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Mentally Ill Texas Woman “Ignored to Death” After Five Months in Jail

by Matt Clarke

Janice Dotson-Stephens, 61, died of natural causes at the Bexar County jail in San Antonio, Texas on December 14, 2018. The circumstances of her death were anything but “natural,” though. She spent her last five months incarcerated on a misdemeanor charge of trespassing on private property, with her bail set at $300. [See: PLN, March 2019, p.10].

San Antonio police officers arrested Dotson-Stephens on July 17, 2018 and charged her with a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail not counting time off for good behavior. Dotson-Stephens had struggled with mental illness since she was a teenager; she had previously been arrested, then transferred to a state hospital. When family members learned of her arrest, they called the hospital and were told she was not there. They assumed she had been released and would eventually resurface, which had happened in the past. Her family added they would have gladly paid her bail had they known she was locked up.

A Bexar County spokesman said Dotson-Stephens did not indicate a next of kin, and noted transferring her to a state hospital would have required a court order. 

Court records show that Dotson-Stephens refused to be interviewed or go to court on her latest charges, and that nobody – including her court-appointed attorney – visited her while she was at the jail. A judge had ordered a psychological evaluation in August 2018, but it was still pending when she died.

Sheriff’s Department officials apparently had no problem locating Dotson-Stephens’ family to inform them of her death, though. Further, court records indicate Dotson-Stephens had been arrested, then committed to North Texas State Hospital, in 2010. The charges were dismissed or pleaded as misdemeanors after she was released, but information concerning her mental health status and next of kin was clearly already in the system. 

“There was a cycle that repeated itself. She’d be fine. She’d be on her meds. Then something would happen, and she would go off her meds,” said Dotson-Stephens’ daughter, Michelle Dotson. “She would maybe leave or disappear. There were times she may have ended up in jail. But usually, they would do a psychiatric evaluation and take her to the state hospital.”

Aided by attorney Leslie Sachanowicz, Dotson-Stephens’ family filed a wrongful death suit against Bexar County, alleging the jail violated the Sandra Bland Act, a 2017 state law that requires jails to “make a good faith effort” to put mentally ill prisoners facing misdemeanors into treatment programs. The law, named after Sandra Bland, who committed suicide in a Texas jail after being arrested on minor charges, requires that process to begin within 24 hours of arrest. [See: PLN, March 2019, p.10; Aug. 2017, p.24]. 

Within 10 days after an arrest, a magistrate should receive a written assessment of the detainee’s mental health status, and can order an examination of an uncooperative detainee at a mental health facility within 21 days. That apparently didn’t happen in Dotson-Stephens’ case. Instead, Sachanowicz said she was “ignored to death.” 

“Quite frankly, I don’t blame them for the lawsuit,” stated Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. “I don’t think we handled it right.”

When Dotson-Stephens was incarcerated in 2010, a doctor who requested a court order to compel treatment said her condition worsened the longer she was in jail until it reached the point that she was rapidly losing weight, hallucinating and refusing to bathe. 

Her family worries that she deteriorated to the point of death while being neglected at the Bexar County jail. She lost 136 pounds during the five months she was incarcerated, with staff documenting over 100 meal refusals. The medical examiner’s office listed the cause of death as heart disease with schizoaffective disorder as a “significant condition.” 

“This really stands out as a case that didn’t need to end this way,” said Greg Hansch, public policy director for the Texas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We can do better as a society than just letting people with mental illness die in jail.”

Despite the media’s focus on the low amount of Dotson-Stephens’ bail, or on the minor offense she committed that led to her incarceration, her mental illness – which was not treated by jail staff and led to her death – should have been the focal point. She was mentally ill and instead of being sent to a hospital for treatment, she was put in jail where she died. 

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Sources: texasobserver.org, reason.com, rollingout.com, mysanantonio.com, CNN