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Mentally ill inmates languish in Texas jails

From Staff and Wire Reports
May 1, 2016 at 11:39 p.m.


Hundreds of people who should be housed in Texas mental health facilities because they've been declared incompetent for trial are instead being held in county jails, a problem that continues to vex state officials, according to a published report.

More than 380 men and women are in county lockups, sometimes for months at a time, because there aren't enough beds available at state mental hospitals.

"The county jail is not the place to be warehousing people with mental illnesses, and that's what's happening," Limestone County Sheriff Dennis Wilson said. "We've got to stop that."

Gregg County had three inmates awaiting transfer to a state mental hospital Thursday, said Josh Tubb, spokesman for Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano. Tubb added it was not clear whether all three were in the category of court-determined incompetence.

"They could be incompetent," he said. "They could be (classified) for a different type of evaluation or for treatment."

Tubb added that Pct. 1 Justice of the Peace B.H. Jameson had 64 defendants, in and out of jail, awaiting local mental health evaluations.

Other Northeast Texas county lockups reported similarly small numbers of inmates awaiting transport to a state mental hospital.

That included Upshur County, where Sheriff Anthony Betterton's staff reported one such inmate.

Harrison County Sheriff's Lt. Renae Hain said two inmates who have been declared incompetent for trial have been waiting on a state mental hospital bed since March and October, respectively.

Rusk County Sheriff's Sgt. David Roberts said Friday morning that the jail in Henderson had no inmates awaiting a state mental hospital bed.

"As of right now, we don't have any in our jail that are determined incompetent," he said. "We have a couple that are awaiting competency hearings."

As of April 1, the average wait for a maximum-security bed — reserved for those charged with serious violent crimes — was 122 days, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Tubb said the three awaiting transfer from the Longview lockup have been there "from weeks to months."

"We recently had one that took more than eight months to get a (state mental hospital) bed," he said. "It would best serve everyone if we could get them there quicker, but we understand there is limited bed space. It's one of those things where there's high demand for services. And they are basically put on a waiting list until a bed's available."

More than four years ago, the state faced the same problem as hundreds of mentally ill inmates languished in jails ill-equipped to provide services for them. A state judge subsequently ordered Texas mental health providers to reduce wait times for the criminally insane to no more than 21 days. But the ruling was later dismissed by an appeals court on a legal technicality.

State health officials say they're working to get mentally ill inmates into treatment faster, but there are only 1,047 beds statewide reserved for them.

Sheriffs, mental health advocates and others are urging lawmakers and the Texas Department of State Health Services to find more space at state hospitals for mentally ill inmates.

Advocates say the constitutional rights of defendants are violated when they are forced to stay in lockups instead of getting the treatment courts have ordered.

Officials at the state health department, which oversees mental hospitals, say they are working to get more inmates into treatment faster.

"Even though we've worked steadily to add capacity, because Texas is growing so rapidly, keeping pace is challenging," said Lauren Lacefield Lewis, assistant commissioner of the mental health and substance abuse division at the department.

Disability Rights Texas first sued Texas mental health officials in 2007 on behalf of three inmates who had been ordered to state hospitals because the courts found them mentally incompetent to stand trial. At the time, about 170 inmates across Texas were waiting for state hospital beds — less than half as many as are now housed in jails.

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