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TJP director speaks at County Affairs hearing

Mar 17th, 2014 | Category: Comal County, Lead Article

Good morning Committee members and chairman Coleman and thanks for including this topic.

I am Diana Claitor, director of the nonprofit Texas Jail Project, which has been working to educate the public and stakeholders about the needs of prisoners and the conditions in Texas county jails for about seven years.  We respond to a barrage of emails and phone calls from Texans and in 2013, we had 69,000 individual visitors searching our site for information and seeking help in making complaints.

Also in 2013: 102 people died in Texas county jails. Others lost their jobs and families or decompensated mentally as they were held weeks and months without necessary medical care. Many of them were not yet convicted—held in pretrial detention.

Complaints about mentally ill prisoners in crisis have been spiking; some 75% of the emails I receive now ask for help for someone not receiving their prescribed medications or receiving the wrong meds or inconsistently administered meds, or their loved one is being held in seclusion week after week, month after month. Also, families are frustrated by many jails’ refusal to discuss medical issues, even when they have a medical release. Hundreds of families are also frustrated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standard’s boilerplate response: “The Texas Commission on Jail Standards does not question the professional opinion of medical personnel.”

We all know that jails are not the right place for mentally ill people, but with the current situation as it is, we need for the jailers to do everything they can—creatively and compassionately. We should not have Adan Castañeda, an Iraq war veteran with serious mental illnesses, locked up month after month, in a solitary cell, pretrial. He is on his second round in the Comal County Jail; despite the deteriorating condition of this former Marine, the county does not provide medication or therapeutic treatment and won’t allow his mother to bring in a specialist. She tells us that he just had his third birthday in that cell.

A mentally ill woman in her 50s was held in solitary confinement in a small East Texas jail for much of 2012, despite her family’s pleas for treatment or release to a mental health facility. Her sister: “Ms. Claitor, my sister has been locked in that jail cell alone for 7 months.  She communicates with no one. Is it legal to take someone mentally ill and lock them away in a 6 x 9 cell for 23 hours a day, like a mad dog, and expect them to improve? Her eyes bulge and she is terrified. I challenge any judge or jailer to be forced to live this way for one month. They couldn’t handle it.”

Another critical issue not being addressed by the TexasCommission on Jail Standards (TCJS): the county jails that don’t access or contract with the Local Mental Health Authority (LMHA) in their area. Many jails do not even contact the LMHA when there is a person with mental illness in their facility. So we see people with mental illness languishing in their cells, especially in low-income, rural counties, without receiving mental health care that they could be getting.

The Texas State Hospital section at DSHS is currently investigating how many jails lack LMHA contracts. Why isn’t the Jail Commission itself doing an inventory of the jails without contracts? Why don’t inspectors check into the records of prisoners receiving little or no care, like Comal County where the psychiatric doctor usually visits only once a month?

Shouldn’t TCJS jail inspectors be checking on how long people have been held in seclusion cells or whether they are actually receiving prescribed medications? When I was interviewed for the recent Texas Tribune article of January 17th, I stated that TCJS standards were lacking and little action was taken in response to medical complaints. TCJS executive director Brandon Wood countered by saying that jails did not get away with denying medical are. He said, “’If a jail is not complying with health care standards, the commission will issue a notice of noncompliance.”

Texas Jail Project staff recently obtained  the Commission’s Notices of Non-compliance for the past three years through 2013. Of the 169 jails found not in compliance with standards, only one was cited for failure to dispense medication, in more than three years.

At the same time, we recognize that the Commission on Jail Standards has limited statutory authority over medical and psychiatric care. And they are limited by budget and understaffing as well—currently for example, they have only 4 inspectors for some 245 jails! We commend the dedication of those four; their work prevents many disasters in terms of liability for counties and for the staff and inmates. It is heartening to see them citing jails for incomplete mental health screening forms, for example, and we wholeheartedly support the new training sessions for CO’s to learn special skills to work with those in a mental health crisis.

However, TCJS needs to develop more solutions and consequences, especially in terms of the lack of contracts and psychiatric providers for prisoners–that is going to increase liability for counties. And TCJS must move beyond its present overarching goal of satisfying sheriffs and counties above all.

For years we have made good faith efforts to work with sheriffs and TCJS; we now seek YOUR help, Rep. Coleman and committee members, to develop legislation that will change a situation that is not only harming mentally ill prisoners but damaging families and communities across this great state.

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Judge Carter Tarrance, 392nd district court, testified as to the lack of meds and the substandard care by a private medical provider in the Henderson County Jail. Matt Simpson, policy strategist with ACLU of Texas, described the traumatic experience of a mentally ill man in the Travis County Jail in Austin.

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