Two men who were found mentally incompetent to stand trial have been held in Travis County Jail, rather than in a state mental hospital, for a length of time that violates their constitutional rights, a class action lawsuit filed Friday argues.
The men are two of an estimated 280 people represented in a class action lawsuit brought against the state health department by the non-profit Disability Rights Texas. All of them are sitting in jail awaiting treatment after being declared incompetent to stand trial, the suit says.
Their situation is the norm for mentally ill people awaiting trial, the suit says. The National Sheriff’s Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center reported in 2014 that “Texas is among the states with the lowest number of public psychiatric beds and among the stingiest states in per capita mental health spending.”
“Individuals with mental illness languish in county jails without appropriate mental health treatment until a bed becomes available at a department mental health facility. As such, individuals with mental illness suffer needless deterioration of their mental health as they wait in jails, frequently in prolonged isolation, for weeks and months before” being admitted to a facility, the lawsuit says.
This isn’t the first time Disability Rights Texas has sued the state over this issue. A state district judge sided with the organization in 2012, ruling that the Department of State Health Services must reduce wait times to no more than 21 days. However, an appeals court later tossed out that ruling on a legal technicality, the Dallas Morning News reported in April.
In 2014 the average wait time for inmates needing a spot in a state mental hospital was about 20 days, according to the Dallas Morning News, but the number of mentally ill inmates has skyrocketed in the last year, along with the wait times. By April, the average wait for a maximum security bed was 122 days, the suit says.
The latest suit, filed Friday, mentions the case of Michael Anderson, who has been in the Travis County Jail for 13 weeks. Jail records show Anderson has been charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
According to the suit, Anderson has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He has a long history of mental illness and has been treated by the Austin Travis County Mental Health Authority since 1993.
Isaac Lemelle was also in Travis County Jail for 21 weeks, the suit says (jail records show he was no longer there as of Friday evening, and the charges he faced are unknown). He is diagnosed with unspecified schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, and the Travis County Jail has classified his mental health needs as severe. He has a long history of mental illness and was first treated by the Austin Travis County Mental Health Authority in 2008, at age thirteen, the suit says.
Both Anderson and Lemelle were placed in isolation cells by themselves, the suit says.
The state health department “has a duty to accept and treat mentally incompetent detainees within a reasonable period of time, which must be measured in days, not weeks or months,” the suit says.