Mentally ill citizens deserve fair treatment under the law

Tadrick is a prisoner at the Tarrant County Jail in downtown Fort Worth.Linda Collins, a clinical psychologist at the Tarrant County Justice Center, said that in Tadrick’s youth, his mother was constantly finding herself in prison for theft and drug dealing. His father ran away from the family when he was 2 years old. With no parents to raise him, Tadrick moved in with his abusive grandmother, a cocaine addict. Collins said eventually, he was moved to a foster home; however, the sexual and physical abuses of his grandmother inflicted damage on the amygdala of his brain, halting his mental growth at the IQ of a fourth grade student. Foster homes had difficulty tending to his needs, so Tadrick spent his first 18 years consistently moving from one home to another. When he turned 18, he could no longer live in a foster home, and his grandmother declined to take him. Mentally ill and enraged, Tadrick assaulted her and was arrested, Collins said.

A priority on any politician’s agenda is to lock up the guilty, and by building more prisons, we’re accomplishing just that, right?

In recent years, media exposure of mentally ill wrongdoers has stigmatized mental illness as an inexcusable reason to commit a crime. The goal of jail diversion programs, in contrast, is to decriminalize the mentally ill. The decision making behind these crimes isn’t within the mental capacity of the patient.

Collins works under Judge Brent Carr’s jail diversion program. The program works to keep the mentally ill from being locked behind bars by enrolling them in a comprehensive program to correct mental instability. Since the de-institutionalization of mental asylums in the 1960s, the amount of mentally ill inmates in prison has skyrocketed from 16 percent to more than half the population, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

I worked for Collins and observed the conditions prisoners must endure. Small cement and iron cells consumed with pained screams and the smells of urine and vomit do not create an environment mentally ill patients need to grow in and become competent.

Since 50 percent of these patients are homeless, according to Collins, many are represented by appointed defendants. Because they have no teachers or family members pushing for their cases and are too mentally incompetent to speak for themselves, most will be guilty as charged, serve their sentences, and then “two or three days later, find themselves back in prison again,” Collins said.

The system is endless.

The grisly truth is that, as a county, we are neglecting the needs of our citizens. The interests of the mentally handicapped are fundamental needs. We should provide what Collins calls “Happy Housing” for people such as Tadrick – shelters that supply highly-structured routines that the mentally ill need.

“What these people don’t understand is that, when you commit a crime and you’re mentally unstable, you may not even realize what you’re doing.

“Sometimes people say, ‘Well that’s horrendous that they did that. Lock them up, they’re guilty,'” Collins said. “And while it is horrendous, what they don’t understand is that these people are sick. Don’t you go to the hospital when you’re sick?”

According to Collins’ paper, “A Review of the Methodology in Literature Used to Study the Problem of the Homeless Mentally Ill Population,” keeping these patients in prisons is more expensive than building institutions.

We’re paying tax dollars to support unneeded incarceration as well as subconsciously dissenting a humanitarian concern for the better treatment of the mentally ill. Until our community voices a concern for these people, they will continue to be suppressed.

Matt Buongiorno is a freshman political science major from Arlington. His column appears every Friday.