Gone to Hell: Mental Illness and Harris County Jail
On December 19, 2006, Alexander Hatcher received about $15,000 in disability payments from Social Security. Diagnosed as bipolar and schizophrenic, Hatcher was off his meds and homeless, and the money was a dangerous windfall.
He took two friends, female prostitutes, to buy cigarettes, clothes, booze and drugs. The trio traveled to the Downtowner Inn, a motel on the southwest side of downtown. One of the women took cash and was supposed to pay for a week.
Sometime after sunrise, after a night of smoking crack, Hatcher and his friends left the room to resupply. According to a police report, it was raining. The group returned to the motel and encountered the manager, who demanded payment because the woman had paid for only one night.
mentally ill prisoners
Frightened, the prostitutes returned to the streets and Hatcher went back to his room. The manager called the police.
Gridiron Glory: The Best of Pro Football HOF -- 3PM-8PM
TicketsWed., Mar. 29, 3:00pm
Gridiron Glory: The Best of Pro Football HOF -- 10AM-3PM
TicketsThu., Mar. 30, 10:00am
Gridiron Glory: The Best of Pro Football HOF -- 10AM-6PM
TicketsSun., Apr. 2, 10:00am
Rice Owls Men's Baseball vs. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs Men's Baseball
TicketsFri., Apr. 7, 6:30pm
Hatcher believes he called his mother, who told him to barricade himself inside the room. (His mother does not remember the phone call). He moved some furniture in front of the door and began filling the bathtub. By the time officers began knocking, water overflowed on the bathroom floor and Hatcher would not open the door.
Officers burst in, and, according to the police report, they found the bed, dresser, coffee table and chairs broken. Water had damaged the carpet and sheetrock. Hatcher was arrested for criminal mischief and booked into Harris County Jail.
It only got worse from there. For whatever reason, Hatcher didn't receive medication for the first three months of his stay, which made him, if anything, more out of control.
Put in general population, Hatcher, who is openly gay, soon gained a reputation for causing problems (deserved) and for being infected with the HIV virus (not true).
Other inmates called him a faggot and coward and threatened to beat him up, and when Hatcher complained, the guards shuffled him from cell block to cell block, still within the general population.
A mug shot from May 2007 shows he was seriously injured in jail. His right eye is cut and swollen, resulting in permanent damage to his eyesight.
Hatcher was a spitter, a screamer, a scratcher and was put on suicide watch at least once. When he was locked in a solitary cell, he threw his own excrement on deputies, detention officers, nurses and psych techs.
He managed to rack up five additional felonies against him — ranging from assault to harassment of a public servant — when he kept getting into fights with the deputies in the jail.
"No one had ever seen a case where a client picks up that many cases," said Mark Hochglaube, the court-appointed attorney who initially handled Hatcher's case.
Workers inside the jail who talked to the Houston Press on the condition of anonymity describe Hatcher as an inmate who fell through the cracks of a troubled jail system, his mental state deteriorating without the proper medication. His charges, they say, are as much the jail's failing as Hatcher's.
The state prosecuted Hatcher on one of the assault charges in July and he was convicted. The jury, during the punishment phase, heard about the four other infractions.
Alexander Hatcher got sentenced to 53 years in prison. As his mom puts it: Murderers don't get sentences that long.
"They said I acted like I was the devil," Hatcher, 51, said through a speaker box in the jail visitation room at 1200 Baker St. "I don't know if I did or didn't, but I wasn't in the right state of mind. I'm a very sick person."
Right now, the Harris County Jail has just finished another bout of being investigated by the federal government.
Twice this summer, investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice went to the jail, and two deputies have been fired for lying about their role in an inmate's death.
In that case, a deputy used a choke hold on an inmate who was injured and died. A supervisor wrote a false report about the death.
"We've presented that case to the grand jury, and I think there's a better than 50/50 chance that they'll be indicted," says Mike Smith, chief deputy at the jail.
The Justice Department won't comment about what prompted the investigation, but a spokeswoman said that investigators are part of a team that examines jails to protect the "constitutional rights of pretrial detainees and inmates."
The jail was the target of another investigation when Hatcher arrived.
It started in summer 2005, when lawyers at Advocacy, Inc., an advocate group for people who are disabled and mentally ill, received high numbers of calls from inmates complaining about not receiving their medication. The lawyers started an investigation.
Officials at the jail initially tried to deny access to Advocacy, Inc., so the group sued the county. Before the lawsuit went to trial, an agreement was reached with the sheriff's department. Investigators from Advocacy were allowed to enter the jail unannounced, and were given access to inmates and jail records.
Investigators found the jail in disarray. For instance, the sheriff's department employed mental health workers through a contract with the Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County. But it was discovered that mentally ill inmates were placed in solitary cells for extended periods without medical care or visits from MHMRA doctors.
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
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."
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."
Hatcher became disillusioned with Hochglaube and fired him. Hatcher called his mother and asked her to contact James M. Sims, a longtime defender in Harris County, and for $7,000, Sims took the case, also arguing the insanity defense.
"Peraino said that at the time of the series of crimes, [Hatcher] was criminally insane," Sims says. "Based upon that, I had no choice but to try it. I'd be derelict as a lawyer if I ignored that."
Sims consulted George Parnham before the trial, because Parnham, who defended Andrea Yates, the mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub and who on retrial was found not guilty by reason of insanity, often takes on criminal insanity cases. He currently has a client in Louisiana who stabbed herself and her child after a pastor told her that psych medications were not necessary.
The insanity defense is used in about 1 percent of felony cases in Texas, and the defendant wins about 20 percent of the time, according to Parnham. He believes that the defense can actually be used too often.
"What I'm opposed to is lawyers using criminal insanity as a throw-down, when there appears to be no other defense," Parnham says. "It hurts our credibility."
The defense appeared to have merit in Hatcher's case, Parnham told Sims, especially since Hatcher had a long, documented history of mental illness.
Still, winning the case would be difficult, and one of the hardest aspects of a case, Parnham says, is convincing jurors that defendants aren't faking. He gave Sims a questionnaire to hand out to potential jurors. Questions included:
"How do you feel about psychiatrists and psychologists?"
"Do you consider yourself liberal? Conservative? Moderate?"
"Have you, your spouse, or relative ever been under the care of a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional?"
According to Sims, the first juror he questioned said, "I don't believe in criminal insanity."
In July of this year, Hatcher was examined by state doctors again and was found to be competent, and a couple days later, Hatcher's trial began. The assault charge the state chose to prosecute was based on a complaint filed in September 2007, when Hatcher was waiting to be transferred to Rusk.
The defense was minimal. According to Hatcher, Sims told him to "act retarded." The sole witness for Hatcher was Peraino, who had evaluated Hatcher again several months before the trial. Peraino would not comment about the case, but in a letter written to Judge Susan Brown, who presided over the case, Peraino wrote:
"[Hatcher] appeared to be in a similar mental state to that upon discharge from Rusk State Hospital with the exception of being depressed. He did not admit to having the delusions he previously reported...("I have powers and visions. My dream is to become an international star for a third world country...I come from royalty from South Africa... kings and queens.. My dream is become [sic] the first Black African American Pope")."
The letter continued, "He was, however, likely extremely psychotic at the time of his initial offense and continued to be psychotic during the jail period prior to the Rusk placement. He was either not medicated or inappropriately medicated during the period prior to placement at Rusk. In sum, it is highly likely that he was insane during the period he incurred the six offenses."
The prosecution was stronger. Two MHMRA doctors testified that Hatcher was not criminally insane. Hatcher says that he was never examined by the doctors who testified, but Hochglaube and prosecutor Ryan Patrick believe that he was.
"I've never seen those doctors before, God knows I've never did," Hatcher says. "Unless I was in that bad condition that I don't remember."
Deputies and detention officers who witnessed the assault also told the jury what happened. Jurors were shown pictures of the deputy, who received scratches on his neck during the fight.
On July 10, 2008, Hatcher was found guilty, and during the punishment phase of the trial, the jury was presented information about Hatcher's other charges, along with his prior record. According to Sims, it was the jury foreman who declined to sentence Hatcher to life.
"You look at Alexander's record. He's had a long history of problems with the law. I mean, nothing serious in terms of murder, assaults or that nature, but a lot of sort of stupid stuff. And he's had a long history of mental illness," Hochglaube says. "In my heart I believe that 53 years was not justice."
When Hatcher returned to Harris County Jail, he says he saw one of the deputies he had fought with months earlier.
The deputy told Hatcher, "I hope you haven't made any plans for the future."
Hatcher returned to his cell, and as soon as he had the chance he called his mother. Florence hadn't been able to make it to the trial, because she couldn't find a ride.
"I said, 'Fifty-three years?! People that murder people don't get 53 years.' He told me, 'I don't know, mama.' Well, I don't know," Florence says. "In 53 years I'll be gone. That's all I pray, that God do let me live, because he would be lost. He don't have nobody but me."
Florence has seen her son a couple times since his arrest. She moved to a small house on the east side of Houston about a year ago, but she can rarely travel to downtown. A problem with Florence's phone line sometimes keeps her from accepting Hatcher's collect calls.
During his first nine months in jail, Hatcher sent his mother letters almost daily, many of them illegible. When she could read the writing, Florence made little sense of its meaning.
In a letter from January 2007, Hatcher writes, "I will enter into Divine Words Seminary in California. I made this vow to God. I may be the first Roman Catholic Missionary Priest in the Joseph and Hatcher family. I feel the Happiness will come when working with the 3rd World County in South Africa."
"Alexander is the most religious person, I guess. I should tell him he needs to start praying different," Florence says. "He hasn't been a bad, bad person, but he has done a lot of things. He's even done things to me, but he's my child, and I can't throw him away."
Hatcher's case is set for appeal, but it could be months or years before the case reaches trial. Sims has bowed out as Hatcher's attorney, and the court has appointed another lawyer to handle the case.
While Hatcher is waiting for transfer to state prison, he says he's receiving his medication prescribed at Rusk, and there've been no problems since returning to the jail. In fact, Hatcher has little recollection of his time prior to Rusk.
He wears a yellow jumpsuit, the sign of a maximum-security inmate. No longer in the psychiatric unit, Hatcher stays in a solitary cell.
In mid-sentence, Hatcher will sometimes lean back and look up, take a deep breath and swallow, then continue speaking. There's often a paranoid tone in his voice, and he sometimes alludes to liver cancer that doctors say he doesn't have.
"I cannot complain. I go through it every once in a while, but I'm just here," Hatcher says. "To be honest with you, I don't know how all this happened. But it had to have been something I did that was against the rules of Harris County Jail."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.