Is Harris County Jail the Place for A Mentally Troubled Teen?

Laura Howard got tossed into a jail treatment program, but it was the wrong one for someone whose mental health was in tatters

A couple hours before sunset, Laura Howard slid a knife across her wrist after arguing with her boyfriend and mother.

She dropped the knife and left her bedroom with her wrist turned upward to show her mother. There was a lot of blood, which was unusual because even though the then-18-year-old was a cutter, she had never gone deep enough before to cause blood to pour out of the wound.

Howard's mother, Allie Ellington, rushed to call 911, and Howard's boyfriend carried her back to the bedroom and shut the door.

Sheriff's deputies arrested Howard after she slit her wrist.
Harris County Sheriff's Office
Sheriff's deputies arrested Howard after she slit her wrist.
Laura Howard couldn't take her meds in the New Choices rehab program at the Harris County Jail.
Daniel Kramer
Laura Howard couldn't take her meds in the New Choices rehab program at the Harris County Jail.

A Harris County sheriff's deputy, K.W. Reed, was one of the officers responding to the call. According to the incident report, he knew that Howard had slit her wrist and that she didn't have the knife anymore. Still, the dispatcher had told him that Howard was bipolar and very violent.

Several cruisers with their sirens going pulled up to Ellington's house in a suburban enclave on the northwest side of the county, not far from Cypress Creek High School. Ellington went outside to meet the squad. "I want you to take her to the Kingwood Pines Hospital," Ellington told the first deputy.

"Don't worry, because we know how to handle these situations," the deputy said.

About a year and a half later, in bitter hindsight, Ellington remembers that moment in May of 2007 and blames it for everything that has happened since: "When the police tell you something, I was taught to respect what they say. I didn't know that I should have questioned him, and I wish I had."

The scene outside Howard's window — flashing lights and patrol cars and a gang of deputies — set her off. She bolted from the house through the back door with her boyfriend as the deputies rushed inside.

"The neighbors were all standing out front with me, and the policemen all of a sudden took off toward the back. I couldn't see what happened once they were back there," Ellington says.

From Reed's report: "Deputy Evans jumped the fence and continued pursuing both suspects on foot, I returned to my marked unit and drove the next street over." The report says Reed found Evans fighting with Howard (she was about five feet tall and 110 pounds) while she was "swinging at him with a closed fist." Reed joined the other deputy and restrained Howard with handcuffs, and they put her in the backseat (to hear Howard tell her version, click here).

The deputies drove to the other side of the house and Ellington saw her daughter shackled in the back of the patrol car, her face reddened and scratched from being pushed against the asphalt.

"Can you take her to the doctors now?" Ellington cried.

A deputy told her, "The paramedics have checked her out and we're making the decision to take her to jail."

As it turns out, if the deputies had instead been officers with the Houston Police Department, Howard would have gone to the county's NeuroPsychiatric Center at the old Ben Taub General ­Hospital.

HPD policy is to take a person who attempts suicide to the NeuroPsychiatric Center, and if it's full, to St. Joseph Medical Center or Methodist Hospital.

Instead, the deputies arrested Howard — she was in handcuffs before the paramedics arrived — and took her downtown to Harris County Jail, where she was charged with evading detention and resisting arrest.

A court-appointed lawyer handled Howard's case, and, without arguing the circumstances of Howard's arrest, "negotiated" for two years of probation.

Drug screenings were required as part of the sentence, and about five months later Howard failed a urinalysis after smoking marijuana.

Judge Robin Brown sentenced Howard to time at the county jail: six months in New Choices, a rehab program in the jail designed as a last chance for addicts. A requirement for inmates is that they need to be mentally stable when entering the program — which by all accounts Howard was not.

"That was like the death sentence," Ellington says.

Howard bounced between general population and the mental health unit inside the jail for a couple months before a spot opened in New Choices. With little supervision from drug counselors or guards, Howard filed paper clips to a point and jammed them into her face. When the puncture holes grew too large for paperclips, she inserted plastic pieces from a shattered comb.

New Choices counselors saw the plastic in Howard's face, and since self-inflicted wounds are a violation of program rules, Howard was kicked out of jail rehab less than a month after she'd enrolled.

She was moved to her own cell where she mentally nosedived, popping the blade out of a plastic safety razor and using it to carve "FUCK LIFE" into her arm.

During a visit, Ellington saw the cuts on Howard's arm, and while they talked on the phone later that night, Howard told her mother, "I'm going to strangle myself with this cord and no one will notice."

A decade ago, Mental Health America (then known as the Mental Health Association) of Greater Houston created a task force in the hope of developing a system that could protect the mentally ill from wrongful arrest in Harris County.

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