Blanca Jimenez held onto a railing and pulled herself up a flight of stairs a few days after undergoing back surgery to check on her jailed bipolar son. Her son had wiggled his way out of being committed in the past. Jimenez hoped his arrest meant he would finally get the help he needed.
But days passed, and Jimenez could not get the judges, jailers or community mental health professionals in Victoria, Texas, who were charged with taking care of people like Benjamin Desi Lopez to care as much as she did.
Though she was supposed to be bedridden, Jimenez hobbled to the jail’s visitation room. There, she sat on a metal stool before the pain radiating from her incision forced her to cut the visit to 10 minutes.
Lopez looked no better.
He paced, sweat profusely and was so loud she didn’t need to pick up a phone to hear him through the cracked glass that separated them.
Still, Lopez and others like him go unheard and overlooked by most of society. The U.S. is repeatedly failing people like Lopez by not investing in their treatment. Without treatment, the mentally ill become tangled in the criminal justice system.
Without treatment, the community pays a bigger price and puts itself in danger.
Almost half of the nearly 500 people booked in [local] jails every month are mentally ill. Nationwide, the number is even higher— at 64 percent, according to a 2005 Bureau of Justice Statistics study, the latest figure available.
Lopez was arrested for possessing marijuana. He is not a teenager who is experimenting. He’s 45 and thought taking the drugs would soothe not only his paranoia but the voices in his head. He thought the drugs would lull him to sleep.
“Can he get his sanity back? Is there a chance that we can help him? He’s a gifted man. He’s a good man—he’s a giving man,” said Jimenez, who works as a teacher at Northside Baptist School in Victoria and also has custody of her 7-year-old grandson.
“But, now, since 1994, this has gone on, and I’m going to lose him, whether in an institution, whether in jail or whether on the streets.
History of Failure
In 1981, Texas lawmakers passed a bill that shifted the responsibility of treating the mentally ill to 36 outpatient mental health treatment centers across the state, like the one in Victoria named Gulf Bend Center.
State psychiatric hospitals were downsized or shuttered.
“The problem is the dollars did not come back with them,” said Don Polzin, who retired in August 2015 as the Gulf Bend’s executive director after 17 years.
Because of this, Gulf Bend officials say, they can afford to employ only one psychiatrist: Dr. James Dotter.
Dotter treats those without insurance and those on Medicaid suffering from severe depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia as outpatients.
New patients are waiting about six months to see Dotter, said Lane Johnson, chief of clinical services.
Lopez waited 10 months. By then, it was too late.
Victoria police officers arrested Lopez after he called 911 on March 8, 2015.
He called 911 because he was paranoid and thought someone had stolen something from his room, but what the officers saw was marijuana sitting on his bedside table. Next to the marijuana was a crumpled, yellow sheet of paper indicating the date and time of Lopez’s appointment with Dotter. It did not serve as the get-out-of-jail-free card Lopez hoped it would.
Dr. Marc Stern, who works in corrections and teaches public health in the Northeast, wasn’t surprised by Lopez’s jailing.
The Bureau of Justice found in 2005 that 76 percent of jail inmates who had mental health problems were also dependent upon or abused illegal substances.
The way both diseases are treated in the community is weak, Stern said.
“Some of my colleagues are like, ‘If incarceration has worked so well as a treatment for mental illness and drug abuse, why don’t we try it for lung cancer? Maybe we can cure lung cancer that way,”he said.
….Victoria County commissioners have invested vastly more in the jail than they have in Gulf Bend. In the past 10 years, the jail budget rose by about $3.6 million (but) the most commissioners spent on Gulf Bend was $100,000 in 2005. This year, they spent $50,000.
The most recent Victoria jail data shows about 26 percent of its inmates receive psychotropic medication, which costs $6,292 every month.
Adding to the shortfall of resources was the closure of two local inpatient mental health treatment centers. The leadership of both centers said they were forced to close because they couldn’t afford to keep operating. Years later, they wish they had worked harder to find ways to do so.
Bipolar Disorder Diagnosed Early
Lopez grew up in California and may have displayed symptoms of bipolar disorder long before he was diagnosed in his 20s, his family said….
Voices told him to write a movie script and kill himself afterward to be famous like them. Lopez tried to do just that by throwing himself onto the spear of the bronze statue of a Trojan at the center of the University of Southern California campus.
He was arrested and diagnosed then. Family members, who had once been so proud of the student, the first to go to college in four generations, started to keep their distance. His mother, Blanca Jimenez, continues to stand by him, though at a great personal cost.
She still fishes out his college essay from time to time and brags about how at 7 years old, Lopez learned supply and demand, selling cigarettes and donuts for 25 cents to passersby on the streets of Los Angeles.
“Desi was basically my most stable child growing up,” she said.
Jimenez moved her son into her home in Victoria in 2014 after he had another mental health crisis in San Antonio. This strained her relationship not only with a tenant living on the back of her property on Ben Jordan Street, but also with her husband.
…Before Lopez had a mental health crisis in San Antonio, police responded to his home nine times in the span of a week for reports of disturbances, intoxication, sickness and criminal mischief.
Lopez had switched to a new psychiatrist, who prescribed medication he thought had adverse effects. Lopez stopped taking them. When he couldn’t sleep, he left his home on Lubbock Street on the city’s south side to paint over nearby graffiti. He thought he was beautifying the world, but he was scaring his neighbors.
When his common-law wife, Rhonda Cook, left for a weekend, he rearranged all the furniture and flooded their home with 3 feet of water. When she was there, he still acted erratically. Once, he ate a ceramic candle holder, she said.
“God, I never want to use the word ‘crazy’ with him, but he literally looked like he was snapping. Even his facial shape changed,” she said.
Then, he opened up a gas valve at their home and lit a match. Lopez now says he was checking the pilot light on the couple’s stove.
Cook threw a bucket of water on Lopez and the matches so he could not light them again.
“That was my breaking point. He wasn’t going to kill himself or me,” she said.
She grabbed her keys and lied to Lopez about where she was going – the courthouse, where a judge signed a mental health warrant.
“I said, ‘I’m going to get you some milk. Milk always makes you feel better,’” Cook said.
A Bexar County Sheriff’s deputy finally drove Lopez to Methodist Specialty Hospital. A few days later, though, his mother picked him up and brought him to Victoria.
Mentally ill people pose a danger to themselves and others when they go untreated.
…Sometimes, when the mentally ill go without treatment, the results are fatal.
In April 2015, Brandon Lawrence, a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, died after he advanced toward Victoria officers with a machete.
Most recently, an off-duty Refugio County Sheriff’s deputy living in Victoria fatally shot a home intruder,Wade Kloesel. Kloesel’s family thinks he was under the influence of and addicted to synthetic marijuana.
Current Texas lawmakers don’t know how to deal with their predecessors’ decision to defund mental health care.
They have focused more on providing resources to law enforcement, which has become the state’s largest mental health care provider.
When Sandra Bland hanged herself in the Waller County Jail, there was a renewed urgency to find solutions.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards revised the questions jailers ask during booking to better gauge an individual’s risk of suicide.
Although the revisions are a positive step, paperwork has its limitations, Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O’Connor said.
He recently went over it in his office, reading aloud one question in particular: Have you had any thoughts of killing yourself in the last year?
“What if they go, ‘No, not in a year,’ but 16 months ago they had an episode, and we don’t know it?” O’Connor asked. “What if they are in the jail and they get a phone call or a visit that causes them to revisit that episode of 16 months ago?
“Now what? How can we anticipate that problem? We can’t.”
When Lopez was booked into the jail, he concealed his mental illness because he thought he would be held in isolation. He didn’t want to appear weak. Inmates who asked to be transferred multiple times drew the ire of other inmates, he said.
“They’ll take your sausage and your biscuit, and you’ll just sit there scared and hungry. If you’re mental and they know you’re mental, they’ll take advantage of you,” he said.
When Lopez summoned the courage to ask a jailer to contact Gulf Bend, he said, he never heard back.
Lopez’s family thought his incarceration would get him access to mental health care quicker, but it did not.
He pleaded guilty to possessing marijuana and spent 20 days in jail rather than pay a fine.
He could not find another psychiatrist to treat him in the 10 months that passed since he scheduled a visit with Dr. Dotter, so he kept his appointment and eventually received medication.
Now, Lopez helps raise his 7-year-old nephew, conducting science experiments in the kitchen and cheering him on at soccer games.
When Lopez first moved to Victoria, he channeled all his restless energy into graffiti abatement like he did in San Antonio, where he’d ride around on his scooter for six hours a day and go through gallons of paint a week.
When artwork on Constitution Street was defaced, he made his hands rough, painting over black spray paint, for example.
Lopez wanted the tagger to return so a battle of wills could ensue.
But his true adversary isn’t as tangible or as easy to fight – a lack of mental health care.
With graffiti abatement, Lopez had proof of his progress.
“I was able to see the beginning and the end,” Lopez said. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh, this is never going to end.’”
Jessica Priest is a writer for The Victoria Advocate and a 2015-2016 John Jay/Langeloth Health and Justice Reporting Fellow. This is an abridged version of her article, the first of an ongoing series produced for her Fellowship project. The full story and other installements in the series are available HERE. Jessica welcomes comments from readers.