Justice Dept. Forces Changes In Miami Jail, So Why Am I Not Celebrating?


I received word that the U.S. Department of Justice has reached an agreement with Miami Dade County that will end many of the abuses in Miami’s downtown pre-trial detention center chronicled in my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.

As part of the agreement, the county must build a mental health treatment facility for inmates, estimated to cost between $12 million to $16 million, and make other changes in how it treats prisoners who have mental illnesses.

Miami Judge Steven Liefman got me into the jail more than six years ago where I observed prisoners with mental illnesses being held in overcrowded, unsanitary, abusive and dangerous conditions. After my book was published, he got Michele Gillen, an investigative reporter with the local CBS television affiliate, into the jail where she filmed what I had observed. Our joint efforts helped spark the Justice Department probe.

While I am happy that conditions in the jail are going to be improved,  I am reticent about the Justice Department’s actions.

For the past four decades, the federal government has been the driving force behind forcing states to close their state mental hospitals. It has done this knowing that neither Congress or state legislators have been willing to adequately fund meaningful community mental health care services. The closing of state  hospitals without a community safety net has resulted in a 400 percent increase in the number of persons with serious mental disorders ending up in our jails in prisons. Today, there are more than 360,000 persons with severe mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, behind bars. Another million are under court ordered control and all of us have heard how the Los Angeles Jail is the largest public mental facility in America.

The federal government’s continued insistance on closing state hospitals  has forced large numbers of severely ill persons onto the streets. Many others are warehoused in substandard nursing homes, inadequate assisted living facilities, or  jails and prisons. Now, the Justice Department is forcing  jails and prisons, such as Miami Dade County, to improve the services that they offer psychotic inmates. It is trying to correct a problem that it helped create.

Here is a clever idea.

How about federal lawsuits that will provide persons with mental illnesses help without forcing them to get arrested?

The Justice Department needs to begin using it  heavy hand in a more productive manner. In addition to requiring jails and prisons to improve conditions, it needs to stop shutting down much-needed state hospital beds until a real safety net can be established in our communities. In order to get meaningful services, it needs to file suits through the Americans with Disabilities Act to force states to create that safety net. We know that Housing First and Assertive Community Treatment can enable many persons with severe mental disorders to live safety in our communities. Shutting down hospitals under the assumption that people can get community help and then not providing that help has proven disasterous.

Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy envisioned a society where persons with mental disorders could live with their neighbors rather than being locked up, warehoused and forgotten. If the Justice Department succeeds in building better jails, it will not have accomplished Kennedy’s goal. It will simply have closed down the old state hospital system by shipping everyone through their communities into jails and prisons.

That is not something to celebrate.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. dagny111 says

    You are so right-mental illness should not be a crime. My son who suffers from Schizoaffective Disorder tried to commit suicide by taking all of his medication, realized what he had done and called 911, was taken to the hospital but, instead of going to the psych ward, was arrested! He was then jailed for a night, released on bail, and THEN ordered for a psych evaluation. Due to being on the psych ward, he missed his hearing on the arrest charge, and so had a warrant issued for his arrest and was returned to jail.

    Once back in jail, he was ruled incompetent to participate in his own defense, he could not even be charged with a crime because he was not able to enter a plea. He had an attorney ( several) but they could not act while he was incompetent. Of course, there was no way for him to become competent, since he was not receiving medication. What he was doing was waiting for a bed at the state hospital. He waited for 6 months. During that time he lost so much weight, I feared for his life.( He is 6’2″, and weighted 90 lbs)

    In Texas there is a program for the mentally ill to supposedly earn release from jail.. Unfortunately the rules are such that mental health is really a prerequisite, since a mentally ill person can hardly keep up with all the requirements. There seems to be a general feeling of hostility among law enforcement toward the mentally ill, stemming from a belief that mental illness is just an invented cover for bad behavior. This is why it is so important for the mentally ill to be treated in a State Hospital setting, rather than jail. I cannot say enough good things about the State Hospital at Wichita Falls, TX. Despite a constant and profound lack of funds, the staff I met always did their best for my son, and were truly concerned for his welfare.

    Schizophrenia is not a lifestyle choice. What happened to my son is a common story, and one that often ends in tragedy. For now, my son is doing better, but I know we are only a few missed pills from the same thing happening again. The state legislature gives lip service to improving services, and then happily moves on to other matters. My family does not have that luxury.

  2. Right on, Pete. For years my dream has been a “Right to Treatment” suit (rather than just right to refuse suits” in the community. While there is a constitutional right to treatment in detention there is no corresponding right in the community. We never deinstitutionalized, we transinstituionalized creating a crminal rather than civil system. Years ago when I was doing advocacy for improved conditions in jail, I recognized we were also building a better mousetrap where those have always been the most neglected were then shuttled off to prisons by a community mental health system which did not, would not, could not help prevent treat their illness getting worse before behavioral by products of their untreated symptoms ended in arrest. Its been too costly both in the terms of lives and money. Abuse should never happen but I do not celebrate when a new “mousetrap” jail is built either and community hospitals and programs close. Carla Jacobs

  3. Not a celebration, Pete, but a small sidestep – in the dance of life, the path to justice swerves to the left and right, but it is we, with our moral compass, that ensure humanity’s rights to health and wellness, stay the course and move forward.
    We need a facility in each state to safely treat folks with mental illnesses that get caught up in the penal system. Just one – as mental illness is a relatively small percentage of the population, and should be a small percentage of the penal system.
    A fifth grade logic says that if plenty of preventative and ongoing treatment is available to the public thru local, state, private and gov’t
    inpatient and out patient mental health services, there would be a drastic decline in criminal activity, and inmate incarceration.
    Additionally, good mental health awareness, by way of public school and community education, would greatly influence the non-mentally ill would-be perpetraters of crime.
    Whether we want to believe it or not, all crimes of lying, cheating, stealing, assaulting, and murdering, are the consequence of a sick human heart, or a mind so deluded it cannot reason, becoming so degraded, that the person no longer holds him/herself to a healthy self-esteem. People who are mentally well will never become criminals.
    Period. People w/ mental illnesses may criminalize during episodic breaks in sanity, due to the effects from the illness, which invades and dupes the sane mind. Basically, the symptoms of mental illness cause confusion to the mentally ill person, and in response, or defense, of the symptoms, the person will respond. These responses may make sense to the suffering mentally ill, but are often outward expressions that are illegal.
    The Real Mental Illness is this :
    Refuse to help your fellow humans.
    Instead of using the state-of-the-art treatment available to treat them to wellness and productivity, help them to stay sick, and make money off them along the way.
    Confine them to institutions to rot, out of public view.
    Demonize them through media, and faulty information.
    Place yourselves above them.
    Celebrate when one is executed or locked up for life.
    Pronounce them as evil, weak, or unworthy.
    Do not recognize your own flaws, your tendancy to engage in mentally sick behavior, such as above.
    Is it stigma, or is it just the age-old evil of man’s unrelentling inhumanity to man?
    Don’t stop, Pete.

  4. Terri Wasilenko says

    These 2 articles are from NAMI Schenectady, NY. Roy Neville emails his affiliate’s monthly newsletter to me at NAMI Cayuga (Auburn, NY).
    Sad news for our incarcerated loved ones in NYS.
    Terri Wasilenko

    Opinion—Why is
    prison solitary still there
    for NY’s mentally ill?

    Solitary confinement of people with mental illness in NYS prisons—it’s a lousy reality that still exists even after the state legislature and the governor banned putting mentally ill prisoners in “the box” five years ago, with exceptions for only the worst behaved. It didn’t matter to the state’s correctional system that the law forbids this practice of shutting someone away in a small cell 23 hours a day for weeks or months.
    They put people in “the box” for minor infractions like mouthing off to a guard. See the Times Union editorial on page 7. The T- U equates solitary to torture. The NY Civil Liberties Union calls the exorbitant use of isolation cells in NY “a human rights crisis.” . It filed a federal lawsuit against NY’s prison special housing in December (see page 7 ). Does anybody care? The advocates for families who’ve experienced first hand the shocking conditions in NY’s prisons have screamed for years— they got the law passed. Now we find more prisoners in solitary in NY than ever before and that means more of the mentally ill are in there, too. It has to stop.

    Dad visits son in prison:
    “You won’t believe conditions
    One of our members in the Ellis Hospital relatives support group was telling us about the awful conditions his son has endured in NYS prisons. The son has a mental illness and was originally sent to the Willard shock treatment program for drug rehab, finished that and came home and then after a brief episode that got him in trouble again, landed back at Willard. He got harassed continuously by an overaggressive counselor this time and after a hearing, decided to finish parole time in Five Points Correctional in Seneca County, not a pleasant place. Since then he’s been to three other prisons in the system, over less than two years, moved haphazardly from one to the next while the parents kept on with their visits, enduring each institution’s rules and directions. From the father comes an amazing revelation of what his son tells him about prison life. And the parents observed much from these visits, too. Here is his story.
    Arrivals and inspections—at Five Points after you go through a metal detector they check certain of the visitors’ hands with an ion scanner to see if any drug powder residue is on them. Visitors from NYC were turned away without two sources of ID; some had to take a taxi to town and fax a message back home to receive the missing information. This took a good part of the visiting time they had, after a long bus trip upstate from the city. A woman was told to wear another blouse because it was too tight and she had to go to town to a store and buy a different blouse before they let her visit.
    After one visit his son called them at home and said they were being implicated with trying to pass drugs to him, which wasn’t true. He told them they gave him a body cavity search after their
    visit and the father felt they did that just to harass him. Meeting their son at visits—they could talk in the visitor’s room with guards present. When his son had been in the box at that time he had to raise his hand to move to another seat and get approval. Phoning and mail—His son is allowed to call home at times but length of the calls is limited. Once his son didn’t hang up quick enough so the guard took away the phone for two days. Letters going into the prison are opened and read. With abusive situations going on, the father tried getting through to the prison doctor or nurse by calling them more than once, but found it almost impossible. Guards took the call and wouldn’t pass him through till finally the house doctor and a nurse called him back at home. When the father couldn’t get through on the phone to a doctor at Marcy he was told to write a letter saying he wanted to talk to him.
    Solitary confinement cell in Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone
    Harassment—at the drug rehab center his son, who was a smoker, was made to clean up the butts after—he’d have to walk down the line and the others would blow smoke in his face. His son was made to stand with others in the mud during recess in the courtyard because they were prisoners from the key block (the box), while the others could sit around the edges of the building.
    Packages and stealing by the guards— The guards look inside food packages you bring. You’re allowed up to 35 pounds a month. A media review checkpoint sorts through magazines, newspapers and books. At Five Points he said reviewers customarily held them up two to four weeks. At Marcy the father said we sent magazines and he never got them—the guards take them. We sent clothes—you don’t send anything with a logo on it or striped like prison garb or dark colors like the guard uniforms. They tossed out some clothing we sent so we picked it up and put it back in the car. Cigarettes are like money, valuable in prison. You can bring a carton of cigarettes every two weeks or pouches of tobacco for rolling your own.
    More stealing— At Marcy his son’s cigarette rolling machine and pouches were stolen when his locker was broken into. They sent him to another dorm where an inmate had the rolling machine but before he could get it back a guard took it away.
    Pranks—For fun in the key block (the box), his son told him, the guys “went fishing” with a long line of cloth they tied together of ripped pieces of clothing. And tossed it between the cells. They’d put a cigarette inside and toss it over. If a guard caught them he might cut the line with scissors, or else penalize them.
    Solitary—his son was arbitrarily stuck in solitary when he first arrived at Five Points for dropping out of the previous program at Willard. That was for more than 30 days which is supposed to be the limit. Another time he got docked and put in solitary for smoking a marijuana joint.
    Guards’ teasing—At Fishkill his son saw guards put a tray of food into a cell and then pull it back to torment an inmate.
    Abusive counselor—At Willard his son had a counselor who hounded him, made him stand with his nose pressed to the wall for up to eight hours a day and exerted other punishment. The father wrote to state authorities last fall about this, including our state senator and assemblyman and three or four state commissioners. He said no one replied or else they referred him to others, so he’s gotten no satisfaction. His son’s condition worsened with the harassment from the counselor to the point of his nearly having a breakdown. The medical department finally raised his lithium level.