Cruel and Unusual

Mentally ill Texans used to go to hospitals. Now, increasing numbers of them go to prison instead.

George's deterioration sent Beverly George into her own panic. A divorced mother of two, she marshaled her limited resources and put her son under the care of psychiatrist Gary Miller. Miller diagnosed George as "schizoaffected," suffering from both schizophrenia and mood disorders. To combat the problem, the doctor placed him on two "new generation" medications: clozapine, an antipsychotic; and sertralline, an antidepressant.

For the first time in years, George's mental health improved. He still heard the voices, but he didn't hear them as often, and their messages weren't quite so ominous. The panic attacks were shorter. He became more sociable. He even met and married Jennifer Phillips, who had received treatment for her own psychological problems.

By the time he was 18 and she was 17, they had two children and lived outside Magnolia, north of Houston. To help make ends meet, George worked occasionally at his dad's remodeling shop. But mostly he collected his Social Security disability check. Jennifer waited tables at a Golden Corral.

"If I have to go back, I'll either let them kill me or I'll kill myself." Aaron George, temporarily out of prison, with his sister and his mother, Beverly.
"If I have to go back, I'll either let them kill me or I'll kill myself." Aaron George, temporarily out of prison, with his sister and his mother, Beverly.
Rose Garden resident Roger Pirkle: An amateur lawyer, the ex-con defends the halfway house against the state.
Rose Garden resident Roger Pirkle: An amateur lawyer, the ex-con defends the halfway house against the state.

On August 15, 1992, while Jennifer dealt with the steakhouse's lunch crowd, George tended to their two sons, 15-month-old Daniel and 7-week-old Alexander. About noon, George called his mother, Beverly. He was hysterical. He told her that the baby wasn't breathing.

Beverly's first thought was that her son was having another panic attack, but she didn't take any chances. She and a friend immediately drove to George's home. She says it took less than five minutes to get there, but by the time she arrived, the baby was blue.

While her friend performed CPR on Alexander, Beverly called 911. An ambulance carried the baby to a local hospital, where he was declared brain-dead. Even so, several hours later, the baby was flown by helicopter to John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. There, Alexander underwent a battery of tests and treatments -- or at least, says Beverly, that's what the family was told. Now she suspects that the transfer had less to do with saving her grandson's life than it did with giving investigators time to build a criminal case against her son.

"They tell us that the baby's not going to make it," says Beverly, "and then -- boom -- they separate us into different rooms to question us. There's a uniformed officer at the door. And I'm thinking, 'Should we be doing this?'"

Aaron George told detectives from the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office that in an effort to revive Alexander he had shaken the baby.

On August 18, three days after Alexander was first rushed to the hospital, he was pronounced dead. Two days later, George was arrested for injury to a child; he was later charged with murder as well. On March 25, 1996, a Montgomery County jury found him guilty of both and sentenced him to 60 years in prison.

But his troubles were only beginning. After spending about a month in the Montgomery County jail, George was transferred to TDCJ's Diagnostic Unit in Huntsville. There, inmates are tested and screened before assignment to one of the more than 100 prisons across the state. While being evaluated, George told the prison doctors about his history of mental illness and the medication prescribed by Miller. And on April 29, 1996, Miller -- who served as commissioner of the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation from 1982 to 1988 -- wrote TDCJ officials, urging them to keep Aaron George on the drugs he had prescribed.

"These medications were beneficial to Mr. George," wrote Miller, "and I consider them medically necessary."

Medically necessary or not, George was instead placed on Mellaril and Haldol, two so-called "old generation" medicines.

Since old-generation drugs are less expensive than new-generation drugs, they are obviously more financially attractive to the two TDCJ health-care providers, HMOs run by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the Texas Tech University Health Science Center. The problem, say critics, is that the old-generation drugs are also less effective and have more adverse side effects.

"When I complained," George says, "I was told that if I didn't take the medication they prescribed, then I wouldn't get any treatment at all. So I had no choice." For much of the next two and a half years, George was basically out of his mind. The voices, the signs, the paranoia -- his old nemeses began to return.

At first, while still in the Diagnostic Unit, George took the old-generation meds. But he says the medicine caused his neck to lock up and bend backward and sideways. Prison medical records obtained by his mother show that it took injections of another drug just to counteract the side effects.

After that episode, George was transferred to the Connelly Unit in Kenedy, Texas, near San Antonio. There, he says, doctors took him off psychotropic medications altogether. His psychosis soon deepened, and he ran afoul of other prisoners.

Once, during Bible study, he refused to share a cup of water with another inmate. George says that not long after that incident, his cellmate -- whose name he either can't or won't remember -- warned that there was a "hit" out on him. The next thing George knew, it was 12 hours later, and he sensed that something was wrong. His ribs were bruised, and he had severe rectal pain.

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