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Taking Care to Get a Mississippi Scandal Right

But they let me into their homes, their jail, their lives. Then they let me come back, again and again. They and others in Mississippi — families, sheriffs, mental health professionals, politicians — wanted their stories of deep frustration told.

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Comment Creative Commons Donate Email Facebook Mobile Phone Podcast Print ProPublica logo RSS Search Search Signal Twitter WhatsApp FB.init({ appId: '229862657130557', // App ID status: true, // check login status cookie: true, // enable cookies to allow the server to access the session xfbml: true // parse XFBML }); ProPublica ProPublica Illinois Data Store Donate Follow us on Twitter Like us on Facebook Topics Series News Apps Get Involved Impact About Search Sign Up Get our top stories by email. Email: ProPublica ProPublica Illinois Data Store News Apps Get Involved Impact Like us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Search ProPublica Get our top stories by email A Closer Look Taking Care to Get a Mississippi Scandal Right People in the state took a chance that I would resist stereotypes and report an important truth about the crisis in mental health resources by Sarah Smith Dec30, 2017, 7 p.mEST A Closer Look Examining the News This story was co-published with the BBC When I arrived, the sheriff was wary of me. I was a visitor to his rural Mississippi county; worse, I was a reporter from New York City. He summed up his skepticism this way: Every time Mississippi made national news, it seemed like the reporters managed to find the one toothless person in the vicinity and shove him or her in front of the camera. The sheriff had a pointAnd I had a challenge to conquerThe story I was onto was not going to flatter MississippiBut I did promise him I would not go searching for the toothless. I had come to write about the mentally ill in Mississippi, in particular those who wound up in jail, accused of often serious crimes but denied — for months and even years — the basic legal requirement that they receive a mental evaluationSuch evaluations — to determine whether the defendants were sane at the time of the alleged crime and competent to stand trial for those crimes — would profoundly shape the rest of their lives. Tyler Haire was one of those I wanted to write aboutHe was 16 when he was arrested for stabbing his father’s girlfriendShe survived, but Tyler, with a mental health case file thick with diagnoses, went to jailHe waited nearly four years for the evaluation a judge ordered be done as soon as possible. The sheriff in Calhoun County barely knew of me when I arrived, and Tyler’s family didn’t know I was coming at allBut they let me into their homes, their jail, their livesThen they let me come back, again and again. They and others in Mississippi — families, sheriffs, mental health professionals, politicians — wanted their stories of deep frustration told. It was, they felt, a Mississippi embarrassment that would be helped by greater, even national, attention. Read More ‘What Are We Going to Do About Tyler?’ Tyler Haire was locked up at 16A Mississippi judge ordered that he undergo a mental examWhat happened next is a statewide scandal. Doing Less With Less: Mental Health Care in Mississippi A national recessionYears of state budgets cutsIt’s no surprise requests mental health resources for prisoners are routinely rejected. I soon learned that it wasn’t only the accused who sat waiting in jailThe state’s mental health resources were so scarce that families saw troubled loved ones who needed hospitalization wind up behind bars simply for want of an available bed in a treatment facility. One sheriff had a veteran in his jail a few years backThe veteran hadn’t committed any crimeHe was in jail waiting for a bed at a state hospital or a crisis centerThe Veteran’s Administration hospital let him walk outHis family had had him involuntarily committedThe man hung himself in the jail cellIt was the first time the jail staff had ever lost someone like that. The mentally ill have lost lots in the last decade in MississippiHospital bedsState employees devoted to careLocal crisis centersOptions of all kinds as state budgets have shrunk — first by the national financial crisis, then in a sustained series of state scale backs. The daughter-in-law of the woman Tyler stabbed had lost a brother to suicideShe had walked up to his house and saw him hanging thereHe had a history of mental illness and self-harmShe had tried to get him help, trying to get him committed and begging local police officers to go check on himShe had a voicemail of him threatening suicideHe was 33 when he went ahead and did it. So, today, she mourns him, and helps cares for her mother-in-law, a casualty of a struggling system of care and justice. It didn’t shock me, then, when Bridgett, the camera-shy mother of Tyler, told me she, too, had been hospitalized for her own mental health problems. “It’s too late for me and Tyler,” she said to me more than once. I couldn’t honestly tell her otherwise. But maybe it’s not too late for others. Mississippi, the Calhoun County sheriff knows, is not alone in its problemsStates across the country are failing the mentally ill, including those in their jails and prisonsIt’s a shared shameMy story is an attempt to make better care a shared obligation. Filed under: Criminal Justice Like this story? Get our top stories by email. Sarah Smith Sarah Smith was a reporting fellow at ProPublica @sarahesmith23

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