KERA : Tarrant County inmate’s ‘unnecessary death’ spotlights mental health crisis in jails nationwide
August 14, 2023
Baldwin would never make it to one. On Sept. 14, 2021, staff found Baldwin unresponsive in her cell. A doctor at John Peter Smith Hospital declared her dead an hour later.
Baldwin’s autopsy determined she died of severe hypernatremia, an imbalance of sodium that usually results from dehydration.
“What is happening in Tarrant County and so many other jails across Texas, is people are being punished for having mental illness,” said Dean Malone, an attorney suing over Baldwin’s death.
In June, Baldwin’s sons sued Tarrant County over their mother’s “tragic, completely unnecessary death.” Jail staff were negligent in caring for a woman whose severe mental illness was obvious from the voicemails alone, the lawsuit argues.
Competency restoration usually has to happen at one of Texas’ state psychiatric hospitals, but the supply of beds has not kept up with demand. There’s been a 38% increase in the number of people declared incompetent to stand trial in the past 20 years, according to a state report from 2021. Hospitals lose even more capacity to understaffing, and as of June, the waitlist for a bed was more than 2,300 people long.
Focusing on mental health treatment after arrest is funding the wrong end of the problem. If people got the right care, at the right time, at the right place, we would not be seeing this mental health crisis in the jails.
The state doesn’t track how many people die in jail while waiting for a psychiatric hospital bed, Texas Jail Project cofounder Krish Gundu said.
People with mental illnesses are the least able to advocate for themselves, putting them in the most danger in jail, Gundu said. She’s pushing the state to prevent people with mental illnesses from going to jail in the first place.
“We already know that jails are engines of disease, violence and death,” she said.
District attorneys and judges need to be part of the solution, too, Beth Mitchell with Disability Rights Texas said.
“If you have DAs that are not willing to drop charges, when you get these dumb charges like terroristic threat or trespass or any of the others, it doesn’t work,” she said.
Gundu called Baldwin’s case heartbreaking. In a different world, she might have gotten treatment instead of an arrest.
“Some prosecutor in the DA’s office made the decision to charge,” Gundu said. “And that’s where it begins.”