Residents:TV story brings needed attention

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 4, 2000

Local residents featured in a Sunday CNN/Time story on the state’s mental health care system thought the show brought needed attention to a crucial issue.

During the broadcast, Natchez Police Chief Willie Huff talked about the problems the state’s overloaded system places on law enforcement.

&uot;I thought the CNN piece was positive and shows that there is a need statewide, as well as nation wide, for more attention to mental health problems and treatment,&uot; Huff said.

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Matilda Stephens of the Lifeskills Center in Natchez – an assistance center for mentally ill and retarded people – was not featured in the show but said she was impressed with the production.

&uot;I thought Chief Huff did a wonderful job and got the message across,&uot; she said. &uot;I thought it was really well done.&uot;

The Natchez City Jail is not equipped to serve as a hospital, but often holds mentally ill people until space is available at a state hospital because the patients often have no other place to stay.

This problem is often shielded from the public, but was brought to light during the Sunday broadcast.

The show included a tape of Natchez officers forcing Earl William, a naked, mentally ill man, into a patrol car in December 1999, to be taken to the state hospital in Whitfield.

He had been at the jail for four weeks waiting for hospital space.

Although disturbing, Huff thinks this type of publicity makes the public more aware of the problem.

&uot;The general public never sees the negative of police work,&uot; Huff said, adding this includes the negatives of working with the mentally ill.

The police taped Williams for liability reasons because they knew they would have to use force to get him into the car, Huff added.

Williams has been at the Natchez jail on several occasions always while awaiting space at the hospital.

In 1992 he also killed a man by ramming him with his vehicle, because voices in his head told him police were after him again, Huff said.

&uot;(The public) needs to be aware of what’s happening in the community,&uot; Huff said.

An Adams County resident, Hilda Lane was also featured on the show.

Lane is the mother of Roy Dunigan, a 24-year-old man, who committed suicide in 1998, while waiting for a spot at the state hospital.

Lane said she was pleased with the show and glad to hear the ACLU may challenge a law that allows mental patients to be kept in jail when there is no place else to put them.

Lane said it was difficult to talk to the CNN/Time reporters but she thinks it was worth it.

&uot;I don’t want anybody to go through what I went through,&uot; Lane said. &uot;There’s a hole in my heart that will never be mended,&uot;

But Lane wished the Adams County Sheriff’s Department had also been mentioned by CNN.

Since, Lane is a county resident she did not know she could get help for her son from the Natchez Police Department.

Instead, Lane said she asked the sheriff’s department several times to hold her son until Whitfield was ready to take him.

She was always told the county could not do that.

CNN/Time also interviewed Jack Kelly and her sister Joe Karen Bray for the show even though their story did not appear in the broadcast.

Bray has been to the state hospital seven times during her life for mental treatment and has also served time until arrangements could be made to take her to Whitfield.

Kelly said she also thought the broadcast was good and should promote awareness without portraying Natchez negatively.

But, she said she wished CNN/Time had focused more on a state plan to build seven holding facilities for people waiting for a spot at a state hospital.

Since Sunday night, Huff said he had received a number of e-mails including from Florida and New York, from other law enforcment agencies that have the same problem.

Time Magazine is also doing an indepth look on &uot;Life Along the Mississippi&uot; in an edition that hits newstands this week.

Huff said he was pleased with the positive nature of the CNN/Time broadcast and hopes the coverage acts as a springboard&uot; to get a holding center or crisis intervention center in Natchez.