Bills Propose Treatment Instead of Incarceration for Mentally Ill

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Timothy Souders wanted to die.
"Go ahead, kill me," he told a police officer after being caught shoplifting paintball guns at a Meijer store in Adrian.
In jail, Souders -- who suffered from bipolar disorder -- stabbed himself seven times with a knife and, two weeks later, tried to hang himself with jail coveralls.
That didn't keep him from being sent to a Jackson prison, where the 21-year-old died from dehydration and hyperthermia last August after being kept in solitary confinement for disobedience.
In reviewing Souders' death, U.S. District Judge Richard Enslen attributed much of his defiance and self-destructive behavior to untreated mental illness. Enslen banned guards from using the restraints that had kept Souders prone on a concrete bed and ordered changes in how inmates with mental health problems get treatment.
Now, Souders' death is raising questions over why some mentally ill patients are in prison at all. His mother, Theresa Vaughn, says Souders was suicidal when police arrested him after subduing him with a Taser.
"People with mental health issues don't belong in jail or prison," she says. "They need to be helped for their illnesses."
Legislation introduced by Democratic Sen. Liz Brater of Ann Arbor would create special courts so judges could offer mental health treatment for minor offenders as an alternative to locking them up.
The concept is modeled after 76 drug courts in Michigan that give nonviolent drug offenders the chance to get clean without being sent to jail.
Under Brater's bills, judges sentencing an offender such as Souders could halt the charges for up to a year while the person gets court-ordered treatment. If he or she abides by the deal, the charges eventually could be dropped.
In considering whether to divert an offender from jail or prison, the judge would take into account the nature and seriousness of the alleged crime, the offender's prior record, his or her past mental health record and the likelihood the offender would benefit from mental health treatment.
As of March, about 4,100 of the state's 51,000 prison inmates were getting mental health services, according to the state Department of Corrections. More than 700 had been previously been hospitalized in a state psychiatric hospital. Nearly one in four state prisoners have some history of mental illness, Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan says.
Brater has proposed mental health courts for a decade, with no success. But Souders' death and the need to cut prison costs is helping her bills gain support.
The House, for instance, recently sent the Senate a spending bill with $1.9 million for pilot mental health dockets in Wayne, Macomb, Genesee and Kalamazoo courts. The program is aimed at reducing the number of mentally ill offenders in jail and prison.
"Many people with mental illness are getting entangled with the criminal justice system for no other reason than they are not in treatment and not on medication," she says. "If we could do a better job of making sure they were connected with the mental health system, they wouldn't be ending up in jail and in prison.
"It's not only more humane but also more cost-effective to treat people in the mental health system," Brater adds.
State-run psychiatric hospitals were closed in the 1990s under then-Gov. John Engler. The nationwide trend started in the 1970 and 1980s, as policy changed from housing the mentally ill in psychiatric hospitals to moving them to outpatient care and other programs.
Many patients who once would have been institutionalized are instead living behind bars, critics say, because there isn't enough funding to treat the increased number of mentally ill people now living on their own. Their illnesses worsen without medication, leading some to commit crimes.
Once they end up in jail or prison, their condition often declines because they can't comply with rules and end up in solitary confinement or with longer terms, Brater says.
In Souders' case, Enslen wrote that "a psychotic man with apparent delusions and screaming incoherently was left in chains on a concrete bed over an extended period of time with no effective access to medical or psychiatric care and with custody staff telling him that he would be kept in four-point restraints until he was cooperative."
Souders, who also struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, was moved in and out of psychiatric hospitals after multiple suicide attempts following his shoplifting arrest at the Meijer. Doctors thought he didn't really want to kill himself and was seeking attention, says his stepmother, Lori Souders.
But criminal charges remained, and he pleaded guilty to assault, resisting arrest and destruction of police property. Once he was at the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility in Jackson, prisoner advocates say Souders' psychosis and other behavior were mistaken for intentional defiance and landed him in segregation.
"I want to see changes made," says Vaughn, Souders' mother. "I don't want another human being to have nightmares because they've lost somebody they loved who made a petty mistake."


WILX.com is happy to provide a forum for commenting and discussion. Please respect and abide by the house rules:

Keep it clean, keep it civil, keep it truthful, stay on topic, be responsible, share your knowledge, and please suggest removal of comments that violate these standards.

powered by Disqus
WILX 500 American Road Lansing, MI 48911 517-393-0110
Gray Television, Inc. - Copyright © 2002-2014 - Designed by Gray Digital Media - Powered by Clickability 8650256 - wilx.com/a?a=8650256