Too High a Cost: How the Criminal Justice System Fails the Mentally Ill

Too High a Cost- How the Criminal Justice System Fails the Mentally IllThe Washington Post ran a story recently about a man named Jamycheal Mitchell. He was incarcerated for stealing $5.05 worth of snacks from a 7-11 in Virginia. Because he suffered from schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, a judge ordered that Jamycheal be placed in a state run psychiatric hospital –­ “but like an increasing number of the mentally ill, he sat in jail for months as he waited for a bed to open.” He was dead within 4 months.

This is, sadly, a more common occurrence than you might think. Throughout the country, the mentally ill and incapacitated often wait weeks, even months, in jails – jails which are not equipped to offer the psychiatric help that the inmates need – while the state tries to determine if they are fit to stand trial. The Virginia Compensation Board and Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services’ chart in the Post shows that there were 6,787 mentally ill inmates in Virginia jails in 2014 – a number that is likely to increase if trends from previous years keep going.

Jamycheal’s death is not exceptional. Christopher Lee Lopez died after having a grand mal seizure in a Colorado prison in 2013; “A state report found the nurse ‘failed to take [Lopez’s] vital signs or to perform a nursing assessment.’ That report concluded the failure to do so became ‘a contributing factor in his death.’” Jerome Murdough, a “56-year-old former marine was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication,” essentially baked to death in a Rikers’ prison cell in New York in March of 2014; Bradley Ballard died in the same prison in May, after he was locked up for seven days and some of his medication was withheld. Kenneth Dalstra died in May of 2015 from water intoxication, a symptom of his schizophrenia that made him compulsively drink water. The list goes on and on.

Unequipped for the job ahead

Jails and prisons are not equipped to handle the severely mentally ill. They simply aren’t. They have neither the skills nor the understanding of what it takes to secure the safety and wellbeing of a person in the throes of a condition like schizophrenia. In truth, they are so ill-equipped to handle illness of any kind that often times, prisons will offer “compassionate release” to dying inmates, allowing them to go home and die in peace.

But make no mistake – “compassionate release” is less about being compassionate and more about releasing the financial burden of caring for a dying inmate. Jails and prisons were meant to house and “rehabilitate” criminals; they were never intended as makeshift warehouses for people with serious mental illness. Now a 24 years old man is dead because of the incompetence and negligence of the staff, all because he stole a Mountain Dew, a Snickers bar and a Zebra Cake totaling just over five dollars.

Why it matters

Stories like these have to be shared, because they speak of the injustices that people everywhere face every day. Jamycheal’s life was worth more than five dollars. Every life is worth more than that. A family is devastated and a life is lost, all because we simply do not know what to do with the mentally ill. Guards and staff are poorly trained (if trained at all), and lack of serious regulation is costing us the lives of people who may not be able to help themselves. Jamycheal may have stolen goods, but he is not the only guilty party in this scenario.

Paulson & Nace, PLLC is dedicated to seeking justice on behalf of those who cannot help themselves. Please contact us to learn more.