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Texas' failure to fund mental health treatment leaves hundreds stranded in jails around the state

Photo: Illustration by Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Illustration by Chuck Kerr

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Jeremy Weaver


At the Dallas County jail, officials last month said 67 inmates were waiting for treatment. The Harris County jail, the state's largest lockup, had 31 inmates ordered into state hospital treatment, the longest having already waited 200 days. The Bexar County jail last month had 32 inmates waiting for placement a state hospital, the longest being on the DSHS wait list for 265 days and counting, said Martha Rodriguez, the jail's medical director. "Our physicians here have even called [the jail] like a little mini state hospital," Rodriguez said. The lockup's 281 mental health beds are always full, she added. "You have mentally ill individuals in here that need additional programs, but we just don't have anywhere to send them. In terms of providing mental health care, in Texas we're pretty much at the bottom. … We don't have enough re-entry programs, diversion programs, not enough to meet the needs of the mentally ill in our communities, so they wind up coming to jail on charges that really should have been avoided. This just shouldn't be happening."

By phone from the Kerrville State Hospital, where he's been ordered into treatment until at least August, 34-year-old Sam recalled his mental breakdown. "I started thinking that everyone around me was working with the FBI, that people were after me for some reason." By 2008, he had landed in the Bexar County jail after torching his car, motorcycle, and his parents' San Antonio business. In jail, he was afraid to eat or take the medication doctors prescribed, he says. He rapidly lost weight once in lockup. Months into his incarceration, Sam started hoarding his medication. One day he swallowed 30 pills inside his cell in a suicide attempt. "I lost hope, I thought I'd never never leave that cell. … I was suffering, I was humiliated, I decided to end things." Sam claims he was routinely humiliated, harassed, and threatened by a guard at the jail because of his appearance, his accent, and his religion. Soon after his suicide attempt, a judge declared Sam incompetent to stand trial on multiple arson charges. Still, he was forced to wait in jail for nearly five months before being transferred to the Vernon State Hospital. He says he was increasingly delusional by the time he made it into treatment. "I had no idea where they were taking me. I thought, I don't know, that maybe they were going to kill me," he said.

••••••••••••••••••

Disability Rights Texas is now embarking on year six of its court battle over funding to house mentally ill defendants waiting for treatment in jails across the state. Beth Mitchell, an attorney with Disability Rights, said the organization sued state health officials in 2006 hoping to force their hand and make them cut the time mentally ill defendants are allowed to wait in jail for treatment. The suit demands waiting periods be cut to three days at most — something that, if enforced, would surely force the state to create more bed space, likely at the expense of emergency bed space or other crucial programming if no more money flows into the system. "I think we'd be happy even they agreed to make the wait time seven or 10 days at this point," Mitchell said. She expects a ruling from a state court of appeals in the coming months.

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