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

An inmate witnessing the fight pulled the woman off Howard. Apart from some deep bruises and swelling, Howard escaped without serious injuries.

Soon after the fight, Howard was transferred to the Harris County Psychiatric Center, evaluated by doctors and given psychotropic drugs, but since it doesn't offer long-term care, after 28 days Howard was sent back to the jail.

One morning at about 3 o'clock in her cell, Laura woke up, and was inspired to write poetry. She entitled one poem "Pure Heart," and it included these lines, which show pretty clearly her mental state:

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.

"I fell so low that I was pure dirt / and all I accomplished was making you hurt / I'm disgusted that I could play such a game / and now I'm tortured with nothing but shame" (to see full text of poems "My Life" and "Pure Heart," click here).

After Howard said she planned to kill herself with the telephone cord, Ellington frantically searched through files at work for the phone number of a Harris County judge she knew was a patient at the dentist's office. She contacted the judge at his home and persuaded him to listen to what had happened to her daughter.

"If I am crossing the line, please let me know," Ellington told the judge, "but I don't have any money to deal with this and I don't have anywhere to go."

Wanting to stay anonymous and not step on another judge's case, the judge called in a favor with an attorney he knew who pulled weight at the courthouse and jail.

The lawyer contacted Ellington and told her to write her daughter's story and send it to Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas. The lawyer also went to Brown's office at the courthouse.

The next morning, Ellington received a phone call from a court liaison.

"The judge has released your daughter to your custody," she told Ellington. "She needs to go to the hospital for one month."

Howard walked out of a side door of the jail that evening. Ellington picked her up in the street and drove her back to their house on the other side of the county.

Howard has struggled to comply with her new guidelines from the court.

Judge Brown ordered Howard to enter a halfway house after her release, but she tried to enroll at several places and had to report back to the judge that none would take her because she wasn't addicted to drugs.

Substance abuse classes are also court-mandated, and the first center Howard was sent to was in downtown Houston.

"I'm 19 years old, and everyone else there was older than 40, and they're talking about smoking crack and meth, and I raise my hand to talk about my pot problem and they look at me like I'm crazy. I'm not sleeping for pot or anything," Howard says. "How does that make them feel? It's not helping them either."

One day after class, Howard went outside during a cigarette break, and "these two black women were talking about their age, and there's one white woman who was alone but kind of standing by them and she said, 'Yeah, I'm 43,' and one of them said, 'We didn't ask your white ho ass about anything.' This woman was a prostitute — that's why she was there — and she starts bawling and runs off."

"For me being 19, I've seen a lot of things I shouldn't have seen," Howard says (to see Howard discuss her experiences in jail, click here).

Eventually she switched to Kingwood Pines psychiatric hospital, where she is going three nights a week for co-­occurring treatment — chemical dependency and psych classes. In group sessions, the other patients are Howard's age.

The hospital is a long drive from their house and it's hard for Ellington to make the trip on the nights parents are asked to visit.

"I tell my mom I need her to go to counseling with me," Howard says. "I've been sober and I need more than me to stay that way."

Howard will be on probation until summer of next year, and she's required to take two random drug tests a month, and if she violates her probation again, Judge Brown told her she'll go back to Harris County for another stay in New Choices.

It's been almost ten months since Howard was released the last time, and the words she carved in her arm have dulled to pink and faded, but the scars are still visible if held under a certain light.

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