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.

"They said I was going to harm somebody, that I was talking about I was going to kill all the babies," Hatcher says. "Something about the babies, the little babies. So they arrested me."

Hatcher was arrested for criminal mischief, and instead of jail, a judge sent Hatcher to Austin State Hospital, which serves patients with mental illness. Two years later, doctors released Hatcher and he returned to Galveston.

Florence says her son started hanging out with the wrong people, and Hatcher began using cocaine and crack. In 1993, he was arrested for possession of cocaine and sentenced to 15 years in state prison. He served six before being released on parole.

Deborah Hale, a MHMRA psychologist at the Harris County Jail, talks with an inmate.
Daniel Kramer
Deborah Hale, a MHMRA psychologist at the Harris County Jail, talks with an inmate.

His father's health deteriorated while Hatcher was away, and the day of his release, Hatcher returned to Galveston with plans to move back with his family. He told his father he wanted to find work and help out. The next day, his father died.

Hatcher's older brother died of a heart attack a couple years later, and shortly after, a younger brother died of complications from AIDS.

"I can't say he's ever recovered," Florence says.

In 2005, Hatcher became involved with the New Start program in Houston. The program, funded by MHMRA, is designed as a drug rehab program for people with mental illness. He attended classes daily and had access to doctors who established a steady regimen of meds.

For more than a year, Hatcher thrived at New Start. He was provided an apartment with other patients. Hatcher's mother visited when she could, and she once attended an outdoor barbecue for the patients.

In February 2006, Hatcher's doctor filled out paperwork for Hatcher to receive a discounted fare on Metro buses. The doctor listed Hatcher's disability — schizophrenia and paranoia — as permanent. A few months later, Hatcher rode the bus across town to Acres Homes to attend a party for his cousin's 105th birthday. Hatcher beams a smile in photographs taken by his mother.

"It was beautiful at New Start," Hatcher says. "I was a great asset, as well as it was a great asset to me. I knew that I was somebody, and very important. They just give you so much good affirmation."

That winter, Hatcher filed a complaint against a woman living at his apartment complex, because he believed she was beating other patients. After a shouting match with the women, Hatcher was asked to leave his apartment. A few weeks later, he headed for the Downtowner Inn.

Each inmate entering the jail goes through a lengthy interview process with five different screeners. Inmates are asked questions about their medical and mental health history. The process, which can take as long as a day, is described by jail officials as a safety net designed to keep sick inmates out of general population.

Hatcher, whose mental illness had been documented for 21 years, was passed from screener to screener without as much as a speed bump.

After months without medication, Hatcher was transferred to the new psychiatric unit, after a deputy saw him talking to a wall, asking for a glass of water.

Some cells in the psych unit have nothing more than a hole in the floor for a toilet, and Hatcher's cell sometimes had no running water. When the hole clogged with paper, his urine and feces created a slop that covered the floor.

According to a worker inside the jail who agreed to talk to the Press, nurses and psych techs started ignoring Hatcher's calls for help. The worker says Hatcher weighed "about 100 pounds sopping wet," and looked extremely ill.

Nurses reported Hatcher sticking his arm out of a slot in the door and trying to grab them as they walked by. Still unable to get attention, Hatcher began scooping up the muddy mixture in his cell and flinging it at anyone who walked by, hitting several officers in the face and mouth.

A psych tech entered Hatcher's cell to clean, and according to an officer's report — who was second to enter the cell — Hatcher hit the tech in the face, causing his head to jerk back. The deputy and psych tech grappled with Hatcher and slipped to the floor, splashing in urine and feces. The deputy filed a complaint, and Hatcher was charged with felony assault.

There were other fights with guards. One started when Hatcher would not turn over his towel to a deputy on laundry day, and another time, Hatcher went after a nurse in the medical unit and had to be subdued.

According to Major Don McWilliams, the jail's inspector general, Hatcher gathered 111 "caution texts," disciplinary write-ups not serious enough for state charges. McWilliams says it's unusual for an inmate to be charged with as many felonies as Hatcher, but he added that the incidents "were not good situations."

"Alexander has been a real problem since he hit the door here," McWilliams says. "We really don't want Alexander to stay in here any longer than is absolutely necessary. We'd like to send him on to the state. He is a chronically, labor-intensive, pain in the ass."

In October 2007, Hatcher was sent to Rusk State Hospital for 120 days. Records from the hospital show that he was admitted as paranoid and delusional. After a few weeks, his condition improved.

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