Trouble in Mind

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

The next thing George knew, it was 12 hours later, and he sensed that something was wrong. His ribs were bruised, and he had severe rectal pain.

"I didn't want to believe that I had been raped," he says, "but I finally started putting the pieces together."

Those pieces, he says, came in flashbacks — flashbacks of people standing around him, flashbacks of being held down and kicked, flashbacks of being sexually assaulted.

Keith Ard: He refuses to take his old-generation antipsychotic drugs because they leave him sleepy, unable to defend himself.
Keith Ard: He refuses to take his old-generation antipsychotic drugs because they leave him sleepy, unable to defend himself.
Rose Garden resident Roger Pirkle: An amateur lawyer, the ex-con defends the halfway house against the state.
Rose Garden resident Roger Pirkle: An amateur lawyer, the ex-con defends the halfway house against the state.

He theorizes that he was drugged, and correctly points out that prisons are hardly drug-free zones. George believes that someone slipped something like Rohypnol — the date rape drug — into his food or water.

Of course, these are the claims of a man who admits to being delusional, and who acknowledges that he was out of his mind while in prison. Still, in October 1996, prison officials believed his allegations enough to place him in protective custody for a month, then transfer him to another unit. After a month in the Ferguson Unit, George was sent to Skyview, the psychiatric unit. He says he was told he'd be placed in a private cell, but instead was housed in the unit's dormitory area. He again feared he would be assaulted.

"I stayed awake at night," he says. "I heard people talking about plans to get me. I tried to stay awake, but they kept watching me. I stayed awake for days, but I finally fell asleep."

When he awoke, George says, he again felt rectal pain. He requested a physical examination to determine if he had been raped.

"And they said that if I got tested and it didn't happen, that [TDCJ] Internal Affairs would rain thunder on my ass," says George. "So I told them to forget about it."Beverly George is a woman obsessed. Throughout her son's incarceration she made calls to wardens, to prison officials and to administrators. She contacted her state senator, and she contacted the media. And she told anyone who would listen that she was certain of three things: that Aaron did not murder his own child; that Aaron did not receive a fair trial in Montgomery County; and that he was not receiving proper mental health care in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. She built a Web page about her son's dilemma (www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ridge/ 8616/aaronvsmoco.html), and she networked with other families across the state with similar problems. She also invested what was left of her hope and resources in getting Aaron a second trial.

To Beverly it was clear that, though Aaron admitted he had shaken Alexander, his actions had been those of a panic-stricken mentally challenged teenager. Even if Aaron was responsible for the baby's death — and she wasn't sure that he was — at worst the death was a terrible accident, not murder.

But Aaron's attorney, Dexter Patterson of Conroe, was unable to block the prosecution from presenting evidence showing that the baby had suffered rib damage sometime before the shaking incident. Although the prosecution could not prove who had damaged the baby's ribs or how, the evidence did not help Aaron's case. In January 1998, a state appeals court ruled that state District Judge Fred Edwards had erred by allowing the jury to hear the evidence about the rib injuries, and ordered a new trial.

To handle the second trial, Beverly found Houston attorney John Osborne, a small man with a sharp wit and an acid tongue, recommended by noted criminal defense attorney George Parnham. To prepare for the second trial, Osborne — who took the case pro bono — wanted to meet Aaron. Their first encounter was hardly the typical attorney-client conference.

The meeting took place at the Powledge Unit near Palestine, Texas, where Aaron had been transferred. Before Osborne drove there, Beverly George warned the attorney that her son was sick; that he was a schizophrenic and that his condition had deteriorated in prison; that he now believed computer chips had been placed in his head and even she was part of the conspiracy against him.

Osborne didn't put much credence in this woman from the sticks of rural Montgomery County. He was a big-city lawyer from Houston, and he knew that clients are prone to exaggeration. He'd heard it all before.

But he was completely unprepared for what he saw. In a prison visitation area, Osborne sat waiting for his client to be escorted out of his cell. Aaron emerged shackled by chains around his arms, waist and legs. Three guards surrounded him, each carrying a Plexiglas riot shield pressed against the prisoner.

"They marched him into a cage and locked the door," recalls Osborne. "Then, I swear to God, they suspended the cage an inch or two above the ground. And I'm sitting there trying to talk to this guy who thinks he's being controlled by computer chips." Osborne thought of The Silence of the Lambs, with Aaron George in the role of Hannibal Lecter.

The conversation proved useless to Aaron George's defense. But Osborne left the prison with the sense that George was hardly the only mentally impaired prisoner being treated in a questionable manner. And he was right. Though hard numbers are difficult to come by, there exists striking anecdotal evidence that TDCJ often falls short when caring for the mentally impaired.

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