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Preventing Another Death in Custody

Written by Bruce Cruser

Bruce Cruser has been Executive Director of Mental Health Virginia since 2016, bringing a background in social work and community corrections, and many years of leadership experience in local and state government.

July 4, 2023

July 3, 2023

The Honorable Glen Youngkin, Governor
Commonwealth of Virginia

Dear Governor Youngkin:

The death of Irvo Otieno (see Another Death in Custody 03/22/2023) requires a full review of Virginia’s laws and policies to ensure the safety and care of individuals with serious mental illness while in state custody. Public reporting of Otieno’s experience suggests inadequacies in the following likely contributed to his death:

1. Training for all in authority who interact with the person in crisis – local law enforcement, jail personnel, private and public hospital security personnel
2. Policies governing when someone’s actions while in crisis result in moving them from the behavioral health system to the criminal justice system
3. Medication protocols for someone with a serious mental illness upon entry to jail and thereafter
4. Timing of first court appearance when bond is reviewed and a lawyer appointed

Therefore, we urge you to address these questions as part of transforming the behavioral health system:

• Training protocols: What training is required for authorities exerting control of a person experiencing a mental health crisis? How is the effectiveness of training measured to ensure employee/contractor compliance?

• Assault on a Law Enforcement Officer: What alternatives exist, or should exist, to criminally charging someone with this felony offense when they are in the midst of a mental health crisis?

• Medication while in custody: What is the best practice for providing medication to someone with a serious mental illness who is jailed? How are existing prescriptions handled? Are there differences around the state, and if so, why?

• First appearance in court: The time spent in jail waiting for a meaningful first appearance before the judge varies based on the day of the week of arrest and the arrest locality. Spending four days in jail, rather than one day, can be devastating to someone with a serious mental illness, especially when without prescribed medication. How can this inequity be addressed?

These issues cross government branches and will take time to fully explore. We urge you to charge the appropriate agencies with this task.

Thank you for your commitment to bring an intentional, coordinated response to the crisis in our mental health system. We hope this work will encompass changes to prevent another needless death in custody.

Bruce N. Cruser
Bruce N. Cruser, Executive Director
Mental Health America of Virginia

CC: Secretary of Health and Human Resources
Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security

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