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Young man’s death invokes the history of Central State

Members of the Otieno family standing in front a podium with microphones holding a picture of Irvo Otieno looking downward with solemn expressions
Whittney Evans
The family of Irvo Otieno addresses the press outside a Dinwiddie Courthouse in regard to the death of their family member

A Virginia non-profit has filed a motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit in the death of 28 year-old Irvo Otieno of Henrico. The disAbility Law Center of Virginia is investigating as a mental health advocate and had filed suit in federalcourt last week, demanding release of Otieno's mental health records from Parham Doctors' Hospital. That is where law enforcement officers had taken Otieno on March 3rd, having identified Otieno as a burglary suspect and having been told by his family that he was having a mental health crisis.

Otieno is alleged to have become combative with officers, who took him that same day from the Henrico hospital to the county's jail. The following Monday deputies transported him to Central State Hospital in Petersburg, where he died of asphyxiation while pressed to the floor during intake. Several officers as well as hospital staff are charged in his death.

The disAbility Law Center says that Parham Doctors' Hospital had not accommodated their request for records but says they have now complied. The center is an independent advocate, representing the interests of Virginians dealing with mental health issues.

Psychologist and documentary producer Shawn Utsey says Otieno's death demands greater attention on how Black mental health is viewed by the broader society. VPM News spoke with him about Otieno's death, which he says, is emblematic of how Black people have historically been viewed as criminal rather than as human.

ANGIE MILES: This is the video that has stunned and saddened the world. 28-year-old Irvo Otieno was pinned to the floor and suffocated during intake at Petersburg's Central State Hospital. Seven sheriff’s deputies and three hospital workers are now charged with the Henrico man's death.

GILDA PEGRAM: We were looking through the little door. They'll see someone; they be hollering, carrying on. I was afraid, I'll be truthful with you.

ANGIE MILES: As the producer of this recent documentary on the history of Central State Hospital, Shawn Utsey says he is deeply troubled by what happened for many reasons.

SHAWN UTSEY: The historical interpretation of Black behavior as being essentially criminal permeates all spheres of life. So, even though the police took him here because he was having a mental health crisis and understood that what he's doing is because he's having a crisis-- but apparently something he did flipped the switch and now he was criminal.

ANGIE MILES: Utsey is a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. His areas of interest include race-related trauma and stress. He's also president of the Virginia Association of Black Psychologists.

SHAWN UTSEY: And so, now they've decided that we're no longer going to deal with this gentleman as having a mental health crisis and we're going to now deal with him as a criminal. We take him to jail. And so, even when they left jail and took him to Central State Hospital, there were more police on the scene than there were Central State Hospital staff, because it was still a criminal matter in the psyches of those attending to him.

ANGIE MILES: Utsey says he's troubled by parallels with the early history of Central State Hospital. Following the Civil War, the facility was Virginia's Lunatic Asylum for the Colored Insane and it became the country's first public institution for Black people in need of mental health services.

SHAWN UTSEY: The argument toward the end of slavery was that if you let these folks go, if you free them, you're going to see an increase in insanity. These were literally theories of psychiatrists at the time-- that slavery was a protective factor and allowed Black people to not know insanity. And freedom was going to result in an increase in insanity across the country. And we saw this born out in the rates of admission, not only at Central State Hospital, but others around the country post-slavery. And they began to find utility in using it as a source of social control. “What do you do with a Black person who doesn't know his place?”

ANGIE MILES: According to Utsey, the original Central State Hospital was really a new style of plantation where Black people were often mislabeled, falsely accused, corralled and abused.

SHAWN UTSEY: Central State Hospital had a farm and the patients labored upon that farm. And the farm really created or turned a profit that was surprising, even to the administrators. And so, there was no real treatment at the beginning. And through the 1950s, there were no treatment. It was really custodial care. And sometimes that was abusive. They would also lease the patients out to the other insane asylum in Williamsburg, Eastern State. And the patients at Central State would then go to Eastern State and wait on the white patients at-- in the hospital.

ANGIE MILES: From 1870 through the mid 1900s, Central State grew to a multi-building campus that housed close to 5,000 people.

PEIGHTON YOUNG: It was kind of a catch-all. It was if you were adolescent delinquents, you went there. If you were Black and ill, you went there. If you were poor, you went there. If you were rich, you went there. If you needed any kind of health services, mental services or a dormitory or a place to stay or a place for law enforcement to commit you that wasn't in a prison, that was where you went.

ANGIE MILES: Peighton Young is a public historian and one of many Virginians who recall a negative family history related to Central State Hospital. Young's third great-grandmother was Maggie Barbara Jefferson.

PEIGHTON YOUNG: She was seeing a man and she had a mental breakdown over him, and we don't know if she was committed voluntarily or if she was committed against her will, but she essentially ended up at the Central State Asylum for colored people in Petersburg, Virginia. And that was what it was called at the time. It's now Central State Hospital. She disappears from the records after 1950.

ANGIE MILES: In short, Utsey says the hospital's distant history includes Black people being institutionalized without legitimate reasons and sometimes exploited for labor or experimentation. He says, Central State Hospital integrated since 1967, is no longer that place, but became a true asset for mental health services powered by the humanity of the people who worked there. He adds that poorly trained or transient staff can certainly cause harm. Utsey says this death of Irvo Otieno harkens back to the dismal past of Central State. The bigger problem for society, he says, is criminalizing mental health needs, especially of Black people, especially of Black men.

SHAWN UTSEY: Being uncomfortable in the presence of police is a very logical response for Black people. I'm uncomfortable in the presence of police. If the police pulled me over, I would be nervous, right? If I had to go to the hospital, I would rather go in the ambulance than the police car.

ANGIE MILES: He says, the opportunity in the tragic demise of Irvo Otieno is to recognize a racially biased tendency to associate Black mental health with criminality. He says, it's time for change.

SHAWN UTSEY: What I would've liked to have seen would be psychiatrists and psychologists at the forefront trying to de-escalate what was going on, to ask the police to stand back to have staff execute a proper restraint of patients as they're trained to do and then engage in the ways that training has provided for them to de-escalate these situations all the time.


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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