The Atlantic

When Mental Illness Becomes a Jail Sentence

Arrestees who are mentally incompetent to stand trial are supposed to be sent for treatment. But thousands are being warehoused in jails for months without a conviction.
Source: Katherine Lam

Updated at 6:00 p.m. ET on December 6, 2019.

Derrick Clay walked into a restaurant in Colorado, one afternoon in January 2017, to get a bite to eat. His card was declined. Clay, who has been diagnosed with psychosis and probable bipolar disorder, grabbed another customer’s order—a hamburger and French fries worth $11. Somebody called the police. When they got there, Clay was “acting very irrationally,” talking about how the streetlights had cameras in them, according to the police report on the incident. An officer called an ambulance to conduct a welfare check on Clay. When the responders arrived, they loaded him in to bring him to the emergency department of the nearest hospital.

Clay had been on antipsychotics before and had experienced negative side effects, according to his mother, and later told her he thought he was going to be medicated. So when the paramedic tried to place a blood-pressure cuff on Clay, he panicked, punching him, according to the police report. The paramedic tried to subdue Clay, and, hearing the scuffling in back, the driver pulled over. The paramedic tumbled out of the rear of the ambulance with Clay and, with the help of bystanders, wrestled him to the ground. The responders gave Clay a shot of something to knock him out and put him back in the vehicle. They continued on their journey.

Several hours after arriving at the hospital, Clay, 26 at the time, was told he could leave. He called his mother, Fran, who drove down from her home in the foothills at four in the morning to pick him up. (Clay’s and Fran’s names have been changed because Fran is worried about retribution from police or prosecutors. Clay’s attorney declined to make him available to comment and said he did not have Clay’s consent to discuss his case. Fran’s account of events concerning Clay have been corroborated using official records where possible.)

In Colorado, as in many states, an assault of an emergency medical care provider can lead to a felony charge. A couple of months after the incident in the ambulance, Clay received a felony summons to appear in court. (The ticket for taking the hamburger and French fries was voided, and the felony charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor.) Afterward, Clay started posting statements to social media that the judge thought seemed “to express some desire

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