Trouble in Mind

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

Joann Jones, 51, is a soft-spoken woman with mesmerizing green eyes. When she was 18, doctors diagnosed her as schizophrenic, and she grew dependent on the care of her parents in Chicago. When they died in 1979, Jones decided to move to Houston — for the weather.

"There's no snow in Houston," she says, without a trace of a smile.

But without someone to make sure she took her medicine, Jones soon found herself living on the fringes of reality and in trouble with the law. She began to act strangely, conversing aloud with the voices in her head. Taunted by two co-workers at the construction cleanup company where she worked, she attacked them with a knife. The men didn't die, but Jones was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to ten years in prison. At the time, prisoners in Texas routinely served no more than a third of their sentences. Jones, however, did nine of her ten. She failed to accrue much "good time," she admits, because she was a disciplinary problem. And she was a disciplinary problem, she says, because prison doctors ignored her schizophrenia.

Convicted killer Larry Robison, at the Ellis Unit: Doctors told his mother they couldn't commit him to a mental institution until he did something violent.
Convicted killer Larry Robison, at the Ellis Unit: Doctors told his mother they couldn't commit him to a mental institution until he did something violent.

"They never paid any attention to my psychiatric background," says Jones. "They just punished me. I was sick, and they knew I was sick because I told them. And they medicated me with their fists and boots."

As a result, Jones says she spent almost her entire time at the Gatesville Unit in what is known as administrative segregation strip cell. No sheets or pillow. No radio. No reading material. No personal articles of any kind. Just her, her mattress and her hallucinations.

These days, Jones lives at a halfway house in Temple, Texas. She rides a small motorcycle, makes extra money by cleaning toilets, and stays on her antipsychotic medicines.

"The only reason I made it through prison is that I never gave up on me," says Jones. "I just had the will to live."

At 6 a.m. on July 26, 1995, 46 mentally ill TDCJ prisoners were loaded onto an un-air-conditioned bus at the Jester-4 psychiatric unit for the long drive to the Montford Unit, a TDCJ psychiatric facility near Lubbock. Also on board were three guards and ten gallons of drinking water. In Mineral Wells, west of Fort Worth, the guard stopped at a truck stop to change drivers and refuel. Unfortunately, one of the guards inadvertently pumped unleaded gas rather than diesel. Not until the tank was almost completely full was the mistake discovered. The guards called a mechanic who said he could get the fuel out of the tank, but that it would take him about an hour to get there.

That was around 2 p.m., when the temperature in Mineral Wells was 107 degrees. According to a lawsuit filed against the prison system, despite the heat and the fact that all the drinking water had been consumed, the guards did not remove the prisoners from the bus, which had basically become a large oven. Additionally, although employees of the truck stop offered to take the prisoners water, the guards would not permit them to do so. It wasn't until 3 p.m., after the guards had sent a radio request for backup and three local lawmen had arrived on the scene, that the prisoners finally received more water.

Two hours after leaving the truck stop, one prisoner, Wallace Britton Jr., began pacing, wringing his hands and acting very agitated — classic signs of a heat stroke. Attorneys for the Britton family say prison doctors at Jester-4 had placed Britton on psychotropic drugs that make it hard for the body to regulate its heat.

According to the lawsuit, when Britton arrived at a local hospital, his temperature was 108 degrees. He died two days later. The hospital listed the cause of death as heat stroke, although an autopsy report maintains that Britton committed suicide — a contention the dead man's family's attorneys say is absurd.

"Obviously TDCJ hasn't heard of global warming," says attorney Charles R. Houssiere III, who is representing Britton's survivors in their wrongful-death suit against TDCJ. "If TDCJ can't even transport somebody across the state of Texas and understand that the drugs they are taking could cause a heat stroke in the middle of summer, how can they handle the serious problem of mental health therapy?"

The Britton family's lawsuit against TDCJ is expected to go to trial later this year.

In the aftermath of Britton's death, a TDCJ spokesperson commented that the prison system hoped to learn from the tragedy. It apparently didn't. On June 29, 1998, during one of the worst heat waves in the state's history, 48-year-old inmate Archie White, another psychiatric patient, died after a two-hour ride from the Montford Unit to the Robertson Unit in Abilene.

In 1995, a Randall County jury sentenced 16-year-old Rodney Hulin to eight years in prison for throwing a Molotov cocktail at a neighbor's house. Although Hulin had previously been treated in a mental institution, when he entered prison, he was classified as mentally sound and was taken off his antidepressants. Hulin complained about depression but was told by prison officials that he was just hot. A month later, Hulin reported that he had been raped. No rape test was performed. Afterward, Hulin claimed that he was raped twice more and made three requests to be placed in protective custody. The requests were denied. On January 22, 1996, Hulin was found hanging in his cell. On April 26 of this year, the state of Texas settled with the Hulin family for $215,000.

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