His “Crime” Is Autism: Man Gets Another Year In Hell After Being Trapped In Our Criminal Justice System


11-17-14  WARNING: This story should make you angry!

Washington Post editorial writer, Ruth Marcus, has taken-up the cause of a 22 year-old Virginia man who has autism and has been kept in solitary confinement most of the last year under conditions that are worsening his mental and physical health.

Unfortunately, Reginald “Neli” Latson’s plight is not an isolated happening, given that our jails and prisons have become our nation’s new asylums for individuals with serious mental illnesses and, all too often, those with intellectual disabilities.

Latson’s case is especially egregious.

On May 24, 2010, Latson was nineteen years old and waiting for a public library near an elementary school in Stafford, Virginia, to open so he could return a book. A woman at the school next door called the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office because she thought he looked “suspicious” loitering on the grass.

Latson, who has an IQ of 69, is African American and was wearing a hoodie.

The sheriff’s office sent Tom Calverly, a deputy assigned to the school, to investigate. When Latson refused to tell the officer his name and tried to leave, a scuffle broke out. Calverly shot Latson with pepper spray. Latson reacted by taking the spray away from the deputy and using it on him. Calverly suffered a head laceration, abrasions and a broken ankle.

Latson was charged with assault on a law enforcement officer, wounding an officer in commission of a felony, disarming a police officer and obstruction of justice. A jury found him guilty and recommended that he be sent to prison for  10-and-a-half years.  Deputy Calverly, a 30-year officer, ended his career on disability.

Latson had no previous criminal record.

Autism and mental health groups complained. Judge Charles Sharp told Latson that he had to serve two years in jail, but the judge suspended the other 8 1/2 years.

Sadly, Latson’s problems were only beginning.

Because of his autism and low IQ,  jail officials feared he wouldn’t do well in the general inmate  population so they housed him in a solitary cell used for punishment. He was confined there 24 hours a day with minimal human contact. Not surprisingly, his mental health suffered. He began urinating on the floor and licking it up.

When he became suicidal, he was moved to an even more restrictive “crisis cell” —  an empty room with no bed and a hole in the floor for a toilet. Latson reportedly became more violent. He struck a guard, was shot with a Taser and charged with assault.

Eventually, he was moved into a group home where in March, he got involved in another tussle with a police officer. His probation was immediately revoked and he was returned to jail.

Stafford Commonwealth Attorney Eric Olsen asked Judge Sharp to reimpose Latson’s original ten year prison sentence, claiming that Latson was now prone to frequent violent outbursts, especially when he was approached by police officers.

Latson’s lawyer, Price Koch, called several expert witnesses who testified that imposing Latson’s original prison term would only make his anger, resentment  and mental condition worse. One witness described Latson as “a little boy trapped in a man’s body” with limited understanding of what had happened to him or why.

Judge Sharp, who handled both of the assault cases against Latson, did not force Latson to serve the remainder of his original sentence. Instead, he added an additional year to Latson’s two year term.

Latson is currently back in solitary confinement. Not surprisingly his mental condition has worsen. He has lost fifty pounds.

In her well-reasoned column, editorial writer Marcus noted that most teenagers would have considered it a “harassing annoyance” to be questioned by a school deputy while waiting to return a library book. But “given the rigid thinking and ‘fight or flight’ instincts characteristic of those with autism” it was not surprising that Latson refused to tell the officer his name and tried to run — setting the stage for a still unfolding tragedy.

This is not the first time that a man with an intellectual disability has gotten involved in an encounter that should have been insignificant but became tragic. In January 2013, Robert Saylor was choked to death by officers in Frederick, Maryland, when he refused to leave his seat in a movie theater after the movie ended. He wanted to watch it a second time. Three officers wrestled him to the floor and put a choke hold on him.

In her editorial, Marcus  wrote that Latson was “less a criminal than a victim of his disability” and urged Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to transfer him to a locked Florida facility that specializes in handling prisoners with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities. Marcus wrote:  “The public would be safe and Latson would receive treatment, not futile punishment.”

The case provides us with an all too common example of what can happen when someone with a mental illness or intellectual disability is confronted by law enforcement and ends up in a criminal justice system ill prepared for them.

Police, deputies, guards, prosecutors and judges need to become better informed about mental illness and intellectual disabilities. Crisis Intervention Team training is an important first step.

We need jail diversion programs and specialized dockets for persons whose crimes are clearly the result of mental impairments.

We  need appropriate facilities for individuals who have severe mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities who are violent where they can receive treatment and help. All of us know that a majority of persons with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators, but a small percent are violent and we should not ignore the danger that they present nor the need for locked facilities to protect them from themselves and others while they receive meaningful treatment.  (A recent editorial in The New York Times contains shocking statistics about how often psychiatrists and social workers are assaulted by clients who they are trying to help.)

Most all of all, we should end the sadistic practice of confining prisoners with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities in segregation cells used for punishment. It is wrong and worsens their mental health.

Marcus wrote:

“Solitary confinement can be torture, with serious psychological consequences. For those already suffering from disabilities, the impact can be far more devastating.”

Virginia Gov. McAuliffe should listen to Marcus and immediately remove Latson from the solitary hell where he now is being punished for the  “crime” of having autism.


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.