Gone to Hell: Mental Illness and Harris County Jail

Even though Alexander Hatcher is bipolar and schizophrenic, he wasn't given his meds for his first three months in jail. He got in fights with the guards. Now he's sentenced to prison for a long, long time.

On December 19, 2006, Alexander Hatcher received about $15,000 in disability payments from Social Security. Diagnosed as bipolar and schizophrenic, Hatcher was off his meds and homeless, and the money was a dangerous windfall.

He took two friends, female prostitutes, to buy cigarettes, clothes, booze and drugs. The trio traveled to the Downtowner Inn, a motel on the southwest side of downtown. One of the women took cash and was supposed to pay for a week.

Sometime after sunrise, after a night of smoking crack, Hatcher and his friends left the room to resupply. According to a police report, it was raining. The group returned to the motel and encountered the manager, who demanded payment because the woman had paid for only one night.

Alexander Hatcher thrived at New Start in Houston, a drug rehab program designed for mentally ill patients.
Courtesy of Florence Hatcher
Alexander Hatcher thrived at New Start in Houston, a drug rehab program designed for mentally ill patients.
Thomas Lopez-Ramirez oversees inmates in a mental health cell block at the Harris County Jail.
Daniel Kramer
Thomas Lopez-Ramirez oversees inmates in a mental health cell block at the Harris County Jail.

Frightened, the prostitutes returned to the streets and Hatcher went back to his room. The manager called the police.

Hatcher believes he called his mother, who told him to barricade himself inside the room. (His mother does not remember the phone call). He moved some furniture in front of the door and began filling the bathtub. By the time officers began knocking, water overflowed on the bathroom floor and Hatcher would not open the door.

Officers burst in, and, according to the police report, they found the bed, dresser, coffee table and chairs broken. Water had damaged the carpet and sheetrock. Hatcher was arrested for criminal mischief and booked into Harris County Jail.

It only got worse from there. For whatever reason, Hatcher didn't receive medication for the first three months of his stay, which made him, if anything, more out of control.

Put in general population, Hatcher, who is openly gay, soon gained a reputation for causing problems (deserved) and for being infected with the HIV virus (not true).

Other inmates called him a faggot and coward and threatened to beat him up, and when Hatcher complained, the guards shuffled him from cell block to cell block, still within the general population.

A mug shot from May 2007 shows he was seriously injured in jail. His right eye is cut and swollen, resulting in permanent damage to his eyesight.

Hatcher was a spitter, a screamer, a scratcher and was put on suicide watch at least once. When he was locked in a solitary cell, he threw his own excrement on deputies, detention officers, nurses and psych techs.

He managed to rack up five additional felonies against him — ranging from assault to harassment of a public servant — when he kept getting into fights with the deputies in the jail.

"No one had ever seen a case where a client picks up that many cases," said Mark Hochglaube, the court-appointed attorney who initially handled Hatcher's case.

Workers inside the jail who talked to the Houston Press on the condition of anonymity describe Hatcher as an inmate who fell through the cracks of a troubled jail system, his mental state deteriorating without the proper medication. His charges, they say, are as much the jail's failing as Hatcher's.

The state prosecuted Hatcher on one of the assault charges in July and he was convicted. The jury, during the punishment phase, heard about the four other ­infractions.

Alexander Hatcher got sentenced to 53 years in prison. As his mom puts it: Murderers don't get sentences that long.

"They said I acted like I was the devil," Hatcher, 51, said through a speaker box in the jail visitation room at 1200 Baker St. "I don't know if I did or didn't, but I wasn't in the right state of mind. I'm a very sick ­person."

Right now, the Harris County Jail has just finished another bout of being investigated by the federal government.

Twice this summer, investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice went to the jail, and two deputies have been fired for lying about their role in an inmate's death.

In that case, a deputy used a choke hold on an inmate who was injured and died. A supervisor wrote a false report about the death.

"We've presented that case to the grand jury, and I think there's a better than 50/50 chance that they'll be indicted," says Mike Smith, chief deputy at the jail.

The Justice Department won't comment about what prompted the investigation, but a spokeswoman said that investigators are part of a team that examines jails to protect the "constitutional rights of pretrial detainees and inmates."

The jail was the target of another investigation when Hatcher arrived.

It started in summer 2005, when lawyers at Advocacy, Inc., an advocate group for people who are disabled and mentally ill, received high numbers of calls from inmates complaining about not receiving their medication. The lawyers started an investigation.

Officials at the jail initially tried to deny access to Advocacy, Inc., so the group sued the county. Before the lawsuit went to trial, an agreement was reached with the sheriff's department. Investigators from Advocacy were allowed to enter the jail unannounced, and were given access to inmates and jail records.

Investigators found the jail in disarray. For instance, the sheriff's department employed mental health workers through a contract with the Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County. But it was discovered that mentally ill inmates were placed in solitary cells for extended periods without medical care or visits from MHMRA doctors.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets