Trouble in Mind

Texas's mentally impaired used to go to treatment centers. Now they go to prison.

Aaron's deterioration sent Beverly George into her own panic. A divorced mother of two, she marshaled her limited resources and put Aaron under the care of psychiatrist Gary Miller. Miller diagnosed Aaron as "schizoaffected," suffering from both schizophrenia and mood disorders. To combat the problem, the doctor placed Aaron on two "new-generation" medications: clozapine, an antipsychotic, and sertralline, an antidepressant.

For the first time in years, Aaron's mental health improved. He still heard the voices, but he didn't hear them as often, and their messages weren't quite so ominous. The panic attacks were shorter. He became more sociable. He even met and married Jennifer Phillips, who had received treatment for her own psychological problems.

By time he was 18 and she was 17, they had two children and lived outside Magnolia. To make ends meet, Aaron worked occasionally at his dad's remodeling shop. But mostly he collected his Social Security disability check. Jennifer waited tables at a Golden Corral.

Skyview: Mentally impaired inmates at the psychiatric unit prepare to man their mowers.
Skyview: Mentally impaired inmates at the psychiatric unit prepare to man their mowers.
Schizophrenic Joann Jones at the Rose Garden: Prison officials "never paid any attention to my psychiatric background". They medicated me with their fists and boots."
Schizophrenic Joann Jones at the Rose Garden: Prison officials "never paid any attention to my psychiatric background". They medicated me with their fists and boots."

On August 15, 1992, while Jennifer dealt with the steak house's lunch crowd, Aaron tended to their two sons, 15-month-old Daniel and seven-week-old Alexander. It was about noon when Aaron called his mother, Beverly. He was hysterical. He told her that the baby wasn't breathing.

Beverly's first thought was that Aaron was having another panic attack, but she didn't take any chances. A friend had been visiting; with him, Beverly immediately drove to Aaron's. She says it took less than five minutes to get there, and she didn't even stop to open the chain-link fence's gate; instead, she drove right through it. Still, by the time she arrived, the baby was blue.

While her friend performed CPR on Alexander, Beverly called 911. An ambulance carried the baby to Tomball Regional Hospital, where he was declared brain-dead. Even so, several hours later, the baby was flown by helicopter to John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. There, Alexander underwent a battery of tests and treatments — or at least, says Beverly, that's what the family was told. Now she suspects that the transfer had less to do with saving her grandson's life than it did with giving investigators time to build a criminal case against her son.

"They tell us that the baby's not going to make it," says Beverly, "and then — boom — they separate us into different rooms to question us. There's a uniformed officer at the door. And I'm thinking, 'Should we be doing this?' "

Aaron told detectives from the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office what they wanted to hear: that, yes, in an effort to revive Alexander, he had shaken the baby.

On August 18, three days after Alexander was first rushed to the hospital, he was pronounced dead. Two days later, Aaron George was arrested for injury to a child; he was later charged with murder as well. On March 25, 1996, a Montgomery County jury found him guilty of both and sentenced him to 60 years.

But his troubles were only beginning. After spending about a month in the Montgomery County Jail, Aaron was transferred to TDCJ's Diagnostic Unit in Huntsville. There, inmates are tested and screened before assignment to one of the more than 100 prisons across the state. While being evaluated, Aaron told the prison doctors about his history of mental illness and the medication prescribed by Miller. And on April 29, 1996, Miller — who served as commissioner of the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation from 1982 to 1988 — wrote TDCJ officials, urging them to keep Aaron George on the drugs he'd prescribed.

"These medications were beneficial to Mr. George," wrote Dr. Miller, "and I consider them medically necessary."

Medically necessary or not, George was instead placed on Mellaril and Haldol, two so-called old-generation medicines.

Since old-generation drugs are less expensive than new-generation drugs, they are obviously more financially attractive to the two TDCJ health care providers, HMOs run by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the Texas Tech University Health Science Center. The problem, say critics, is that the old-generation drugs are also less effective and have more adverse side effects.

"When I complained," says George, "I was told that if I didn't take the medication they prescribed, then I wouldn't get any treatment at all. So I had no choice." For much of the next two and a half years, George was basically out of his mind. The voices, the signs, the paranoia — his old nemeses began to return.

At first, while still in the Diagnostic Unit, George took the old-generation meds. But Aaron says the medicine caused his neck to lock up and bend backward and sideways. Prison medical records obtained by his mother show that it took injections of Cogentin to counteract the side effects.

After that episode, George was transferred to the Connelly Unit in Kenedy, Texas, near San Antonio. There, he says, doctors took him off psychotropic medications altogether. His psychosis soon deepened, and he ran afoul of other prisoners.

Once, during Bible study, he refused to share a cup of water with another inmate. George says that not long after that incident, his cellmate — whose name he either can't or won't remember — warned that there was a "hit" out on him.

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