Another tragic, senseless jail death—this one got no media attention because, let’s face it, the mainstream media doesn’t pay attention mental illness in jail. But Ken Hobson’s sad and easily avoidable death underscores the dire need for mental health screenings in jails. The forty-three year old died of dehydration after 16 days’ of incarceration at Lake County Jail in Indiana. During that time, he was never adequately assessed by any mental health or medical provider – a simple safeguard that would have prevented this death. Ken was a paranoid schizophrenic whose mental illness caused him to believe that he could not safely drink the tap water in his jail cell. His mother and two brothers called the jail repeatedly and spoke to several officers to tell them about Ken’s mental illness and to explain that, because of his paranoia, he would only drink bottled water. The jailers, however, did nothing, allowing Ken to slip into a coma and slowly die of thirst. All it would have taken for Ken to still be alive would be the simple humane step of giving him bottles of water.
But apparently, the jail’s entire mental health policy, when faced with an inmate who was labeled “uncooperative” or “unresponsive” was to do nothing. In fact, an attorney for the jail’s so-called medical provider argued to a court that “it’s a perfectly reasonable policy to leave a detainee alone until he becomes cooperative.” And that is how Ken died: alone in his cell after 16 days of being ignored and literally left to rot (from a stage IV bedsore after the dehydration incapacitated him).
Make no mistake–the way Ken was treated is absolutely inexcusable in any form of prison, but especially in a jail cell. Jails hold people who have just been arrested (but not convicted of any crime) and people who cannot afford bail while awaiting trial. These prisoners are particularly vulnerable at the mercy of their jailers, and jail suicide rates run especially high. The suicide rate in America is about 13 per 100,000; but in jails, it is more than three times that.
The statistics on mental illness among the incarcerated show that all jails and prisons need to be well versed on how to recognize and address mental health problems. One in five people in jails and prisons around the country have a mental illness and about 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a mental health issue. At Cook County Jail (Chicago area), one in three inmates has some form of mental illness, and most of these people are arrested for “crimes of survival,” such as theft of food and supplies or breaking and entering for a place to sleep. Our country’s reprehensible criminalization of mental illness is a blog post subject of its own. But it seems that at a minimum, basic humanity and the Constitution require that once law enforcement (wrongfully) decides to treat mental illness as a criminal matter, instead of addressing it through the mental health system, jails and prisons must be equipped to recognize and handle inmates with mental illness.
Mr. Hobson’s family is represented by Loevy & Loevy attorneys Elizabeth Wang and Russell Ainsworth. In a recent victory, the district court awarded them a trial, against not just the correctional officers who ignored his dying of thirst on their watch, but also against the sheriff (who maintains that no policy is necessary for addressing mental illness in jail), and against the for-profit prison/jail health care company, Med-Staff, which has a widespread practice of violating detainees’ constitutional right to adequate medical and mental health care. We wish the Hobson legal team all the best at trial – mental illness in jail cannot be ignored. When it is, humans suffer and sometimes die needlessly.