Cruel and Unusual

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

But even as state authorities move to shut down the Rose Garden, resident Roger Pirkle, a sort of lawyer without portfolio, plots Slaton's own legal move to have the former residents returned to the halfway house. While serving time for murder, Pirkle became one of the original writ writers in the Ruiz lawsuit and may be better at filing legal action than some attorneys. In a filthy room at the Rose Garden, he sits surrounded by stacks of legal briefs and newspaper clippings. His hair is slicked back; his frame is lanky. He listens simultaneously to a police scanner and boom box playing the Righteous Brothers.

For both Pirkle and Slaton, Hankins' death is all too reminiscent of a similar raid in 1989, when the state revoked a contract Slaton won two years before and removed several residents. Among them was 47-year-old Mildred Weaver, a schizophrenic.

Two years later, Slaton filed a lawsuit in which Weaver was the lead plaintiff. The lawsuit challenged the Texas parole system's treatment of the mentally disabled. Specifically, the suit contended that TDCJ's parole division did not have an adequate number of officers trained to deal with the special needs of the mentally impaired. As a result, the suit claimed that an inordinately high number of mentally ill and mentally retarded parolees were returned to prison. After the suit was settled, the parole division more than doubled the number of officers with expertise in working with the mentally handicapped.

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

Slaton now blames the Rose Garden's troubles on the suit, saying that the state resented his victory. The suit didn't seem to do much for Weaver, either: Following her eviction from the Rose Garden and relocation to another halfway house, she found her way back to prison. Weaver committed suicide.

Rose Garden resident Joann Jones did time with Weaver. Like the rest of the parolees and mental patients who remain at the halfway house, Jones remains devoted to Slaton.

"I have a freedom here that I wouldn't have somewhere else," says Jones, whose private garage apartment is neatly kept. "Al doesn't give up on me. He has never turned his back on me. He has never thrown me away. And believe me, I know what it's like to be thrown away."

Thirty or so years ago, mental patients were mostly corralled into a few large hospitals. But the civil liberty laws of the mid-'60s granted the mentally impaired the right to expect treatment in their own communities. At the beginning of the movement toward de-institutionalization, government funding was supposed to follow the patients back to the individual communities. But according to a spokesperson for the Mental Health Association in Texas, it didn't turn out that way.

"That was really a myth," says Melanie Gantt. "The money did not follow the patients. And so, as they were de-institutionalized, these people became homeless. And as new people came into the system, the number of beds had been reduced, so there was no longer the capacity in the institutional setting to serve them. Nor have community services been augmented to the point to be able to take on the new capacity. And so, in Texas, our prisons have become our largest mental-health institutions."

If this past session of the Texas Legislature is any indication, lawmakers do not seem inclined to change that situation or approve bills that would improve the lives of mentally impaired offenders.

During the recently ended session, state Rep. Glen Maxey sponsored a bill that would have created a pilot program under which mentally impaired inmates would receive the new-generation psychotropic medications. The bill would have also allowed paroled inmates to continue receiving the new medications through MHMR facilities.

"Ultimately, UTMB opposition was pretty much the reason we couldn't do it," says Robin Chandler, Maxey's legislative aid. "They would have had to administer it, and they said they didn't have the money or the capability. They were just totally and completely unwilling to do it. It was very unfortunate. We didn't feel like it would have cost a lot of money."

A bill by Houston state Sen. Rodney Ellis to ban the execution of mentally retarded capital murderers met the same fate as Maxey's bill. The legislation would have outlawed the death penalty for any defendant with an IQ of 65 or less. The bill made it out of the Senate, but ultimately died. Legislative sources say it was crushed by the governor's office.

Ellis' bill would not have helped 41-year-old death row inmate Larry Robison, who suffers from schizophrenia, not mental retardation. Still, Lois Robison feels that the system failed her son.

In the summer of 1982, she tried desperately to have her son placed in a mental hospital because of his increasingly strange behavior. He thought people were trying to kill him. He thought he was receiving messages from aliens and having out-of-body experiences -- psychotic episodes intensified by his use of speed and LSD. Each time, she says, doctors and administrators told her that they couldn't help her until Robison actually did something violent. But when he finally did, it was too late.

In August 1982, Larry Robison fatally stabbed and shot five people in two cottages on Lake Worth, west of Fort Worth. He decapitated and sexually mutilated one of his victims, claiming he was acting on orders from the Bible.

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