Bill, Tarrant County Jail, Fort Worth, TX
Bill was held in jail for almost seven months pretrial. Unable to receive his medication for bipolar disorder, his mental health severely declined and he was frequently placed in solitary confinement by jail staff. His story is told by his mother who recounts the impact the time of incarceration had on both Bill and his family, including the loss of custody of Bill’s son.
To tell our story, we have to go back to a very sad and dark place in our lives, but we as a family have made the decision to share about our experience. We are of the belief that things happen for a reason. We would like to think that there will have been a greater purpose for all of the pain, horror and suffering which our son and his loved ones endured. Having experienced the madness first hand, we hope that by telling our story we can in some way make changes to what we can honestly say is an inept criminal justice system.
I am not just speaking about our specific county jail; I believe that our entire judicial system is in need of major reform. And what about the health professionals in our jails that fail the very people they were given the task to care for? Somehow they have lost sight of mental illness being a sickness that requires treatment just as any other health issue.
Our son Bill [he is de-identified here for privacy reasons] had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2012. During the later months of 2014, he stopped taking his medication and spiraled into a mental health crisis. On December 25, 2014, he was in a state of hypermania and went to his ex-wife's house to see his son and give his son a Christmas gift. After the exchange, he was arrested on a felony charge of “Burglary of a Habitation” for taking the family dog with him from the house.
At the time of this arrest, Bill was 10 days away from completing probation for a previous charge. Because his current arrest was a violation of probation, he was not allowed the option to post bond. This made it impossible for him to be bailed out and taken to a facility where he could get medical and psychiatric treatment.
Within the first 24 hours of his arrest, Bill was evaluated by MHMR staff and he told them of his mental health condition as well as what medications he was supposed to be taking. We were able to provide Tarrant County MHMR with his medical records, his definitive diagnosis, and his medication regimen. Twice, these medical records were hand-delivered to MHMR personnel at Tarrant County jail. We also provided this information to his court-appointed attorney.
Over six weeks of incarceration passed, and Bill still did not receive his prescriptions. Someone from the family would travel to Ft. Worth to visit with him for 30 minutes, two times a day. Some days were better than others, but we could see that his condition was becoming worse. I was in contact with someone from MHMR on a daily basis, though it was always only the LPC on duty for that particular shift. During the six months of his incarceration, I spoke to eight different LPCs or MHMR personnel. They all said they were not clinicians and could not diagnose or treat his condition. I often pleaded with them to get him help, but they all would tell me, “Mrs.------, we have over three thousand inmates on a daily basis and only two psychiatrists. He will be seen by a doctor if it is necessary.”
Because of Bill’s untreated condition and his erratic behavior, he was placed in and out of isolation (solitary confinement). When this happens the inmate is placed in a small cell with only a cot, sink and toilet. They are not allowed to make any phone calls, have any visitors and are only let out of the cell for one hour of a 24-hour day. Some of these punishments were for ten days, others for twenty days. Most of Bill’s were for twenty days. I am in tears as I write this, remembering the anguish of his loneliness and despair.
Mornings were the worst for me. If I could fall asleep, it was only to wake up knowing he was still locked up in that cell all alone and out of his mind. I prayed for a busy day so that maybe for a few minutes my heart wouldn’t ache so badly. I have documentation of the LPC’s visits describing his sad and painful condition during these days in isolation. Even though they witnessed and documented it, nothing was done to give him adequate care. On one particular incident, the notes stated that he was unclothed, balled up into a corner and crying for hours and hours. Many times they documented that he was requesting to see a psychiatrist and to be given medication. Again, nothing was done.
On April 7th, the day before his thirtieth birthday and four months after his arrest, Bill appeared in court for the first time. By this time he had already surpassed his time served for violation of probation but was still being held pretrial on the burglary charge. He had been in isolation for the prior seventeen days and was clearly not in any condition to appear in court. My husband and I were present on that day and were told by his lawyer that the quickest way to get him out of jail and into a health facility would be for him to plead guilty. At this point we were only concerned in getting him to a facility and starting treatment.
After pleading guilty, Bill was then taken back to the jail. I went directly to the jail and pleaded with Deputy Chief Tim Randal to take him out of isolation. He did so, but only after making me promise I would stop calling it isolation and refer to it as “restrictions.” We argued back and forth as to whether this type of punishment was psychological or physical. I agreed to not call it isolation. We were able to visit with Bill later that day. He was in a state of extremely poor mental health. Even when he was not in isolation, he was under pretty much the same isolation conditions except that he was able to receive visits, make calls and purchase commissary items.
At that time we were told by his lawyer that Bill had received a very good deal in exchange for pleading guilty: Bill would have probation for 3 years and no prison time unless he violated his probation. Up until that point, we believed that Bill would then be transferred to a state hospital, but that proved to not be the case. We were told instead that he would be evaluated by someone from CSCD (Community Supervision and Corrections Departments) and he would be placed in a Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility (SAFPF). I immediately researched this SAFPF program and learned this type of facility would not even accept Bill if his medical condition was “untreated”. After learning about this, I painstakingly tried to explain this to Bill’s probation officer who continued to tell me I was misinformed. Mr. Kenneth G______, Bill’s court appointed lawyer, was also very confused regarding this matter and had no answers for us. All the while our son remains incarcerated with his condition continuing to deteriorate. My husband and I desperately began trying to find someone within the legal system in Tarrant County to help us make sense of everything — some type of liaison with the court or the jail, someone to explain the process to us. We probably spoke to 20 people and each time we had to tell the whole story from the beginning. Many days my husband and I took off work in order to make these calls and speak to these people who were as confused as we were and still we received no answers, only referrals to call someone else. At this point it seemed hopeless.
Almost one month after agreeing to plea guilty, and 104 days after his arrest, it was very obvious that Bill was rapidly and severely decompensating. During our visits when he was not isolated, he was at times almost catatonic. He had still not been receiving proper medications during his wait. By this time it was evident to the jailers and MHMR staff that something was terribly wrong with Bill. For the first time since his arrest, Bill was seen by the MHMR psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Burkett. He recommended that a forensic psychologist conduct a psychiatric evaluation. This was done within a few days by Norman Berry, who deemed that Bill would not be competent for further hearings. We were told then that Bill would be going to a state hospital to receive the help we had so desperately been trying to get for him.
About two weeks after the determination of incompetency, we received a call from Bill’s lawyer stating that our son had been mistakenly removed from the Tarrant County Jail. Mr. G. was unaware of where Bill was being transferred, but he told us that the judge had ordered an emergency bench warrant to have him brought back to Tarrant County Jail. We were later informed he had mistakenly been taken to South Texas to a SAFPF facility, an almost six hour trip from Fort Worth, only to be brought back to his cell at Tarrant County. How does this happen? It seemed no one within the jail, courts, MHMR nor probation were communicating. Almost one year later, no one has offered an explanation.
Back in Tarrant County jail, Bill continued to not receive his medications. At times he was again placed in isolation for incidents as minor as spilling milk when he tossed the carton into the trash. We were told by both Bill’s lawyer and his probation officer Quinton Walden that Bill was having to wait for a bed in a state hospital to become available. For several more weeks, Bill remained in isolation and continued with still no medication or treatment.
In our attempt to find help, a wonderful woman at Catholic Charities in Fort Worth put us in contact with advocates from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Texas Jail Project (TJP). Staff at TJP contacted the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which oversees Texas county jails, and the agency began inquiring with Tarrant County about Bill’s situation. We were never given information about these resources by any one associated with the jail or the courts. I truly feel that it was Divine intervention how we were eventually connected with these amazing men and women who advocate for our sons, daughter and loved ones. They are a huge reason I am so compelled to help make a difference in the system. We thank them from the bottom of our hearts.
During this time my husband and I collected every document filed in the court regarding Bill’s case as well as the all medical records from MHMR. We also retained a new lawyer. In reading through all of the documents from the court, we came across the “Determination of Incompetency” filed on July 7, 2015. It stated that Bill was charged with the felony offense of Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon. As you can imagine after reading that document, I became physically ill. We immediately called Mr. Walden with the probation department and I read the document to him over the phone. He said there was some type of clerical error and assured me that Bill had never been charged with that crime. He instructed me to take the document back to the clerk’s office and request it be corrected. So we did exactly that. When the clerk’s staff looked it up on the computer, the charge read Burglary of a Habitation. When it was printed out, it read Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon. This document was signed by the Judge, Bill’s court appointed attorney, and the Assistant District Attorney.
How can a document so crucial to someone’s life just be chalked up to a clerical error? I still don’t understand and no one has ever explained it to us. To this day it has still not been corrected. How does this happen?
After 148 days — 3,552 hours — spent in Tarrant County Jail for burglary of a habitation and violation of probation, Bill was transported to a state hospital in very poor condition. We were told he would be held there for 120 days. But after 41 days in the hospital, a bench warrant was issued to have Bill brought back to Tarrant County jail. We were told by the staff from the hospital that the reason was to attend a hearing on July 22. The attorney we retained was no longer communicating with us or returning any of our calls. By this time Bill’s condition had improved but he was having serious side effects from some of the medications and his treatment plan was still in its early phase.
On July 14, Bill was brought back to Tarrant County jail and booked in and placed with the general population. He was able to call us later that day and said they were going to be letting him out. The first thing the next morning, I made a call to his probation officer Quinton Walden. Believe it or not, because you honestly can’t make this stuff up, Bill was already there in his office with him. Mr. Walden handed the phone over to Bill and he said, “Can you come downtown and pick me up? I can go home now.”
It breaks my heart that Bill has had so much pain and that he lost so much during his incarceration. He was unable to attend his grandmother’s funeral while he was in jail. His career and his money were lost. His car was impounded. The most devastating consequence however was that Bill lost custody of his son, whom he loves more than anything else on earth. I know this pain Bill is feeling because it is the pain his father and I suffered during his time of incarceration — as does every loving parent of the men and women who are incarcerated.
Bill has been home for almost 8 months now. It took some time for him to get adjusted to being free and not living under horrific conditions. Bill is receiving excellent care from the doctors, nurses and staff with Pecan Valley MHMR. He is working a full time job and will be returning to college this summer. He is compliant with his treatment plan and is healthy and productive. He spends much of his time and money working towards obtaining some kind of visitation with his child. He is learning quite a bit about the legal system and is actually filing a lot of his own court documents.
We truly believe most of the mistreatment and unnecessary time spent in the jail could have been avoided if there were better communication between the jail, the courts and Tarrant County MHMR. We believe In this case, it was most notably Tarrant County MHMR that dropped the ball and started this chain of unfortunate events. I’ve been told by many people, “Good luck, but it’s a system that will never change.” But no, I firmly believe that in order to really make change, we find ourselves first resisting, then we must insist, and finally we persist.