Mental illness: In Mississippi, it could land you in a jail cell

Published 10:54 am Saturday, September 9, 2023

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NATCHEZ — Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten said he has been sounding the alarm over the desperate plight of Mississippi’s mentally ill since shortly after taking office.

Now, the worst-case scenario Patten has feared for Mississippi for years has happened and it happened in the Adams County Jail.

Lacey Robinette Handjis of Natchez, 37 — a mother of two young sons and a Hospice nurse — was brought to the Adams County Jail on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 28, apparently in the midst of a mental health crisis. A Winona police staff member in one of that department’s police cruisers delivered her to the Adams County Jail at about 3 p.m. that day.

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Handjis was ordered held in the Adams County Jail by the Adams County Chancery Court to await a committal hearing, which was scheduled for the next afternoon, Patten said.

Handjis was found dead in the padded holding cell in the jail shortly before 7 a.m. that next morning.

“The reality is we have 10 other people in there just like her (Handjis),” Patten said. “As unfortunate as this is, she now puts a face to what we have been trying to bring attention to for years. People are suffering from mental health crises need to be in a facility equipped to handle them, not a jail cell. We don’t have physicians or medical staff equipped to handle them. All we can do is hold them until there is a hearing followed by a committal. There has to be a better way to help this portion of our community.”

The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation at Patten’s request is investigating the circumstances of Handjis’s death.

“You always ask for an outside investigation for any in-custody death,” Patten said. “I am trying to be transparent with the community.”

A cause of death is not known at this time and likely will not be known until her autopsy is completed. Adams County Coroner James Lee ordered her body be sent to the state crime lab.

She did not commit suicide. Patten said some on social media have claimed Handjis hung herself in the jail.

“That is not true. That is not the case. She did not commit suicide. That’s why we can’t say what the cause of death is because we do not know. That will be determined by the autopsy.”

He said her entire stay in the county jail was recorded on surveillance camera.

In the meantime, Patten said his department has taken in at least four other mental health inmates since Handjis’s death.

Sounding the alarm, but no one is listening

Patten was interviewed for a story that published Sept. 26, 2019, just three years into his first term as sheriff by a reporter from the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

“When a family member calls me, they are at their wits end with whatever is going on with their loved one, and they have nowhere else to turn but me, so I have to do something, but I need help, too,” Patten is quoted as saying in that story.

(Click here to read Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting story.)

Patten is still working to get the State of Mississippi to step up to the plate for the mentally ill here.

Four years ago, Patten testified against the State of Mississippi in federal court when the federal government was suing the state over its care for the mentally ill. The state lost that case, yet little has been done to help mentally ill residents at the local level.

Adams County Chancery Clerk Brandi Lewis would not discuss any specifics about Handjis, nor would she confirm her office issued an order of committal for Handjis. “Anything that is involved with a commitment is confidential in nature,” Lewis said.

She said at times it is necessary to house mental health patients in the Adams County Jail dependent on the circumstances.

“That is based on the court’s discretion on a case-by-case basis,” Lewis said.

She said patients who have private insurance that covers treatment for mental illness could be admitted to private psychiatric hospitals. Others must wait for a bed to open up at a state facility.

Patten said, regardless of the circumstances of the individual, if the committal is not voluntary, the person is typically housed in the Adams County Jail until the committal hearing.

“Mental health patients who have committed no crime do not belong in jail,” Patten said. “We are constantly told this is a state issue, but it always eventually falls back to the county.”

A joint investigation by Mississippi Today and ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, published July 27, found Mississippi is one of the few if not only state still jailing mental health patients.

(Click here to read ProPublica/Mississippi Today report.)

After surveying counties and jail dockets in Mississippi, reporters found people going through the commitment process for mental illness are regularly jailed as they await evaluation and treatment, “even when they haven’t been charged with a crime. Some counties routinely hold such people in jail — people awaiting treatment for mental illness or substance abuse were held in jail without charges at lease 2,000 times from 2019 to 2022 in 19 counties along, sometimes for days or weeks.

“Nationally, Mississippi is a stark outlier. Mississippi Today and ProPublica conducted a nationwide survey of disability advocacy organizations and state agencies that oversee behavioral health. None describes anything close to the scale of what’s happening in Mississippi,” the story reads.

Patten said he had hope initially after a crisis stabilization unit was established in a clinic on Jeff Davis Boulevard by what was then Region 11 of Southwest Mississippi Mental Health.

Since that time, after a statewide shakeup of regional mental health services, Adams County has joined Region15, which is headquartered in Vicksburg. It has taken over operation of the crisis unit in Natchez. However, that unit has meant basically nothing to Natchez or Adams County law enforcement, Patten said.

“We have these crisis stabilization units all over the state now, but the restrictions are such that law enforcement can’t use them. Right now, it appears they only take geriatric patients or mental health patients who are not combative. Everyone else winds up in jail,” Patten said.

Former Natchez Police Chief Joseph Daughtry, who is now police chief in Columbus, agreed with Patten.

“If a person has any charges pending against them, they won’t take them,” Daughtry said.

Bobby Barton, chief executive officer of Region 15 Community Mental Health District, of which Adams County is a part, said his office, based in Vicksburg, is in charge of the crime stabilization unit.

“We took over July 1, but we had some renovations and changes we needed to make for security purposes and training for staff, so we were closed until July 17,” Barton said. “We are open for admissions now and as far as I am aware, as long as we have had a bed, we have taken everyone who has met our criteria.”

Barton said if a potentially mentally ill patient is violent, or has charges, particularly felony charges, pending, that patient would not be accepted.

“We are not a jail facility. If they are violent or actively aggressive, we will not take them,” he said. “I can’t speak for our predecessor, but I hear very few people have we denied services to.”

Barton said staff at the facility has had conversations with Adams County Chancery Clerk’s office, which has applications that are needed “for us to review so we will have some information to make an informed decision.”

Patten said in the entire almost two years that the stabilization unit has been open, his office has only had two inmates who qualified to go to the crisis stabilization unit.

“These people have not committed crimes. Our jails, and most jails in Mississippi do not have medical staff that is properly trained to handle these crisis episodes. Our staff is trained to handle combative inmates, but with mental health patients, that’s not enough. That kind of training can’t be found in sheriff’s offices anywhere,” Patten said.

“Something has to be done where the county and the state can meet in the middle and we need guidelines where law enforcement and chancery courts can get these people the proper care that they need. They don’t get that in a holding cell in jail,” the sheriff said.