Cruel and Unusual

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

In 1995, Houchin formed Back to Life, a company that conducts seminars for the mentally impaired and the people involved with them. The seminars cover the criminal justice system -- how to avoid getting in trouble, and if you do, what your rights are. She is also a board member of the Texas Planning Council for Developmental Disabilities.

In 1988, Houchin was sitting in a coffee shop in Jacksonville, Texas, just down the road from the Skyview Unit, where she worked as a psychologist. As she sat there, a man walked to her table and asked whether she'd mind if he joined her. She politely told him that she was sorry, but that she didn't have lunch with men she didn't know. The man introduced himself as Gov. Bill Clements. After talking with Houchin, he asked whether she'd mind if he appointed her to the disabilities council. She didn't, and he did.

Although Judge Justice has removed TDCJ health and mental-health divisions from the Ruiz order, Houchin believes the high patient-to-doctor ratio will send them back to federal court. "Psychiatric services in TDCJ is pretty much like a meat market," she charges. "People just get processed through. There is very little therapy whatsoever. I talked to a [prison] psychiatrist the other day who was just going round and round with them because they just wanted him to go ahead and renew medications without seeing the inmate individually. And he just refused to do it. It's a horrible caseload they have there now, and the prisoners are just not getting the mental-health services they need. Once the bulk of the Ruiz order got lifted in 1995, they started going back to their old ways. It's just a matter of time before it gets back to being as bad as it used to be."

Howard Waffer is an inmate at Texas' Skyview facility for the mentally ill, where he is serving time for sexual assault.
Phillippe Diederich
Howard Waffer is an inmate at Texas' Skyview facility for the mentally ill, where he is serving time for sexual assault.
The Hodge Unit: mentally retarded inmates outside their cells
The Hodge Unit: mentally retarded inmates outside their cells

Houchin also says that despite TDCJ denials, the mentally impaired are indeed often taken off their medications upon entering the prison system. She chalks it up to misdiagnosis by low-quality psychiatrists who often can't get work anywhere else.

"Some have had some fraudulent stuff with Medicare, or they've had problems with medication themselves," she says. "While I was there, we even had one guy working as a psychologist who was a business major, and he was an idiot."

Indeed, in January 1997, The Dallas Morning News identified eight doctors who had practiced in the state prison system the previous year after having been publicly disciplined by medical review boards.

Houchin adds that even if inmates get back on their feet at units such as Skyview, there is not enough oversight in general-population prisons to make sure inmates stay on their medications. She also maintains that many inmates are chronically ill, and so sick that they have no business being placed back into the general population. Once these people go back to regular prisons, she says, they are going to either assault someone or be assaulted.

"The reason I left TDCJ," she says, "was a 15-year-old mentally retarded Hispanic kid who, by the time he got to me, had been gang-banged so much, he was also mentally ill because of the trauma."

For the past two decades, Al Slaton, a 67-year-old convicted murderer, has done what he could to keep the mentally impaired off the streets. In 1975, after spending 22 years off and on behind bars, Slaton found employment in several state and veterans hospitals. In 1980, he opened the Rose Garden, a generous name for a dozen or so dilapidated little houses several blocks east of downtown Temple.

Slaton says he takes people whom other halfway houses don't want. The unfortunates who live at the Rose Garden consider him their guardian angel. If not for Slaton, they say, they would have nothing and nowhere to go.

But for almost all of the Rose Garden's existence, Slaton has been engaged in battles with numerous state agencies over the halfway house's operation. According to a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Human Services, Slaton is illegally operating a personal-care home and dispensing medicine without a license. She adds that TDHS agents have previously found deplorable living conditions at the Rose Garden; that they have found residents living in trailers with dirt floors, and rotting food in a tractor trailer used by the Rose Garden as a pantry. The department complains that Slaton keeps inadequate records of his expenditures of residents' Social Security funds.

Slaton acknowledges that he doesn't have a license to operate a personal-care home, but maintains he doesn't need one. He does, however, admit to dispensing drugs.

"One of their arguments is that I'm giving these people medication," he says. "Well, it's true. Through the years I have given medication because no one else would give it to them." He claims he gets the medicine through local doctors and MHMR. He also volunteers that some of the Rose Garden's houses are coed, and that no one stops the residents from having sex or drinking beer.

On several occasions state agencies have raided the compound and relocated residents to other facilities. The most recent raid occurred last month, when agents from the Texas Department of Human Services again removed several residents from the Rose Garden. Among them was 37-year-old Janice Hankins, a schizophrenic. The cheery, rotund redhead died not long after being forced to leave. Slaton says she committed suicide. (Bell County Justice of the Peace Eddie Lang has yet to rule on the cause of her death.)

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