This text accommodates detailed descriptions of psychological sickness and suicide.
This text was produced for ProPublica’s Native Reporting Community in partnership with Mississippi At the moment. It was additionally co-published with Solar Herald, Northeast Mississippi Day by day Journal and The Guardian. Join Dispatches to get tales like this one as quickly as they’re revealed.
Should you or somebody wants assist:
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When sheriff’s division workers in Mississippi’s Benton County took Jimmy Sons into custody a number of years in the past, they adopted their customary protocol for individuals charged with a criminal offense: They took his mug shot, fingerprinted him, had him become an orange jumpsuit and locked him up.
However Sons, who was then 20 years outdated, had not been charged with a criminal offense. Earlier that day, his father, James Sons, had gone to a county workplace to ask that his youngest son be taken in for a psychological analysis and therapy. Jimmy Sons had threatened to harm members of the family and himself, and his father had come throughout him sitting on his mattress with a loaded shotgun.
On Sons’ reserving type, within the spot the place jailers normally report legal costs, was a single phrase: “LUNACY.”
The reserving type for Jimmy Sons, figuring out his “offense” as “lunacy”
(Obtained by Mississippi At the moment)
In each state, individuals who current a menace to themselves or others may be ordered to obtain psychological well being therapy. Most states permit individuals with substance abuse issues to be ordered into therapy, too. The method is named civil dedication.
However Mississippi At the moment and ProPublica couldn’t discover any state apart from Mississippi the place individuals are routinely jailed with out costs for days or even weeks throughout that course of.
What occurred to Sons has occurred tons of of occasions a yr within the state.
The information organizations examined jail dockets from 19 Mississippi counties — a couple of quarter of the state’s 82 — that clearly marked bookings associated to civil commitments. All advised, individuals in these counties had been jailed a minimum of 2,000 occasions for civil commitments alone from 2019 to 2022. None had been charged with a criminal offense.
Most had been deemed to want psychiatric therapy; others had been despatched to substance abuse packages, in line with county officers.
Since 2006, a minimum of 13 individuals have died in Mississippi county jails as they awaited therapy for psychological sickness or substance abuse, Mississippi At the moment and ProPublica discovered. 9 of the 13 killed themselves. Not less than 10 hadn’t been charged with a criminal offense.
A lady going via the civil dedication course of, carrying a shirt labeling her a “convict,” is transported from her dedication listening to again to a county jail to await transportation to a state hospital in north Mississippi this spring.
(Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi At the moment)
We shared our findings with incapacity rights advocates, psychological well being officers in different states and 10 nationwide consultants on civil dedication or psychological well being care in jails. They used phrases reminiscent of “horrifying,” “breaks my heart” and “speechless” once they discovered how many individuals are jailed in Mississippi as they undergo the civil dedication course of.
Some stated they didn’t see the way it may very well be constitutional.
“If an ER is full, you don’t send people to jail,” stated Megan Schuller, authorized director of the Bazelon Heart for Psychological Well being Regulation, a Washington, D.C.-based group. “This is just outright discriminatory treatment in my view.”
Mississippi At the moment and ProPublica additionally interviewed 10 people who had been dedicated and jailed, in addition to 20 members of the family.
Lots of these individuals stated they or their members of the family had been housed alongside legal defendants. No person knew how lengthy they’d be there. They had been typically shackled once they left their cells. A few of them stated they couldn’t entry prescribed psychiatric drugs or had minimal medical care as they skilled withdrawal from unlawful medication.
“It felt more criminal than, like, they were trying to help me,” stated Richard Millwood, who was booked into the DeSoto County jail in 2020 following an tried suicide. “I got the exact same treatment in there as I did when I was in jail facing charges. In fact worse, in my opinion, because at least when I was facing charges I could bond out.”
“I got the exact same treatment in there as I did when I was in jail facing charges. In fact worse, in my opinion, because at least when I was facing charges I could bond out.” — Richard Millwood, who was booked into jail following an tried suicide
DeSoto County management, knowledgeable of Millwood’s assertion, didn’t reply.
Millwood spent 35 days in jail earlier than being admitted to a publicly funded rehab program 90 miles away.
Jimmy Sons didn’t obtain a psychological analysis when he was booked into the Benton County jail in September 2015, in line with paperwork in a lawsuit his father later filed. Lower than 24 hours later, he was lifeless. Left alone in a cell with out common visits by jail workers, he had hanged himself.
He had been again in Mississippi for just some days, planning to hitch his dad in electrical work, stated his mom, Juli Murray. He had set out from her dwelling in Bradenton, Florida, so early within the morning that he didn’t say goodbye.
Murray remembers the telephone name from Jimmy’s half-brother during which she discovered her son was in jail. She didn’t perceive why.
“If you do something wrong, that’s why you’re in jail,” she stated. “Not if you’re not mentally well. Why would they put them in there?”
The Lesser Sin
When James Sons went to the clerk’s workplace within the tiny city of Ashland to file dedication paperwork for his son, he took step one in Mississippi’s peculiar, antiquated system for mandating therapy for individuals with severe psychological well being issues.
Jimmy Sons at age 18 at his father’s dwelling in Mississippi
(Courtesy of John Sons)
It begins when somebody — normally a member of the family, however it may very well be nearly anybody — indicators a type alleging that the particular person in query is “in need of treatment because the person is mentally ill under law and poses a likelihood of physical harm to themselves or others.”
James Sons crammed out that type, itemizing why he was involved: Jimmy’s weapons, his threats, his discuss of suicide.
Then a particular grasp — an lawyer appointed by a chancery decide to make dedication selections — issued a “Writ to Take Custody.” It instructed sheriff’s deputies in Benton County, simply south of the Tennessee border, to carry Jimmy Sons on the jail till he may very well be evaluated.
The sheriff’s workplace requested Sons to come back in on an unrelated matter. When he confirmed up, Chief Deputy Joe Batts advised him he wanted a psychological well being analysis. Batts tried to reassure Sons that the method could be as fast as potential and would finish with him again dwelling, in line with Batts’ testimony within the lawsuit Sons’ father filed over his demise.
Then Batts advised Sons, “What we’re going to have to do now is take you back and book you.”
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What he by no means advised Sons, he later acknowledged in a deposition, was that the younger man must wait in jail for days earlier than he would see a psychological well being supplier. The primary screening required by regulation was 4 days away. If it concluded he wanted additional examination, he could be evaluated by two extra medical professionals. Then the particular grasp would determine whether or not to order him into therapy at a state psychiatric hospital.
The entire course of ought to take seven to 10 days, in line with the state Division of Psychological Well being. However typically it takes longer, the information organizations discovered. And if somebody is ordered into therapy at their listening to, they typically have to attend for a mattress, although the division says common wait occasions for state hospital beds after hearings have dropped dramatically within the final yr.
Whereas ready for his or her listening to, individuals like Sons are alleged to obtain therapy at a hospital or a short-term public psychological well being facility known as a disaster stabilization unit. However state regulation does permit individuals to be jailed earlier than their dedication listening to if there’s “no reasonable alternative.” (The regulation is much less clear about what’s allowed following a listening to.)
The Benton County Sheriff’s Division previously housed the county jail the place Jimmy Sons died, in Ashland, Mississippi.
(Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi At the moment)
Mississippi At the moment and ProPublica spoke to dozens of officers throughout Mississippi concerned within the dedication course of: clerks who deal with the paperwork, chancery judges and particular masters who signal dedication orders, sheriffs who run the jails, deputies who drive individuals from jails to state hospitals, and the pinnacle of the state Division of Psychological Well being.
None of them thinks jail is the best place for individuals awaiting therapy for psychological sickness.
“We’re not a mental health hospital,” stated Greg Pollan, president of the Mississippi Sheriffs’ Affiliation and the sheriff of rural Calhoun County within the north of the state. “We’re not even a mental health Band-Aid station. That’s not what we do. So they should never, ever see the inside of my jail.”
Batts himself, who took Sons into custody in Benton County, stated regulation enforcement officers throughout Mississippi “hate to detain people like that. But we’re told we have to do it.” He acknowledged that the ability “was substandard to begin with, not having the space and the adequate facilities to hold and monitor someone in that mental state — it just puts everybody in a bad situation.” And he stated he thought the state may present options to jail.
Some counties jail most individuals going via the dedication course of for psychological sickness, Mississippi At the moment and ProPublica discovered. Different counties reserve jail for people who find themselves deemed violent or prone to damage themselves. And a minimum of a handful typically jail individuals dedicated for substance abuse — despite the fact that a 2021 opinion by the state’s lawyer basic says that isn’t allowed beneath state regulation.
This occurs as a result of till individuals are admitted to a state hospital, counties are liable for protecting the prices of the dedication course of except the state supplies funding. If a disaster stabilization unit is full or turns somebody away, the county should discover an alternate, and it should foot the invoice.
Counties can place sufferers in an ER or contract with a psychiatric hospital — and a few do — however many officers balk on the price. Many officers, notably these in poor, rural counties, see jail as the one possibility.
“You have to put them somewhere to monitor them,” stated Cindy Austin, chancery clerk in rural Smith County, situated in central Mississippi. Chancery clerks are liable for discovering beds for individuals going via the dedication course of. “It’s not that anybody wants to hold them in jail, it’s just we have no hospital here to hold them in.”
Timothy Gowan, an lawyer who adjudicated commitments in Noxubee County from 1999 to late 2020, stated individuals going via the dedication course of there usually had been jailed in the event that they had been decided to be violent and their household didn’t need them at dwelling.
Based on the Noxubee County jail docket, individuals going via the civil dedication course of with no legal costs had been booked into the jail about 50 occasions from 2019 to 2022. Ten stays lasted a minimum of 30 days. The longest was 82 days.
“Putting a sick person in a jail is a sin,” Gowan stated. “But it’s the lesser of somebody getting killed.”
Some counties not often maintain individuals in jail — typically as a result of a sheriff, chancery decide or different official has taken a stand in opposition to it. Rural Neshoba County in central Mississippi pays Alliance, a psychiatric hospital in Meridian, to deal with sufferers.
“We’re not a mental health hospital. We’re not even a mental health Band-Aid station. That’s not what we do. So they should never, ever see the inside of my jail.” — Greg Pollan, president of the Mississippi Sheriffs’ Affiliation and sheriff of Calhoun County
The apply isn’t confined to poor, rural counties. DeSoto County, a populous, comparatively rich county close to Memphis, jailed individuals with out costs about 500 occasions over 4 years, essentially the most of any of the counties analyzed by Mississippi At the moment and ProPublica. The median jail keep there was about 9 days; the longest was 106.
The state and county not too long ago put aside cash to construct a disaster stabilization unit — at present, the closest one is about 40 miles away — however the county and the area people psychological well being heart haven’t selected a location, stated County Supervisor Mark Gardner.
Some county officers say that holding individuals out of jail in the course of the course of requires the state to step up. State Rep. Jansen Owen, a Republican from Pearl River County in southern Mississippi who represents individuals in the course of the dedication course of, stated he believes counties that spend “millions of dollars on fairgrounds and ballparks” may discover options to jail. However he additionally sees a necessity for extra state-funded services.
“You can’t just throw it on the counties,” he stated. “It’s a state prerogative. And them being held in the jail, I think, is a result of the state kicking the can down the road to the counties.”
Wendy Bailey, head of the state Division of Psychological Well being, stated it’s “unacceptable” to jail individuals just because they might want behavioral well being therapy. Division workers have met with chancery clerks across the state to induce them to steer households away from dedication proceedings and towards outpatient companies provided by group psychological well being facilities each time potential.
The Division of Psychological Well being says it prioritizes individuals ready in jail when making admissions to state hospitals. The state has expanded the variety of disaster unit beds from 128 in 2018 to 180 right this moment, with plans so as to add extra. And it has elevated funding for native companies in recent times in an effort to scale back commitments.
However Bailey stated the division has no authority to power counties to vary course, nor obligation for individuals going via the dedication course of till a decide orders them into therapy at a state psychiatric hospital.
Locked within the “Lunacy Zone”
Willie McNeese’s issues began after he got here dwelling to Shuqualak, Mississippi, a city of about 400 individuals and a lumber mill, in 2007. He had spent a decade in jail beginning at age 17.
He discovered the adjustments that had taken place — larger highways, cellphones — overwhelming, stated his sister, Cassandra McNeese. He was finally recognized with bipolar dysfunction.
“It’s like a switch — highs and lows,” stated Willie McNeese, now 43. “I might have a whole lot of laughter going on, trying to make the next person laugh. Then my day going down, I be depressed and worried about situations that nobody can change but God.”
McNeese has been involuntarily dedicated in Noxubee County 10 occasions since 2008 and has been jailed throughout a minimum of eight of them, one for greater than a month in 2019 in line with court docket information and the jail docket. Throughout his most up-to-date dedication beginning in March 2022, McNeese was held in jail for a complete of 58 days in two stints earlier than finally going to a state psychiatric hospital.
Cassandra McNeese, left, and her mom, Yvonne A. McNeese, in Shuqualak, Mississippi. Cassandra’s brother, Willie McNeese, has been held in jail throughout civil dedication proceedings a minimum of eight occasions since 2008. Cassandra McNeese stated Noxubee County officers advised her jail was the one place that they had for him to attend. ”That is who you belief to maintain issues,” she stated. ”That’s all it’s a must to depend on.”
(Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi At the moment)
From 2019 to 2022, about 1,200 civil dedication jail stays within the 19 counties analyzed by Mississippi At the moment and ProPublica lasted longer than three days. That’s about how lengthy it will probably take for individuals to begin to expertise withdrawal from an absence of psychiatric drugs, which jails don’t at all times present. About 130 stays lasted greater than 30 days.
McNeese stated he spent a lot of his time in jail final yr standing close to the door of his cell, what jail workers known as the “Lunacy Zone,” screaming to be allowed to take a bathe. A jailer tased him to quiet him down, and his garments had been taken from him. For a interval, his mattress was taken, too.
“It’s a way of punishment,” he stated. “They don’t handle it like the hospital. If you have a problem in the hospital they’ll come with a shot or something, but they don’t take your clothes or take your mattress or lock your door on you or nothing like that.”
McNeese stated he had inconsistent entry to medicine and acquired none throughout his first keep in 2022, which lasted 25 days.
The Noxubee County Sheriff’s Division didn’t reply to questions on McNeese’s allegations.
Workers from Neighborhood Counseling, the group psychological well being heart the place McNeese had common appointments, may have supplied him with medicine, however McNeese stated nobody from the middle came visiting him in jail. A therapist at Neighborhood Counseling stated workers go to the jail solely once they’re known as, normally when there’s an issue jail workers can’t deal with. Rayfield Evins Jr., the group’s government director, stated when he not too long ago labored in Noxubee, deputies introduced individuals from the jail to his facility for medicine and therapy.
“If you have a problem in the hospital they’ll come with a shot or something, but they don’t take your clothes or take your mattress or lock your door on you or nothing like that.” — Willie B. McNeese, jailed a number of occasions following a prognosis for bipolar dysfunction
“If you have a problem in the hospital they’ll come with a shot or something, but they don’t take your clothes or take your mattress or lock your door on you or nothing like that.”
You probably have an issue within the hospital they’ll include a shot or one thing, however they don’t take your garments or take your mattress or lock your door on you or nothing like that.”
Psychological well being advocates in Mississippi and different individuals who have been jailed in the course of the dedication course of stated the restricted psychological well being therapy McNeese acquired is widespread.
Psychological well being care varies broadly from jail to jail, and no state company units necessities for what care have to be supplied. Jails can refuse to distribute drugs which might be managed substances, which incorporates anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax. The state Division of Psychological Well being says counties ought to work with group psychological well being facilities to offer therapy to individuals ready in jail as they undergo the dedication course of.
However these services usually haven’t got the assets to offer companies in jails, stated Greta Martin, litigation director for Incapacity Rights Mississippi.
Martin’s group, a type of charged by Congress with advocating for individuals with disabilities in every state, investigates county jails when it receives complaints. “We are not seeing any indication that these individuals are getting any mental health treatment while they are being held in these county facilities,” she stated.
Willie McNeese was incarcerated on the outdated jail in Noxubee County a number of occasions throughout civil dedication processes, together with his first dedication in 2008.
(Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi At the moment)
McNeese stated these jail stays added bodily discomfort and ache to the delusions that acquired him dedicated within the first place. “Then you get to the mental hospital — they have to straighten you all the way back over again,” he stated.
Since being launched from the state hospital final yr, McNeese stated, he has been doing effectively. He’s now residing in Cincinnati along with his spouse.
Scott Willoughby, this system director at South Mississippi State Hospital in Purvis, stated it may be onerous to earn sufferers’ belief once they arrive on the psychiatric hospital from jail.
At his facility, sufferers sleep two to a room in a corridor embellished with images of nature scenes. Group counseling classes are sometimes held outdoors beneath a gazebo. In between, sufferers draw and paint throughout leisure remedy.
Willoughby has spoken with sufferers who had tried suicide and had been shocked to seek out themselves in jail in consequence.
“People tend to associate jail with punishment, which is exactly the opposite of what a person needs when they’re in a mental health crisis,” he stated. “Jail can be traumatic and stigmatizing.”
“I’m More Scared of Myself”
When Sons discovered that he was going to be booked, he turned anxious about being locked in a cell, Batts testified. So he was assigned to an space of the jail reserved for trusties — inmates who’re allowed to work, typically outdoors the jail, whereas they serve their sentences.
On the afternoon of his first day in jail, Sons was sitting on his mattress when a trusty named Donnie Richmond returned from work. Richmond stated in a deposition that he requested a deputy who the brand new man was.
“You better watch him,” Richmond recalled the deputy telling him. “He kind of off a little bit.”
Richmond provided Sons a cigarette and cookies and requested him why he was there. Sons took a cigarette and advised Richmond the deputies had stated he would damage somebody.
“He was like, ‘Man, I’m going to be honest with you,’” Richmond testified. “‘I ain’t going to hurt no one. I’m more scared of myself, of hurting myself.’”
Sons was not positioned on suicide watch. The jail’s suicide prevention coverage utilized solely to those that had tried suicide within the jail, though attorneys for the jail officers within the lawsuit over his demise stated there was an unwritten coverage to carefully monitor individuals going via the dedication course of.
An excerpt of the Benton County Sheriff’s Division’s suicide prevention coverage on the time of Sons’ demise
(Obtained by Mississippi At the moment)
That night, Sons advised a jailer he was feeling anxious across the different males. He requested to be moved to a cell by himself.
A guard took him to a cinder block cell with no home windows. There was no tv and nothing to learn. He was given a blanket.
A safety digital camera in Sons’ cell was supposed to permit jail workers to look at him always. However jail officers stated in depositions that nobody observed something uncommon the subsequent morning.
At 11:28 a.m., Sons rose from his bunk mattress, walked to the door and positioned his ear close to it. He went again to his bunk, common a noose and tied it round his neck. He sat there for 3 minutes earlier than hanging himself, in line with a story of the video in court docket information.
He stopped shifting simply earlier than 11:38 a.m. A trusty serving lunch peeked via a tray opening within the door 48 minutes later and noticed his physique.
The door of the Benton County Jail cell the place Sons was held
(Obtained by Mississippi At the moment)
Sons’ father sued Benton County, the sheriff and several other of his staff over his demise. The defendants denied in court docket filings that they had been accountable, however the county’s insurance coverage firm finally settled the case for an undisclosed sum. (All that’s publicly recognized is that the county paid a $25,000 coverage deductible towards protection prices.)
Sheriff’s division workers stated in depositions that they had saved an eye fixed on Sons, however they couldn’t watch the video feed consistently. Attorneys for the defendants stated there was no proof sheriff’s division staff knew somebody may kill himself in the best way Sons did.
Sheriff A. A. McMullen, who’s now not in workplace, acknowledged in a deposition that “any mental commitment is a suicide risk,” however he stated he wasn’t positive it could have made a distinction if Sons had been positioned on suicide watch.
“You could write up the biggest policy in the world and you couldn’t prevent it. There’s no way. God knows, you know, it hurts us,” he stated. “If they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it.”
McMullen couldn’t be reached for remark for this story.
In an interview, jail administrator Kristy O’Dell, who joined the division after Sons died, stated the jail nonetheless holds two or three individuals going via the dedication course of every month.
John S. Farese, an lawyer for Benton County, advised Mississippi At the moment and ProPublica that the county, like others, “does the best they can do with the resources they have to abide by the laws” concerning commitments. He stated the sheriff and the county will attempt to adapt to any adjustments within the regulation “while still being mindful of our limited personnel and financial resources.” He declined to touch upon the specifics of the Sons case, which he didn’t work on.
Murray, Sons’ mom, was at a grocery retailer round midday the day her son died. As she picked out a watermelon, she thought of him, a health buff who liked vegetables and fruit. An odd thought crossed her thoughts: “Jimmy’s never going to eat watermelon again.”
When she acquired dwelling, she acquired the decision that he was gone.
John Sons, Jimmy’s half-brother, wrote in a textual content to Mississippi At the moment and ProPublica that the household is left with “complete and total guilt for putting him in the prison and always the wonder if we would not have done that move, if he would be with us today.”
However Richmond, the trusty who briefly shared a cell with Sons, testified that it was jail workers who “messed up.”
“He hung himself,” Richmond stated. “I say this. God forgive me if I’m wrong. We couldn’t have saved that man from killing himself, but we could have saved that man from hanging himself in that jail.”
How We Reported This Story
Nobody in Mississippi has ever comprehensively tracked the variety of individuals jailed at any level in the course of the civil dedication course of, in line with interviews with dozens of state and county officers.
Final yr, the state Division of Psychological Well being launched, for the primary time, a tally of people that had been admitted to a state hospital immediately from jail following civil dedication proceedings. The division tracked 734 placements in fiscal yr 2022. (Beneath a regulation that takes impact this yr, each county should recurrently report back to the division information concerning how typically individuals are held in jail each earlier than and after their dedication hearings.)
However that determine understates the scope of commitments. It doesn’t embrace individuals who had been despatched locations apart from a state hospital for therapy or who had been launched with out being handled, and it counts solely the time individuals spent in jail after their hearings. Folks may be jailed for 12 days earlier than a dedication listening to, or longer if a county doesn’t observe the regulation.
County jail dockets can present a extra complete image, so Mississippi At the moment and ProPublica requested them from 80 of Mississippi’s 82 counties. Seventeen counties supplied dockets that clearly marked bookings associated to civil commitments — with notes together with “writ to take custody,” “mental writ” and “lunacy.” In two extra counties, we reviewed dockets in particular person.
Many counties didn’t reply, stated their information had been accessible solely on paper or declined to offer information. Some cited a 2007 opinion by the state lawyer basic that sheriffs might select to not enter the names of individuals detained throughout civil dedication proceedings onto their jail dockets.
After cleansing and standardizing the info from the dockets, we counted the variety of jail stays involving civil commitments during which the particular person was not booked for a legal cost on the identical day. (We ended up excluding about 750 civil commitments for that cause.) If the dockets supplied reserving and launch dates, we calculated the period of jail stays.
Our rely of commitments contains these for each psychological sickness and substance abuse. Not one of the jail dockets specified which dedication course of individuals had been going via, though some county officers stated they don’t jail individuals dedicated for substance abuse and haven’t for years.
State legal guidelines concerning dedication for psychological sickness and substance abuse are totally different, however in lots of counties they had been dealt with equally till late 2021. That’s when the Mississippi lawyer basic’s workplace stated state regulation didn’t permit individuals going via the drug and alcohol dedication course of to be jailed.
To establish deaths of people held in jail in the course of the civil dedication course of, we reviewed information articles and federal court docket information. We additionally reviewed practically 90 investigations of jail deaths from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. Many of the deaths had not beforehand been publicly reported.
For our survey of practices in different states, we contacted businesses overseeing psychological well being and incapacity advocacy organizations in each state and Washington, D.C. We acquired responses from one or the opposite in each location, and we acquired responses from each in 33. We additionally looked for information studies of comparable circumstances in different states.
Do you may have a narrative to share about somebody who went via the civil dedication course of in Mississippi? Contact Isabelle Taft at [email protected] or name her at 601-691-4756.