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.

"People who are mentally ill, when they are separated, they tend to deteriorate more, which means a longer stay in jail," says Sarah Guidrey, a managing attorney with Advocacy, Inc.

The jail had one cell block for mentally ill inmates — beds for 27 males and 26 females — and there were also ten cells known as rubber rooms, designed for inmates in fits of psychosis.

Some of the rubber rooms were filled with unwanted office furniture.

Florence Hatcher moved to Houston from Galveston about a year ago, not long after Alexander was arrested.
Daniel Kramer
Florence Hatcher moved to Houston from Galveston about a year ago, not long after Alexander was arrested.
Nurses and psych techs were added to the jail staff after an Advocacy, Inc. investigation.
Daniel Kramer
Nurses and psych techs were added to the jail staff after an Advocacy, Inc. investigation.

By the time Hatcher was booked, the fallout from the investigation was resulting in changes in the jail. More psychologists and psychiatrists and social workers, as well as nurses and pharmacists, were added to the jail staff.

Space for mentally ill inmates was expanded from one cell block to four, taking up half the second floor with room for about 200 inmates.

Walls were painted creamy white and a soft emerald green. Uniforms for the guards were changed to polo shirts and cargo pants, designed to comfort mentally ill inmates who associated cop uniforms with pain.

About $1 million was spent on structural changes, including a nurse's station inside one of the cell blocks, so meds wouldn't have to be brought over from the medical unit. Caging was added to the upper floors, so, as one deputy put it, "inmates won't take a head dive, which some have tried."

The jail signed a contract with the Harris County Psychiatric Center to provide 24 additional beds outside the jail.

"We're still going in, but it's amazing all the changes that have occurred in the last year and a half," Guidry says. "They've been in more rapid speed than I ­anticipated."

A new Mental Health Unit was also formed, with deputies and detention officers given training in mental illness and paid an extra $150 a month. An emphasis was placed on defusing situations verbally instead of physically.

Workers who talked to the Press agree that the changes are positive but that problems still exist. For instance, inmates are sometimes placed in solitary cells for punishment, instead of medical need, they say.

"That's where Alexander really hit the wall," one worker says.

Florence Hatcher sometimes blames herself for her son's troubles.

When Hatcher was nine, Florence sent him to California to live with an aunt who had no children. The Hatchers' home in Galveston was too crowded with eight other children, and Florence thought Alexander would enjoy the change.

He did. For almost eight years, her son flourished in California. At 16, he took a job as a bank teller.

A year later, his father was injured on his job at a Galveston shipyard. The amount of disability money the family received increased with the number of children living in the household. Florence, now 70, made her son move back to Texas.

"He always faulted me for doing that," Florence says. "He always said, 'For $37 you made me come back?'"

The Moody Foundation in Galveston gave Hatcher a scholarship when he graduated high school, and he spent his freshman and sophomore years at Prairie View A&M.

Police busted Hatcher for the first time when he was 19, during a trip home from Prairie View, when he was caught with a group of guys stealing clothes from a Foley's department store.

"We had rolled back down to Galveston, and my problem is, I want to be accepted," Hatcher says. "I had come to terms that I don't have any friends unless I have something."

Florence hired an attorney and the charge was eventually dropped. Hatcher was arrested again seven years later for breaking into an office building, and he was sentenced to probation.

One evening, not long after the arrest, Hatcher attended a party where he danced all night, which he loved to do. Walking back to his family's house, he stepped in a pothole, twisted his leg and fell. Thinking he was not injured, Hatcher continued home.

By the time he reached the house, his knee had swollen enormously and Florence drove him to the emergency room. A ligament in his knee was damaged, and Hatcher required surgery.

The recovery was long, and Hatcher spent most of the time in a hospital bed and slipped into a deep depression. Hatcher told a nurse about visions and suicide, and he was examined by a hospital psychiatrist.

At 29, Hatcher was diagnosed as bipolar and schizophrenic. He moved in and out of mental hospitals in Galveston over the next several years.

"They drilled me so much that when I felt like I was going to have an episode, I should go to the hospital. So that's what I did," Hatcher says. "When I get off my medication, I go through these hills. Everyone is after Alexander, and I'm very, very careless with myself. I'm just really off the chain. Once I get my medicine, I stabilize, and I can take care of myself."

Encouraged by his doctors, Hatcher moved out of his parents' house into ­government-subsidized housing, the Magnolia Homes in Galveston. Hatcher soon stopped taking his medication, and was found by Galveston police in the parking lot of the apartments, screaming as loud as he could.

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