Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

The “Lunacy Zone:” How Mississippi Jails 700 Mentally Ill People a Year Without Charges

A Mississippi Today article published on July 24, 2023, examined why the Magnolia State jails the mentally ill without charges for longer than any other state. As in every other state, Mississippians picked up by police who believe they require mental health services must go through civil commitment, which courts use to force treatment on patients who need it. The idea is that these people do not belong in jail, but without treatment they will either hurt themselves or others.

Examining jail data from 19 Mississippi counties between 2019 and 2022, Mississippi Today and ProPublica found that at least 2,000 people had been jailed awaiting civil commitment. Of those, 1,200 stayed over three days, the length of time it takes to begin experiencing symptoms of withdrawal from psychiatric drugs. None of these incidents resulted in a criminal charge. Yet 13 people held this way have died in jail since 2006 without ever being accused of a crime. Nine of those deaths were suicides.

What is Mississippi doing about this? A glance at the booking form in state jails finds an unusual option in the “Offense” box: “Lunacy.” When friends or family members call police to report someone’s erratic or threatening behavior, responding cops have them sign a form alleging that the individual is “in need of treatment because the person is mentally ill under law and poses a likelihood of physical harm to themselves or others.”

After that, a special master—an attorney appointed to make decisions for such individuals—will have them housed at the local jail to await professional evaluation. If they do not attempt self-harm or get into a fight with other detainees, there will be an appointment with a mental health provider in maybe a week. If that results in an order for more intensive mental health treatment, the wait begins for a bed at a state psychiatric hospital. But during that wait, there is no release from jail—leaving the mentally ill jailed for weeks longer.

“If an ER is full, you don’t send people to jail,” declared Megan Schuller, legal director for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. “This is just outright discriminatory treatment in my view.”

“It felt more criminal than, like, they were trying to help me,” agreed Richard Millwood, whose 2020 suicide attempt landed him in the DeSoto County Jail for 35 days before space opened at a rehab program. “I got the exact same treatment in there as I did when I was in jail facing charges. In fact, worse, in my opinion, because at least when I was facing charges I could bond out.”

Even sheriffs think the system is bad. “We’re not a mental health hospital,” declared Calhoun County Sheriff Greg Pollan, who is also president of the state Sheriffs’ Association. “We’re not even a mental health Band-Aid station. That’s not what we do. So, [the mentally ill] should never, ever see the inside of my jail.”

Unsurprisingly, it all comes down to money, with counties unwilling or unable to pay for a stay in a private treatment center while waiting for space in a state-funded program or hospital.

“You have to put them somewhere to monitor them,” said Smith County Chancery Clerk Cindy Austin, whose job involves finding a space for those civilly committed. “It’s not that anybody wants to hold them in jail, it’s just we have no hospital here to hold them in.”

Jail guards refer to the cells where these people wait as the “Lunacy Zone.” Willie McNeese, whose bi-polar disorder has landed him in the Noxubee County lockup repeatedly since 2008, said that “[t]hey don’t handle it like the hospital.”

“If you have a problem in the hospital they’ll come with a shot or something, but they don’t take your clothes or take your mattress or lock your door on you or nothing like that,” he said.

Donnie Richmond, a “trusty” detainee at the Benton County Jail, delivered meals—including one for Jimmy Sons, 20, who was locked up there for “lunacy” in 2015 and fatally hanged himself less than 24 hours later.

“We couldn’t have saved that man from killing himself,” said Richmond, who found Sons’ lifeless body, “but we could have saved that man from hanging himself in that jail.”

Source: Mississippi Today

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login