Today's Texas Tribune posts, "Andre Thomas: Struggling to Maintain Sanity In Prison," by Brandi Grissom. It's part five of the six-part series, "Trouble in Mind." There are infographics at the link.
Thomas is among thousands of mentally ill inmates in the state’s sprawling prison system, which is struggling to keep pace with the increasing need for mental health care. After years of state budget cuts that resulted in trimming staff and reducing programs, leaders at the University of Texas Medical Branch, which provides much of that care, say they need more state funding to provide adequate treatment. And some lawmakers want the prison system to adopt policies that may help alleviate some inmates’ mental health problems by reducing the use of solitary confinement, where more than 8,000 inmates now find themselves, according to prison officials.
After being convicted of murder in 2005, Thomas, then 22, was sent to TDCJ’s death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston. On the health status form that medical staff from the Grayson County Jail sent along with Thomas when he was transferred, they wrote that he was a “paranoid schizophrenic,” that he had “enucleated” his own eye, and that he was wearing mittens to prevent him from ripping out the other eye. (Click here to view an interactive timeline of the case.)
Like the rest of the condemned, Thomas spent 23 hours a day confined alone in a 6-foot-by-10-foot cell. There, his mental illness worsened, his lawyers say.
Part four of Grissom's series ran as, "Advocates Seek Mental Health Changes, Including Power to Detain," in the Sunday Texas edition of the New York Times, and as, "Andre Thomas: Gaps in a 30-Year-Old Mental Health Code," at the Tribune.
At least twice in the three weeks before the crime, Mr. Thomas had sought mental health treatment, babbling illogically and threatening to commit suicide. On two occasions, staff members at the medical facilities were so worried that his psychosis made him a threat to himself or others that they sought emergency detention warrants for him.
Despite talk of suicide and bizarre biblical delusions, he was not detained for treatment. Mr. Thomas later told the police that he was convinced that Ms. Boren was the wicked Jezebel from the Bible, that his own son was the Antichrist and that Leyha was involved in an evil conspiracy with them.
He was on a mission from God, he said, to free their hearts of demons.
Hospitals do not have legal authority to detain people who voluntarily enter their facilities in search of mental health care but then decide to leave. It is one of many holes in the state’s nearly 30-year-old mental health code that advocates, police officers and judges say lawmakers need to fix. In a report last year, Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit advocacy organization, called on lawmakers to replace the existing code with one that reflects contemporary mental health needs.
“It was last fully revised in 1985, and clearly the mental health system has changed drastically since then,” said Susan Stone, a lawyer and psychiatrist who led the two-year Texas Appleseed project to study and recommend reforms to the code. Lawmakers have said that although the code may need to be revamped, it will not happen in this year’s legislative session. Such an undertaking requires legislative studies that have not been conducted. But advocates are urging legislators to make a few critical changes that they say could prevent tragedies, including giving hospitals the right to detain someone who is having a mental health crisis.
From the time Mr. Thomas was 10, he had told friends he heard demons in his head instructing him to do bad things. The cacophony drove him to attempt suicide repeatedly as an adolescent, according to court records. He drank and abused drugs to try to quiet the noise.
By the time he was 16, he was a father with a long history of arrests. At 18, he was married to his son’s mother. A few months after their wedding, the two separated. Mr. Thomas struggled to hold a job, and the older he got, friends and family members say, the more pronounced his mental illness became.
By March 5, 2004, it was too much. A friend took Mr. Thomas to a local mental health clinic, where he told staff members that he wanted to die and that he could not stand the sound of his own voice. He said that if someone there did not shoot him, he would do it himself, court records show. Frantic and delusional, he said, “If I can’t talk to someone now, I will throw myself in front of a bus.”
Clinicians told Mr. Thomas to go to the emergency room, and at their request a judge issued an emergency detention order. But Mr. Thomas did not make it to the emergency room that day, and no one sought him out.
This collaboration between the Tribune and Texas Monthly runs in a different form in the March edition of TM, "Trouble in MInd: How should criminals who are mentally ill be punished?"
Earlier coverage of Andre Thomas begins at the link.
At Huffington Post, Chicago attorney Andrea Lyon posts, "Blind Justice.
This matters because the United States Supreme Court in a case called Ford v. Wainwright that the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibited the execution of the insane. "We may seriously question the retributive value of executing a person who has no comprehension of why he has been singled out and stripped of his fundamental right to life," wrote Justice Thurgood Marshall in his majority opinion. Nonetheless, the court left it up to the states to determine who was too mentally ill to be put to death. And as we know, the devil is in the details.
Mr. Thomas's case shouldn't even be considered a close one legally -- he simply is too mentally ill to execute. In fact, Mr. Thomas has been found by the department of corrections too mentally ill to be on death row -- so he is housed in a mental health facility where medication appears to be of some help. He is too ill for death row, but not to be killed by the State of Texas? If this case does not fall into the category of someone who should not be executed under our law, it is hard to imagine who would fit in that category. The state of Texas should abandon its pursuit of death in this case, and continue to confine Mr. Thomas in a locked mental health facility.
This case illustrates is something even more troubling; our failure to have any real strategy for dealing with mental illness. Tragically, just weeks before the murders for which he was sentenced to death, mental health professionals issued detention orders, fearing what Andre Thomas would do to himself, or others. Twice the police failed to carry out those orders including one that had been issued just days before these voices commanded him to commit these acts.I wish I could tell you that this is the only time something like this has happened, but it isn't.