Friday, June 30, 2023
By Josh McGhee
Happy Friday MindSiters,
This month, we’re dispatching from an ungodly heatwave in Fort Worth, Texas, where I’ve spent the last week on the Texas Christian University campus as a Maynard 200 fellow – one of 49 journalists of color getting training in career growth, leadership, and investigative storytelling.
In this issue of Diagnosis: Injustice, we’ll talk to Michelle Parris of the Vera Institute about a landmark legal settlement on behalf of those suffering from mental illness in LA County jails. We revisit the story of an activist who rebounded from her own burnout and now helps others reclaim their mental, physical, and spiritual health. And finally, my colleague Courtney Wise shares an item about a North Carolina public radio series on the ways the fractured state of mental health is affecting incarcerated folks in that state.
Lastly, a note from the MindSite News newsletter team: We’re taking a much-needed three-week vacation from the MindSite News Daily. We’ll be back at it the week of July 24.
Let’s get into it…
Will L.A. County finally improve the horrific conditions in its jails?
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union revived a 48-year-old lawsuit and filed an emergency motion after witnessing “abhorrent” conditions inside the Los Angeles County Jail system’s booking facility. In the Inmate Reception Center, attorneys found people with serious mental illness chained to chairs for days at a time, people having to defecate in trash cans and urinate in food containers, overflowing sinks and toilets and people with serious mental illness and health conditions forced to go days without their medication.
Early this month, the ACLU and L.A. County reached an agreement that requires the county to speed up releases of people incarcerated in the jail and to provide housing and services in the community as an alternative. And last week, U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson approved the settlement with an ongoing, enforceable court order.
Following the ruling, I spoke with Michelle Parris, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s California office, about what this settlement means for jails in Los Angeles and why it’s different from other court orders that have been in place for decades.
Read my full interview here.
A young activist who overcame her own burnout found a calling: Helping other advocates do the same
Emani Davis was born at the nexus of activism and trauma. Her father was a Black Panther incarcerated in upstate New York during the 1971 Uprising. Her mother was a law student aiding Attica defendants. She knew firsthand the difficulties facing children whose parents were locked up in America’s prison and she became an advocate for their rights and needs. But the work took its toll.
At 14, Davis was speaking around the country. By 18, she was leading classes inside prisons. At 25, she shared the prestigious World’s Children’s Honorary Award with her mother. And by 28, she was done — physically exhausted and emotionally depleted.
Houston Landing has impact
Four months after a Houston Landing investigation revealed that one third of the 576 people who died of unnatural causes in the custody of Texas jails since the 1980s had a documented mental health concern, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a new law requiring the state to collect data on how often jail inmates are denied mental health care.
The law, which was sponsored by State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, could help the public understand why nearly 2,500 people are waiting for a bed in a state-funded psychiatric hospital. It would require the state to audit local mental health authorities and publish the data online.
Legislators and families might feel some urgency to see things change, but José Andrés Araiza, spokesman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said the agency doesn’t know how long it will take to set up the infrastructure and gather the data. It needs more time to “analyze the legislation,” he said.
In the counties that make up the greater Houston area, nearly half of the 119 people who died of unnatural causes in jail over the past decade were listed as mentally ill, according to reporting from Houston Landing.
The new law is expected to cost $15.8 million through Aug. 31, 2025, according to reporting from Alex Stuckey.
Over the past three months, Charlotte, North Carolina’s NPR station, WFAE, has offered listeners an in-depth look at the state’s failing mental health system in an investigative series called Fractured. A principal focus has been its examination of the plight of incarcerated adults with mental illness.
The series reveals alarming realities faced by prisoners deemed mentally unfit to stand trial: More than half of that population waits more than 300 days with little to no in-jail mental health treatment before being placed in a psychiatric treatment bed or being tried in court. It happened to John, whose last name isn’t used to protect his identity.
Charged with arson and attempted murder back in 2018, he has cycled between prison and a state mental hospital ever since. The pandemic impacted his experience. After finally receiving in-hospital treatment, including therapy, medication, and education on what to expect within the court system, he was deemed ready to stand trial in September 2020 and sent back to jail. Then COVID delayed trial proceedings and John regressed. He was accused recently of spitting and throwing feces at guards.
“I’m pretty angry,” said Eric Witherspoon, John’s stepfather. “He’s been gone for four years, and they still haven’t got a trial for him. I can’t put my hands around it.” Though experts say John’s behavior is typical of someone isolated with serious mental illness, he’s just racking up more felony charges and not currently receiving treatment. The added offenses could potentially add 18 years to the sentence he was facing. “The system is so messed up,” Witherspoon said. “I don’t understand how you can put somebody that needs mental care — you can put them in lock him up like he’s in prison. … He’s like thrown to the wolves, and nobody cares.”
The series also looks at the ways people people with mental and substance use disorders cycle through jails, the impact incarceration has on the mental health of both the jailed and the jailers, as well as ways that childhood trauma often leads to learning problems, run-ins with juvenile justice system and ultimately the adult criminal justice system. –Courtney Wise
That’s it for now. We’ll see you at the end of next month, after the MindSite Newsletter team returns from vacation. Until then, stay cool and be well,
If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.
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