.”

“The system is so broken” that the jail has become Arlington’s mental health hospital, said Arthur, who’s been on the job for 21 years.

Haywood agrees and takes it a step further, saying Arlington has “a disproportionate number of people with mental illness who are involved in the local criminal justice system.”

Arthur points to the lack of resources and space for those who need substance abuse and mental health treatment.

At the Virginia Hospital Center, she said that people sometimes have exceptionally long waits in the emergency room because there are no beds for mental health. That’s one reason they become inmates.

But Julius Spain with the Arlington NAACP said there is another layer. There is an overwhelming number of Black and brown inmates, and six of the seven who have died in the jail over the last seven years were also people of color.

Haywood wonders whether the police and the community’s wealthy urban profile have something to do with it. Spain is looking for something more concrete; he is talking to the FBI and thinks it may warrant a federal investigation because “this pattern of people dying” in the jail has to stop.

“When is enough, enough?” Spain said. He hopes the FBI will take a look at the facts and the culture, which he says needs to change.

Spain said the “sheer number of dead” should cause alarm on its own.

There’s “a total lack of oversight and accountability” from leadership, Spain said.

Arthur pushed back, saying her staff is diligent about checking on inmates twice an hour and checking on infirmary patients every 15 minutes. She also pledges to follow through if an investigation finds otherwise.

Corizon was the county’s last health contractor and it ran the infirmary for more than 15 years, which included six inmates deaths.

In October 2020, an inmate named Darryl Becton died. A year later, a former Corizon nurse was charged with falsifying records linked to his death.

Public defender Haywood is deeply troubled by that and thinks most health contractors at jails aren’t up to the job. Especially in a place such as the Arlington jail, where mental health needs are paramount. When it comes to the infirmary, Haywood thinks the county should run it, not a contractor.

Thompson’s death on Tuesday happened under a different contractor, which has been running the infirmary since mid-November. The county made the change after terminating it’s contract with Corizon several years early.

The new contractor, Mediko, inked a contract with the county on Wednesday, the day after Thompson’s death.

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Hillary Howard

Hillary Howard is a longtime Washington, D.C. broadcaster and storyteller who also hosts "It's Academic," the world's longest running TV quiz show on NBC Washington.

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