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.

Hatcher says the workers at Rusk "didn't hold a grudge against you tomorrow for something you did yesterday." Doctors prescribed Invega, Cogentin and Klonipin — psychotropic drugs — and Hatcher stabilized, eventually given a job cleaning tables in the hospital's cafeteria.

Since returning to Harris County Jail in February of this year, Hatcher's disciplinary record has been clean.

"When I first saw him, I stood way away from the door, and he couldn't understand why. I told him, 'Mr. Hatcher, you're not really a nice person.' He did hit those people, he did all those things," a worker at the jail says. "Now, some of the assaults were provoked, because it's like they don't understand, or they don't care that these people are mentally ill."

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.

According to Mike Smith, the chief deputy at the jail, about 1,900 of the jail's 11,000 inmates are provided with psychotropic drugs, making the jail the largest provider of mental health services in the state. But dealing with mental illness as a larger issue, Smith says, is not the jail's job.

"I wish they could get their mental health care somewhere else, but that's not my call," Smith says. "They get caught doing some petty-ass crime, they get stuck in jail and this is where they get their treatment. They get pretty leveled out, and what do we do with them? I can't hold them after their charge runs out, so we dump them back on the street."

Mentally ill inmates are treated similarly to other inmates, Smith says, and if a crime is committed in jail, the inmate must face the consequences.

"I have high blood pressure, that doesn't excuse me from knocking the crap out of you. I got to keep that under control," he says.

The same attitude is taken with deputies who break the rules, Smith says, pointing to the recent deputy firings as an example.

"We're not saying none of this ever happens, that would be naive, but a lot of this is blown out of proportion," Smith says. "These complaints become more and more outlandish. We've had people say, 'I was hurt,' and I say, 'How'd you get hurt? Where'd you get hurt? You don't have any signs of it.' They'll go, 'Oh well, fuck you,' and we'll never see them again."

Hatcher was definitely hurt in jail. He now wears black, jail-issued glasses for the damage to his eyes, which required treatment at Ben Taub Hospital.

It's unclear which incident caused those injuries, but Hatcher filed a grievance with the jail in March, shortly after the first assault charges were filed.

"He beat me in facial parts, kick, and used unprofessional slander towards me," Hatcher wrote.

However, one of the workers at the jail who talked to the Press said that the deputies, as easy as they are to vilify, are a necessary evil — even more so in the mental health unit.

A mental health worker can be disciplined for as little as raising his voice to an inmate, and if a patient becomes aggressive, deputies are needed.

"All they have is intimidation. If they don't intimidate someone into complying, we are all screwed," the worker says.

However, the worker says that the line is often crossed. And in Hatcher's case, the physical force might have been necessary, but was often excessive.

"He could have had bruises from being subdued and bruises from the handcuffs," the worker says. "But all the facial stuff, what was that about?"

Still, "I can understand the deputies because none of us are safe if they can't get control," the worker says. "I don't care if the sheriff's department treated him terribly. I don't care if they trumped up the charges. I don't care if the world fell apart in here. Between the attorney and the court, someone should have made sense of it. The court should have done better than that."

Mark Hochglaube, Hatcher's court-appointed attorney, planned to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

"There are moments he is totally out of control. And that's why, to me, the insanity defense was accurate. Even though he might be sane on Tuesday, he could be insane on Wednesday and then go back to being sane on Thursday. His mental illness was that volatile."

Hatcher was examined by the state in summer 2007 by Dr. Matthew Leddy, a MHMRA psychiatrist. Leddy said in his professional opinion, Hatcher was competent to stand trial.

A second evaluation by an outside doctor was ordered by the court, at Hochglaube's request. Dr. Joe Peraino, a private-practice pyschiatrist, examined Hatcher and said he was incompetent for trial.

During a conference call between the attorneys and doctors, Hochglaube says, Leddy agreed that it would be best to send Hatcher to Rusk before trial. (Leddy refused to comment on the case, citing patient confidentiality.)

Prosecutors started offering plea deals to Hochglaube, and the best, he says, was a ten-year sentence.

"My thought was that I might be able to beat one or two of these charges, but I probably wasn't going to beat every single one. And it was 25 to life on each one," Hochglaube says. "We started filling out the plea paperwork, but then Alexander didn't want it. It may sound like I had a lot of influence over him, but the reality was that I didn't. He was a very difficult person to communicate with."

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