Forensic Bed Shortage Makes TX Defendants Wait

More than 500 inmates in jails across Texas wait for mental health treatment at overburdened state hospitals. Some inmates languish behind bars for more than 200 days.

Roderick Marshall of Houston pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in an assault case. He hoped that Instead of serving prison time, he could be shipped off to a state mental hospital for treatment and possible release. Six months later, Marshall, 49, sat in the Harris County Jail, one of more than 500 inmates in jails across Texas waiting for mental health treatment at the overburdened state hospitals, the Houston Chronicle reports. On any given day, between 60 and 80 prisoners in the jail are awaiting transfers, running up bills of about $295 each per day for local taxpayers. “This is a multi-system failure,” said Annalee Gulley of Mental Health America of Greater Houston, a local nonprofit. “We’re so far behind, it’s frightening to think about if it’s possible to catch up.”

The dearth of so-called forensic beds has plagued the Texas criminal justice system for at least two decades, with bed space sinking by nearly 300 since the mid-1990s. In the past two years, the wait list has ballooned dramatically, leading some inmates to languish behind bars for more than 200 days awaiting treatment. Some mental health professionals, jailers and legislators are heartened by $300 million in new funding the legislature approved in its 2017 budget, but it’s still not clear how far that will go toward fixing the problem. “It’s a travesty,” said state Sen. John Whitmire. “It’s a shame when we have $11 billion in the rainy day fund that we’re still operating with a shortage of forensic psychiatric beds.”


Imprisoning the Mentally Ill: America’s ‘Shameful Tragedy’

Efforts to close facilities like the Rikers Island jail complex in New York won’t work unless authorities find alternative ways to deal with seriously mentally ill individuals who run afoul of the justice system, New York’s former chief judge told conference-goers last week.

Efforts to close down Rikers Island, America’s largest jail complex, need to begin with finding effective alternative treatment for mentally ill individuals who are confined behind bars because there are no other places for them to go, according to New York’s former chief judge.

“These people are not in Rikers because they’re hardened criminals,” said Jonathan Lippman. “They’re there because they have a problem, (and) they don’t need to be brutalized by a penal colony that is a relic of the past.

“Instead of tough or soft on crime, let’s be smart.”

Lippman, who served as Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals between 2009 and 2015, spoke at an October 4 forum on the future of the Rikers Island facility, which authorities have promised to close within 10 years.

He was chair of the Independent Commission that produced the April 2017 report recommending the closure of Rikers.

The Hon. Jonathan F. Lippman. Photo by Models for Change via Flickr

The forum, entitled “Closing in on Closing Rikers,” was held at Baruch College of the City University of New York, and examined viable alternatives to prison for the mentally ill that have enjoyed success in other states.

At Rikers, 19% of the inmates have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

“We’re not getting at that population yet, but if we’re going to close Rikers we have to do so,” said Cheryl Roberts, Executive Director of The Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit organization advocating for justice reform that co-sponsored this event.

Working with the New York Daily News and the Metro Area Industrial Foundation, The Greenburger Center invited behavioral health care expert Leon Evans, President and CEO of the Center for Health Care Services in San Antonio, Texas; and Miami-Dade County Mental Health Court Judge Steven Leifman—both of whom have pioneered strategies aimed at finding alternatives to incarceration (ATI) for the seriously mentally ill.

Leifman told the group he is still horrified by the memory of his visit years ago to a mental health hospital in Miami-Dade County while he was an intern for a prominent Miami legislator.

“I walked into a hellhole,” he said, recalling the sight of one teenager strapped to a bed and given thorazine which made him overweight. The teenager, it turned out, was not there for psychiatric treatment; he was autistic.

In another part of the hospital, he witnessed six naked men being hosed off by a guard as if they were animals.

But today, he pointed out, the mental health system’s failure to provide adequate care for troubled individuals has only shifted the burden to jails and prisons.

“(Some) 40% of all people with mental illnesses in this country at some point in their life will come into contact with the criminal justice system,” said Leifman, who has been one of the country’s most influential advocates of ATI.

Other participants in the forum included New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, an outspoken advocate for local and national criminal justice reform.

“Looking at the way we look at incarceration, and having the punishment fit the crime, is critically important,” said Speaker Mark-Viverito.

In support of this idea, to date, Speaker Viverito and the New York City Council have contributed over $6 million to ATI initiatives, and recently passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act which decriminalized non-violent, low-level offences and replaced them with a summons.

The Act is a boon for the homeless and mentally ill that frequent New York City streets and subways.

“When you think about incarcerating someone for public urination, it’s unpleasant, but does that really make sense?” asked Speaker Viverito, who believes that authorities have to re-envision their approach to non-violent offenders who are apprehended for minor crimes—if they are ever to reach their goal of permanently closing Rikers.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than two million people are arrested and booked into jails each year. A 2010 survey by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that people with mental illness are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized, and 18 times more likely to find a bed in the criminal justice system than at any state and civil hospital.

These statistics are reflected in Rikers where, according to a 2015 New York Times article, a total of 4,000 men and women with diagnosed mental illnesses are incarcerated at any given time.

This number represents more than all the adult patients in New York State psychiatric hospitals combined.

But the problem is nationwide, according to Judge Liefman.

“On any given day, there are approximately 360,000 people with serious mental illnesses in jails and prisons and another 760,000 under correctional supervision,” he said.

“This is a shameful American tragedy and it must and can be reversed.”

To demonstrate what can be done to achieve this goal, Leifman discussed the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project, which he implemented in Florida in 2000. The project seeks to steer people with mental illness that have committed low-level offences away from incarceration and towards community-based care.

“Anybody that gets arrested on a misdemeanor in dade county, within three days they are evaluated and transferred from jail to one of our public or private crisis stabilization units,” said Leifman.

“Because they are on a criminal hold, we can reset the case to a few weeks, give them an opportunity to stabilize, have a team go see them, and offer them an opportunity to come into the program.”

If the person is accepted into the program, they can be in from three months to a year, depending on their illness and charges. While there, they are helped to find housing, clothes, benefits, and are assigned a peer counselor and case management assistance to lower their chances of reoffending.

Leifman said that, as a result of this program, recidivism rates in arrests of the mentally ill have, to date, fallen from 70% to 20%.

This focus on treatment and diversion over arrest and incarceration is believed by the criminal justice community to be the best option for improving what is considered a broken and costly system.

Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Liefman. Photo by Isidoro Rodriguez

According to a 2014 report from The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, the U.S. spends $80 billion on incarceration costs every year. By relying on the criminal justice system to provide services, taxpayers are losing money by putting away people who come out worse than when they went in, Liefman observed.

“It’s gotten so bad that our communities are now having to choose between building a new jail and a new school or hospital,” he said.

“There’s something wrong with a society that is more willing to incarcerate its (population) than it is to treat it.”

For Judge Lippman, Rikers Island is a symbol of the misguided idea that mass incarceration has any rehabilitative function.

“Whether you’re there for three days, three weeks, or three years, you wind up in a much worse place than when you came in,” said Lippman, who agrees that diversion and treatment are the best course of action.

“It’s not just about punishing people, but it’s what the outcomes are for people coming into the criminal justice system and the impact on society.”

In addition, through research for his report recommending the closure of Rikers, Lippman found that by closing the prison, and focusing on smaller, more up-to-date facilities, New York would save over $1 billion annually.

The first step, in his mind, is lowering the prison population from 10,000 to 5,000, and the mentally ill are a key population.

“We need programs to focus on mental health in particular,” he said. “Programs that identify people with mental health problems before they get into the system.”

He cited programs such as Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), which police departments around the country, including New York, Texas, and Florida, have begun implementing with some success.

Focusing on de escalation, conflict resolution, and training to identify the symptoms of mental illness, CIT enables officers to decide if diversion is a necessary response to any situation.

“From 2008, when we started CIT, we had 117,000 arrests in Dade County,” noted  Leifman. “This year , it was 56,000. Our jail audit went in half,”

According to Evans of San Antonio’s Center for Health Care Services, CIT-trained officers working with his program’s “one-stop shop” for treating the mentally ill and others in crisis were able to decrease the county jail population by 22%.

“Treatment does work,” said Evans, whose center offers psychiatric care, substance use services, and general healthcare. However, he stresses that the success of these kinds of programs depends on collaboration.

While first serving as the Director of Community Services for the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, Evans became aware of all the people in the prison system of Texas who shouldn’t be there.

He immediately began working on an idea for a diversion program that would break the pattern of criminalizing the mentally ill in his county. However, in trying to get various departments and elected officials together, Evans experienced a lot of push back.

“Almost everybody said, ‘that’s a great plan, but not with my money,’” said Evans. “So, I went to the county judge.”

Working alongside the then newly appointed County Judge Nelson Wolff, Evans utilized this political muscle to help convene a health summit. Gathering together hospital executives, lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and business representatives, he built support for a more pragmatic and beneficial mental health system; one that meant less money spent on criminal justice, less-crowded hospitals, and homeless-free streets.

As a result, since the program’s implementation in 2002, Evans reported that recidivism rates for the mentally ill in his county currently stand at 6.6%, versus the national average for felons after release of 43% as reported by the Pew Research Center, and that taxpayers in San Antonio and Bexar County have saved more than $50 million over the last five years.

It is an example of cooperation and cohesion that he insists is necessary to emptying out jails and prisons like Rikers around the country.

“Be brave enough to talk about what doesn’t work, collect the data,” said Evans. “It’s not about who’s doing good or who’s doing better, it’s about improvement.”

According to Leifman, thanks to benefits like the passing of Kendra’s Law and access to extended Medicaid, New York is, in some ways, ahead of the game.

“We just got the law changed to be able to expand our AOT, which is an amazing pool for (the mentally ill) population,” said Leifman. “That’s one of the things you already have with Kendra’s Law.”

Effective since November of 1999, Kendra’s law grants judges the authority to issue orders that require people who meet certain criteria to regularly undergo psychiatric treatment. Coupled with mental health courts, which offer early screening in the court system, the law is a powerful tool in identifying and diverting the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system and into developing ATI programs such as the Greenberger Center’s own Hope House.

Scheduled to open in the Bronx in 2018, Hope House will be an assisted outpatient treatment center offering care and services comparable to the programs developed by Leifman and Evans.

The access to extended Medicaid allows prisoners to apply for insurance coverage while incarcerated and access said coverage upon release, the often impoverished mentally ill will have access to the funds needed to maintain medications and care.

Participants in the forum agreed that though many steps have been taken in the right direction, there is no one solution to the problem of Rikers, and no quick fixes in a system that still suffers from a “tough on crime” policy that stubbornly fails to acknowledge the data and science fueling the effort for change.

Joking that his program is an “overnight 17-year success,” Evans pointed out that achieving change and cooperation required the aid of a County Judge willing to bring together the community and make everyone work towards a solution.

He warned that what worked in one county in one state may not succeed elsewhere.

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

“Change is hard,” said Evans. “There’s so much politics involved, there’s so much money involved, and nobody wants the spotlight on them.”

Speaker Viverito agreed.

“Yes, we’re starting to see some sort of conversation and change of view and perspective on a national level,” she said. “But it’s still very challenging to get people to think that incarceration is not the only solution to the problem.”

Though the Criminal Justice Reform Act passed, and seemed a simple solution to ebbing the tide of New York’s incarcerated, it, nonetheless, met with controversy and resistance.

“People thought that we were having the city run amuck,” said Viverito.

“Bringing the mental health challenges to the forefront and making sure it’s not a conversation that is held behind closed doors will take us a long way to dealing with the issue,” said Viverito.

Isidoro Rodriguez is a New York-based contributor to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.


Eight More Counties Get MacArthur Aid for Jail Reform

Counties being added to the $100 million jail reform effort include Chicago’s Cook County, Los Angeles County and Mecklenburg County, N.C. Several already in the project have reported declines in their average daily jail populations, including Philadelphia, Lucas County, Oh., and Charleston County, S.C.

Eight more counties are getting $11.3 million for jail reforms from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge as part of a $100 million national initiative. Places including Philadelphia, Lucas County, Oh., Charleston County, S.C., among 10 already receiving aid have reported declines in their average daily jail populations under the project. By 2019, jurisdictions getting funding aim to reduce their local jail populations by 18 to 30 percent.

Among newly funded projects: Ada County, Id., is expanding alternatives to incarceration for people with mental health or substance abuse issues; Cook County, Il., using “police deflection” tactics and community outreach efforts in highly incarcerated neighborhoods; Los Angeles County is expanding alternatives to jail for people before trials, by developing a tool to release low-risk defendants and expanding diversion to substance abuse and mental health programs; Mecklenburg County, N.C., is making it easier to release misdemeanor defendants on bail and beginning to make bail decisions based on risk and not the ability to pay; Multnomah County, Or., is putting in place a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program to avoid locking up people with mental health and substance abuse issues; Palm Beach County, Fl., will use text message reminders to reduce arrests for failures to appear in court; Pennington County, S.D., is improving the justice system’s relationship with tribal communities and expanding pretrial diversion, and Shelby County, Tn., is expanding a pretrial services behavioral health unit and validating a risk assessment tool to play a role in bail decisions.


Cynthia Brann Named NYC Correction Commissioner

Brann, the acting replacement for retired Joseph Ponte, “knew the job, she knew the system, she knew the people. And I liked her approach to leadership,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio.

After months of searching around the U.S. for a new correction commissioner, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he had found the person to head the Correction Department, which oversees the troubled Rikers Island jail complex, from within its own ranks, reports the New York Times. The agency will be led by Cynthia Brann, the acting commissioner who, like former commissioner Joseph Ponte, came to New York City from Maine. “We thought she combined alignment on vision with real experience in making the changes and reforms needed,”de Blasio said. “She knew the job, she knew the system, she knew the people. And I liked her approach to leadership.”

The department is still plagued by persistent episodes of violence by some inmates and staff at Rikers Island, where reforms, federal oversight and steady investment have yet to create a stable atmosphere. The department has also been tasked by Mr. de Blasio with making changes that would result in the closing of Rikers Island as a jail complex after 10 years. Glenn Martin, who has led protests in favor of closing Rikers, said de Blasio should have hired an outside candidate for commissioner and that the choice of a current city correction official “suggests that the mayor still fails to grasp the urgency of shuttering New York’s torture island.” More than 20 correction employees — including Ponte and Brann — were accused by investigators from the city’s Investigation Department of improperly using city vehicles. Brann told investigations that she used her city-issued, take-home car “almost exclusively for shopping.”


In a Pattern, D.C. Jail Inmate is Held 77 Days Too Long

His misdemeanor charge was dismissed, but Carlton Harris was held in a D.C. jail for 77 more days. Since 2005, D.C. taxpayers have paid more than $18 million to settle lawsuits on behalf of thousands of inmates held past their release dates or wrongly strip-searched.

A 28-year-old journeyman roofer was mistakenly held in Washington, D.C.’s jail for more than two months after a misdemeanor charge against him was dismissed. He was freed only after another inmate flagged his own lawyer to the problem, reports the Washington Post. After being arrested in a dispute at his home, Carlton Harris was trapped in a jail bureaucracy that since 2005 has cost D.C. taxpayers more than $18 million paid to settle lawsuits on behalf of thousands of inmates held past their release dates or wrongly strip-searched. Harris, a father of two, was arrested March 28. Prosecutors dropped the case the next day but Harris was jailed for 77 days without a chance to see a judge or be granted a defense attorney. He finally went to court on June 15, after the other inmate’s lawyer alerted federal defenders, who brought Harris to the attention of court officials.

The U.S. Marshals Service, which transports prisoners to and from court, investigated the handling of Harris after the Post asked about his extended jail stay. Marshals were told Harris was being held on a pending case even though the matter had been dropped. “It was a clerical error by the D.C. Department of Corrections,” said a law enforcement official. A few weeks before Harris’s arrest, the District’s lawyers admitted in a federal lawsuit that the jail had detained Gregory Smith for 23 days longer that it should have. The city this fall is set to start paying $6 million awarded in a 2013 overdetention settlement, reached after federal judge Royce Lamberth blasted the city’s failure to deliver on promised reforms as “conscience-shocking.” A new class-action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners alleges the government is hiding the extent of errors, citing recent overdetentions such as Harris’s. D.C.’s lawyers say the system has heeded past calls for improvements and dramatically cut down on mistakes.


Chicago Jail Falsified Credits, Report Charges

An alternative high school operated by the Chicago Public Schools inside the Cook County Jail has been falsifying credits and attendance for hundreds of students for years, cheating some of the city’s most at-risk students of an education, the school system’s inspector general found.

An alternative high school operated by the Chicago Public Schools inside the Cook County Jail has been falsifying credits and attendance for hundreds of students for years, cheating some of the city’s most at-risk students of an education, the school system’s inspector general has found. In a report detailing a litany of academic fraud, Inspector General Nicholas Schuler called the York Alternative High School “a credit mill.” He urges firing its principal, Sharnette Sims, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. York has routinely granted attendance and course credit to students who already had left the jail or been moved to solitary confinement, where they couldn’t attend classes, Schuler said. In one case, he said, a student who had gotten out of jail and was killed a week later was still being listed as attending class despite being dead, he found.

The investigation, which looked at York’s practices back to 2012, was prompted by a Sun-Times column in which Neil Steinberg wrote that former teachers contacted him after he’d toured classrooms, “claiming the principal pressured them to give inmates credit for classes they never finished.” Schuler said other problems include a “deficient and dishonest course structure” — which was described as “blended learning” — that combined multiple courses in a single classroom under the direction of teachers who were unaware of which students needed which classes. One teacher reported a student getting course credit for watching a science documentary series by Neil deGrasse Tyson. “We agree having a diploma would be great,” Schuler said in an interview, but he added, “giving them credit for when they were in solitary confinement, that’s disingenuous. That isn’t real help. You’re depriving them of the benefit of an education.”


Feds Seek 30-Year Term for Jail Guard in Beating Death

Federal prosecutors asked a judge to sentence a former correction officer on New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex to nearly 30 years in prison for violating the civil rights of a seriously ill inmate who died after the officer assaulted him. The guard’s “conduct was brutal; it was violent, it was willful, and it was callous,” said the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Federal prosecutors have asked a judge to sentence a former correction officer on New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex to nearly 30 years in prison for violating the civil rights of a seriously ill inmate who died after the officer assaulted him, the New York Times reports. The officer, Brian Coll, 48, kicked the inmate, Ronald Spear, repeatedly in the head while other officers held him face down on the floor. Coll then lifted Spear’s head and leaned in close, one witness, a fellow correction officer, testified. “This is what you get,” the witness said Coll told Spear, using an expletive. “Remember I did this.”

Spear’s death in 2012 was seen as highlighting the culture of violence and the code of silence among guards that has long existed at Rikers. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, which has made violence at Rikers a focus of its civil rights investigations and prosecutions, said Coll should receive a “significant” sentence that “approaches” the 30 years recommended by the court’s probation department, and is “well beyond” the roughly four to six years Coll’s lawyers have recommended. “Coll’s conduct was brutal; it was violent, it was willful, and it was callous,” office of Joon H. Kim, the acting United States attorney, told Judge Loretta Preska of Federal District Court, who is to sentence Coll on Wednesday.


American Indian-Alaska Native Jail Count Doubles

Between 1999 and 2014, the number of American Indiana and Alaska Native jail inmates
increased by an average of 4.3 percent per year, compared with an increase of 1.4 percent annually for all other races combined, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports.

An estimated 10,400 American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) inmates were held in local jails in mid-year 2014, nearly double the number held in 1999 (5,500), the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports. In that interval, the number of AIAN jail inmates increased by an average of 4.3 percent per year, compared with an increase of 1.4 percent annually for all other races combined.

Between 1999 and 2013, the AIAN jail incarceration rate increased from 288 to 398 AIAN inmates per 100,000 AIAN U.S. residents, BJS said. An estimated 71 percent of adult AIAN jail inmates were 39 or younger. Nearly a quarter of AIAN jail inmates were held for a violent offense. About 12 percent of the adult AIAN jail population were drug offenders, which was significantly lower than adult jail inmates of other races and Hispanic origin (24 percent).


CA Deputies Charged With ‘Sadistic and Terrorizing’ Acts

Four Alameda County, Ca., sheriff’s deputies were charged in a jail abuse scandal that involved directing an inmate in the Santa Rita Jail to attack other inmates with feces and urine.

Four Alameda County, Ca., sheriff’s deputies were charged Tuesday in a jail abuse scandal that involved directing an inmate in the Santa Rita Jail to attack other inmates with feces and urine, the Los Angeles Times reports. One deputy, Erik McDermott, 27, is also accused of strangling an inmate until he fell unconscious, said the Alameda County district attorney’s office. Prosecutors said McDermott and Deputy Justin Linn tried to intimidate a witness from speaking with investigators when they asked another inmate to inform the witness’s gang that he was a “snitch.”

Both deputies were charged with assault by a public officer — Linn was charged with four counts, while McDermott was charged with two — and one count each of dissuading a witness by force or threat and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Two other deputies, Sarah Krause, 26 and Stephen Sarcos, 30, were each charged with one count of assault by a public officer. District Attorney Nancy O’Malley called the attacks “sadistic and terrorizing acts.” She said, “There is no rational explanation for their actions aside from abject cruelty and a disregard for the humanity of the inmates.” A lengthy investigation began after jail employees told supervisors in January about the alleged abuse. The four deputies were then pulled from duty.


In NOLA, New Jail But Old Problem: Too Many Inmates

The $145 million facility was opened two years ago, but it already exceeds its capacity. “Essentially, we’re trying to fit 1,500 inmates in a facility that can only house 1,294,” said one official.

The debate over whether New Orleans’ two-year-old, $145 million jail is big enough to house the city’s inmate population continued this week with a Metropolitan Crime Commission report saying inmate totals continue to exceed the new jail’s capacity, reports City leaders must decide whether they want to commit to housing inmates at another facility in New Orleans or continue the expensive practice of housing them out of parish, said Commission President Rafael Goyeneche. “Essentially, we’re trying to fit 1,500 inmates in a facility that can only house 1,294,” he said.

Meanwhile, members of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and inmate advocates say continued efforts to reduce the current and future jail population through criminal justice reforms make the need for more space unnecessary. “The question shouldn’t be how many beds we need for the people we house, but rather who should we be housing and what do we need to do that,” said Marjorie Esman, director of the ACLU in Louisiana. The number of inmates in custody of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has decreased since the watchdog organization published its last report on the jail’s population, in 2015. The percentage of inmates jailed in connection with more serious charges, like violent felonies, has increased in that same time.