It should come as no surprise that severely mentally-ill citizens of this country have long been targeted for relocation by some dubious law-enforcement agencies. In the case of Adam Horine, a compassionate judge, Carroll District Judge Elizabeth Chandler, could sense immediately upon interacting with him that he was not a dangerous criminal but a very ill individual pleading to go to the hospital. According to the news report, Chandler ordered an immediate mental-health examination of Horine and his transport to Eastern State Hospital. It is also noted that a social worker’s preliminary evaluation confirmed the judge’s initial read. Yet these prudent and justified acts of advocacy, according to the report and accompanying video, were soon overridden by Carrollton Police Chief Michael Willhoite and Officer Ron Dickow, who put him on a bus to Florida.
In a country where the mentally ill are often incarcerated instead of treated, patient abuses and these kinds of incidents are far too common. According to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, American prisons and jails housed an estimated 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness in 2013. That figure is more than 10 times the number of mentally ill patients in state psychiatric hospitals in the same year — about 35,000. A heartbreaking truth is that part of this increase is due to a widespread failure to treat mental illness. After public psychiatric hospitals came to be criticized for inhumane and disturbing treatments, beginning in the 1950s there was a movement to deinstitutionalize mental health care and treat patients in community-based centers. At their highest peak in 1955, state mental hospitals held 558,922 patients. Today, they hold about 35,000 patients, and that number continues to fall.
In a recent survey, the Treatment Advocacy Center found that in 44 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the largest prison or jail held more people with serious mental illness than the largest state psychiatric hospital.
The only exceptions were Kansas, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.
According to the Department of Justice, about 15 percent of state prisoners and 24 percent of jail inmates report symptoms meeting the criteria for a serious psychotic disorder. For a myriad of reasons, too many of our most severely mentally ill citizens are left homeless, languishing in jail or worse.
My son has been a victim of Carrollton’s style of vigilante justice. He met the criteria for some of these complimentary vacations by being “a bit of a vagrant,” homeless and most of all floridly psychotic. In other words, this young man needed to be somebody else’s potential liability.
What happens when you put a person in the throes of a major psychotic episode on an airplane with a one-way ticket? The federal marshal aboard that plane has to take custody and the plane has to land in Chicago where he is taken to the Cook County Jail, one of the country’s largest mental institutions.
Another time, he was placed on a bus in Texas and disembarked at the first available stop and almost died of heat exhaustion and dehydration, walking in 115-degree heat. There, you guessed it, he was picked up for vagrancy and given yet another bus trip home.
Luckily for our family, my son did not die at the hands of officials who just wanted to rid themselves of his kind. I can tell you that you are not left unscathed by these irresponsible, uninformed decisions, and we are always fearful that it could happen again.
This latest example raises my already-too-high fear threshold and reminds me that the threats of ignorance and prejudicial acts abound.
Locally, we have worked hard to collaborate with law enforcement. We have many well-trained officers and jail personnel. We have worked to create good relationships with our sheriff and our police chief. We have been fortunate to recently start a mental-health court and strengthen bonds with local judiciary. We have the backing of our local officials.
We are consistently working with providers, family members and other local agencies and stakeholders to ensure we don’t create the kind of jeopardy described in Horine’s story.
Is it perfect? No, but with a valiant community effort, it is evolving.