Mentally Ill in the Jail? It’s a Crime


He’s 42 and bearded, thin as a dry twig, hands cuffed behind him. When he gets out, he says, he wants to play baseball, be a rock star and get a paper route.

“Just call me Mickey Vin Priestly,” he says, making up a name and telling me it’s “very miserable” on the seventh floor of the Los Angeles County Jail. “Everybody keeps trying to poison me.”

After we talk, deputies march the schizophrenic inmate back to his cell and lock the door behind him. Mickey Vin Priestly, in custody since September on an attempted robbery rap, immediately begins pacing his concrete box and talking to the walls.


On the same block of Tower 1, one prisoner is banging on a door with thunderous blows. Another man stands trance-like in front of his door for all to see, buck naked.

The doors and windows of other cells are plastered with warnings to jail staff.

Kicker. Biter. Spitter. Suicide Watch.

“I run the biggest mental hospital in the country,” Sheriff Lee Baca often says.

That’s a bit misleading, since only a small percentage of inmates actually need inpatient hospital services. But with roughly 2,000 inmates who’ve been identified by the jail as having mental issues, about two-thirds of whom are in for nonviolent crimes, Baca has a point.

People are locked up for being mentally ill, essentially, because there’s nowhere else to put them. The jail is a dumping bin, teeming with inmates the jailers are ill-equipped and too understaffed to help, and sometimes can’t even protect.

On Nov. 16, 35-year-old Chadwick Shane Cochran’s mental problems cost him his life.

A drifter whose friends said he suffered from paranoia and delusions, Cochran was brought in out of the rain in October by an elderly Covina woman who let him stay in a trailer behind her house. When he said he was afraid that people were out to get him, she gave him a revolver, in the misguided belief that it would make him feel safe. Instead, it got him arrested for being a felon in possession of a gun.

Cochran’s mental history landed him in the Twin Towers, along with other sick inmates. But he wasn’t as sick as some of the others, and since there’s just not room to segregate every mentally ill prisoner, Cochran got transferred over to the hard-core Men’s Central facility, which resembles a dungeon.

There, deputies had the bright idea of stashing Cochran in a windowless holding room with 30 other prisoners and no supervision. Apparently thinking Cochran was a snitch, two gang members tortured him for up to 30 minutes, then stomped and beat him to death. One of the alleged killers was awaiting trial on murder charges and the other on kidnap and carjacking charges.


Cochran was the eighth person killed in Los Angeles County jails over the last two years.

“He was a fish out of water,” Baca said of Cochran. “These inmates were sharks, and he was in the shark tank.”

An unguarded shark tank. Overcrowding or not, there’s no acceptable explanation for taking a nonviolent offender fresh out of the mental wings and tossing him into an unsupervised room full of heavyweight thugs.

County supervisors, with good reason, are tired of hearing Baca’s explanations and promises of improvement. But they should pay more attention to one of the sheriff’s main points: In a better system, Cochran wouldn’t have been in jail.

“We would have taken the gun, booked it away, and trotted him off to a mental treatment area in the community somewhere, so he could get the problem addressed,” he told me.

But there’s currently no provision for such a thing. In fact, all mental health services are in absurdly short supply. The state mental hospitals are ridiculously understaffed and often chaotic and dangerous. Community clinics are few and far between. Emergency room beds for acute mental problems are in such short supply, patients often end up back on the streets and, sooner or later, back in jail.

The jailhouse, in fact -- despite the horrors and staffing problems -- is one of the few places where mental health care is available. The county Department of Mental Health runs a quasi hospital, dispenses meds and offers psychotherapy.


“My comment on running the largest mental hospital in the country is a plea for help,” says Baca.

None of this lets the sheriff off the hook, of course. If he knows he’s got people in his jail who shouldn’t be there, the least he could do is keep them safe even if he can’t provide the kind of help they need.

But it’s not often that you hear a law enforcement official asking, as Baca is, that prosecutors and courts de-emphasize criminal behavior in consideration of the cause of that behavior. He wants greater use of drug and mental health courts to divert people into drug rehab and mental health programs rather than jails.

He also wants more people scouring the streets “and looking under bridges” for homeless, mentally ill and substance-abusing people, steering them toward help before they find trouble. Proposition 63 money, which will start flowing in January, will make some of this possible, and it’s about time.

What I’ve learned this year about mental illness is that there are no cures, and there are no easy fixes, either, for a system that’s been shamefully neglected for decades.

But I’ve learned, too, that lives can be reclaimed, and that when the sheriff keeps reminding us he runs the biggest mental hospital in the country, it’s meant to shock and embarrass us. And it should.


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