How the Criminal Justice System Fails People With Mental Illness
A stack of letters and drawings Cameron Davis sent to his mother, Michelle Durden, from prison in Texas, photographed in Jacksonville, N.C., on Nov. 16, 2020.Photo: Ben Alper for The Intercept

Michelle Durden “has struggled to understand a criminal justice system that she feels has aggressively ignored her son’s deepening mental health crisis, which is also what she believes prompted him to flee the cops in the first place. “Where’s the common sense where somebody goes, ‘There might be something wrong with this kid’?”

How those with mental illness are treated in the system has become a focus in the ongoing calls for criminal justice reform that have increased in volume since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May. At least 25 percent of fatal police encounters involve a person with mental illness, and individuals with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with police, according to a report from the Treatment Advocacy Center.”

Inside the jail, Davis’s behavior began to deteriorate, Durden said. He would walk around naked and steal people’s food, she recalled, but then didn’t remember doing any of it. It appears that someone in the jail recognized this behavior for what it was (though it isn’t clear from the available records how he was diagnosed) and Davis was prescribed Geodon, an antipsychotic treatment for schizophrenia.

In Texas prisons, mental health care is “horrible,” says Gary Cohen, one of several legendary parole attorneys in the state. “I mean, in order to get mental health treatment, you literally need to be banging your head against a wall or talking in tongues because the system views these offenders as manipulative. That’s the presumption — ‘oh, they’re faking this crap.’” To get care, you have to be a “gentle pest in terms of dealing with the unit health care professional and then dealing with their higher ups,” he said — a tall order for the incarcerated population.

Read more on The Intercept.

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