Mental illness should not be a crime
A recent exposé by Reuters on inmate deaths at the East Baton Rouge Parish (EBR) Jail comes as no surprise to this life-long resident of the parish. For many years, the EBR Jail has been fraught with failures to provide sufficient medical and mental health services to the approximately 1,500 offenders held at the facility. The continued lack of these life-sustaining services has resulted in 25 offender deaths from 2012 to 2016. The investigative reporting undertaken by the news outlet sought to find answers in the most recent suicide of Louis Jonathan Fano, a 27-year-old man who had a serious bi-polar disorder and was arrested on six misdemeanor charges Halloween eve 2016. Within a few hours of his initial arrest, Fano slit his wrist and was sent to solitary confinement for 92 of the 94 days he spent in the jail. Added to Fano’s ordeal was the fact that the Sheriff turned over all medical and mental health services to a for-profit firm, which decided on January 18, 2018 that Fano was exaggerating his condition and discontinued the antipsychotic medication he was taking. Less than two weeks later, Fano hanged himself in his jail cell.
Fano became the sixth offender since 2012 to die from a mental health crisis experienced while being held in the jail awaiting trial. In other words, none of the six had been convicted of the charges for which they had been jailed in the first place.
One of the other individuals who died was David O’Quinn, a 39-year-old schizophrenic, who in 2013 was tied to a chair for over two weeks. The restraints used contributed to the blood clots that formed, ultimately traveling to his lungs and killing him. The Advocate recently reported on the settlement with O’Quinn’s family with the East Baton Rouge Metro Council, which owns the facility. The O’Quinn family had previously settled with the Sheriff’s office for $50,000 and was received another $50,000 from the Council.
The Reuters report states that after O’Quinn’s death, the Council hired Chicago-based consultants, Health Management Associates (HMA), that conducted a study of the jail’s medical services at a cost of $95,000. HMA’s report stated that the jail was providing only 36 percent of physician staff hours found in similar sized jails, jail staff failed to distribute prescribed medications 20 percent of the time and a powerful antipsychotic drug was being used to treat routine insomnia and keep offenders docile. HMA’s report recommended the EBR Jail would need to double its $5 million budget to meet a minimum standard of medical and psychiatric care.
Instead of implementing the recommendations prescribed by the paid consultants, the city decided to privatize the jail’s health care services by contracting with CorrectHealth LLC, an Atlanta-based firm, which promised to provide the necessary level of service for only $5.2 million. CorrectHealth took over the jail’s health care on January 1, 2017. Jonathan Fano was still being held in the jail when the new private contract began. It was CorrectHealth personnel that made the determination that Fano was “faking bad and exaggerating his condition” and began tapering off and discontinuing his medications. Fano ultimately took his life, and while the EBR jail does have protocols in place for offenders who are at risk for suicide, medical staff had removed him from the suicide watch list months earlier.
There are no easy answers or quick fixes for Louisiana jails’ mental health crisis. Just as Louisiana did not become the number one incarcerator in the world overnight, neither did the state of mental health services provided to offender populations become so dire overnight. Along with the continued implementation of criminal justice reforms in Louisiana, local law enforcement, courts, and mental health professionals must work together to ensure that the mentally ill are not incarcerated because of their mental illness. Rather, solutions that provide humane treatment and care must be found and implemented.