Health & Science

New Option For Mentally Incompetent Stuck In Legal Limbo

A state judge says Texas must do something about some of the mentally ill inmates languishing in county jails. The inmates in question are so sick they can't go to trial until they are stable enough to understand the judicial process. In Harris County, officials will open a new psychiatric unit this week to treat those patients.

Inside the Harris County jail in downtown Houston, an inmate has become incoherent, moaning and writhing.

He is shackled to a stretcher and prepared for an ambulance trip to the hospital. It’s unclear if the inmate has a mental illness or a neurological problem, or some other disease.

The Harris County jail houses thousands of inmates — many with health problems, and many with mental illness. The truly mentally incompetent wait to be transferred to state mental hospitals where they can get special treatment to allow them to even go on trial.

Dr. Michael Seale is the jail’s medical director:

“It just makes sense that you would need to be able to participate in your own trial. You would need to understand the charges, you need to understand what you’re agreeing to, you have to be able to participate for it to be a fair trial.”

The process is called competency restoration.

The most notorious American currently undergoing restoration is Jared Loughner, the alleged shooter of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and six other people.

In Texas, some inmates wait six months or more to even get admitted to the psychiatric program.

The average wait time in Harris County is about two months — still, that’s too long.

A state district judge ruled last month that those patients have a constitutional right to get treated sooner, so they can start their trials sooner.  

Again, Dr. Seale:

“The local taxpayers are paying to put a person, keep a person in jail and maintain their care as they wait to go to the state hospital. And then obviously they still have to go through the process on the criminal justice side to see that through.”

Now there’s a new option in Harris county — a 21-bed unit opening at the Harris County Psychiatric Center. The locked unit will try to stabilize patients within 30 days. In addition to therapy and medication, the patients will learn about the courtroom process and their legal options.

Psychologist Samoan Johnson will direct the new unit.

“We want them to walk out of here with the confidence that they can understand the criminal charges against them and the ability to participate in their own defense.”

Sheriff Adrian Garcia says speeding up the treatment will get trials started sooner and save the county money. But he says it’s also the right thing to do.

“This is a commitment to compassion and a commitment to one’s fellow human being. I look forward to the day that we can say we have people in the county jail who we are afraid, who are dangerous, who are involved in gangs, who are a menace to society —  not people who are sick.”

The competency restoration unit opens on Thursday.

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