There’s Got To Be a Better Way

Jail Is a Poor Substitute for a Mental Health Facility

Nancy Lea Speer
Courtesy Photo

I suggest a revision to Sheriff Brown’s Measure S, the half-cent tax for building a new North County jail. I believe Santa Barbara County has a greater need for additional mental health facilities and assistance for the mentally ill and neurologically disordered than for more jail space. Too many of the mentally ill are being warehoused in our jails rather than being given treatment in a safe therapeutic environment.

Read my story and tell me you disagree! Though I’ve written it in third person, it is a true account of my experiences. (And this week, the police released to our family’s custody a copy of the videotape to which I refer.)

It was after one in the morning. She’d been waiting since 11:30 p.m. No, she’d been waiting two weeks. The waiting seemed endless.

She’s huddled in her old sedan, a yellow scarf protecting her from the elements, all four doors locked, her purse out of view in the backseat.

She felt someone walking close to her car on the left and looked around. No one there. A shadow slipped across the car’s interior and she turned again—nothing. The third time she figured it out. Branches of a tree in the parking lot were blowing in the breeze. When they blew across a dimly lit, pink-orange street lamp, a shadow swept across her car. Whew. Creepy.

Two men have come out, big men with beards, dark men. The light is too subdued to tell their ethnicity. She chastises herself for the thought: Bigot! I can’t believe I just did that. Then, What are you so afraid of, anyway? Think strong: You’re OK. She takes a deep breath and sits up straight in her seat.

Both men are pacing. One walks toward her car. He is within a few feet of the passenger side when she begs him telepathically, Please don’t try to talk to me. As if he heard her, he veers away. That’s the moment her cellphone rings. The sound startles her. It’s almost 1:30 in the morning, who could be calling now?


“Hello, are you Nancy, the mother who’s been waiting for her son to be released?” The voice is young and friendly. It sounds kind but she’s learned not to trust any of them. There is so much unkindness in this place.

“Yes, I am. Are you still going to release him?”

“We are. I’ll have someone escort him down in a few minutes. You may come up to the door now. I’m sorry it took so long.”

Oh God, I have to get out of the car. She thanks the woman, closes her cell phone and looks around, noting where each of the two men is located. She opens her door, steps out and locks it, leaving her purse out of view in the back seat. Walk strong. Show no fear. Her stride lengthens as she puts on an air of indifference.

One of the men is on a bench next to the door. She nods and walks past him. That’s when she sees the third one. He’s inside the well-lit entry area. It’s high ceilinged and a big camera-voyeur peers down at them. That’s how they knew I wasn’t already standing by the door when they called me, she realizes.

This third man is older, graying and clean. He’s changing his socks. His feet seem small to her, yellowish-white, wary of sunshine. Her son’s feet are big, size 13s. A thin brown sleeping bag is neatly laid out on the floor. The man’s backpack is on a counter next to him, and it’s clean too. The man is organizing his things. And talking, talking constantly, Oh my God he’s talking to me!

“Those police harassed me. Harassed me! They’re making it too hard for me, too hard. I can’t take this town any more. It’s too hard here to be homeless, too hard. They’re making me suicidal, suicidal…”

He’s frenetic, imbalanced—another victim of life. She wonders if medication would help him.

“Suicidal, suicidal, I tell you, and I’m not going down alone, uh uh. I’m taking others with me when I go to hell, I am. I’m not going down alone, not me—I’m taking others with me when I go to hell!”

“I’m so sorry.” Her own voice surprises her. “I’m sorry they hurt you. It’s strange though, there’s something I don’t understand.” I didn’t just engage this guy, did I?

“What, huh, what?” he asks.

“Well, you seem like you have a happy soul. I’m just sad to think how hurt you must be to say what you are saying.” She wonders if he’s another Vietnam veteran who saw too much of the horrors of human war. She knows he’s broken, but how? Would medication help him? It helps her son so much.

“Oh, I don’t believe in that kinda stuff, but I’m gonna take some others with me when I go to hell!” He doesn’t believe in souls but he believes in hell… She’s pondering this when he adds, “But I’m not gonna take innocent people with me, not people like you, I’m gonna make sure the ones I take deserve to go to hell with me!”

His words betray distortions in his thinking. She knows this. She knew too she didn’t have to fear him. She wonders for a moment how it is she knew he was not going to hurt her. She lives with ambiguities like this, with someone whose thinking sometimes breaks away from what we call reality. She wonders if he really would hurt himself or someone else.

A taxi honks outside. The driver calls his name. The man gathers his things and rushes out to meet her. She’s young and kind and patient with him. She and the woman lock eyes, smiling. He gets in cab and they drive off.

The well-lit entry area feels empty without him there. I liked that man, she thinks. I sure hope he doesn’t kill himself or someone else. The cab driver was kind, he won’t hurt her.

The grating clang of metal on metal assaults her. She turns to see the heavy locked door open. A small woman in a light brown deputy sheriff’s uniform emerges, then her son, tall and strong, a few paces behind. He’s thanking the woman for escorting him. I love his gentility, she thinks. He’s a polite man and that’s a good thing, genuine too, that’s an even better thing.

He’s wearing the same green shirt he was wearing two weeks ago when she, his own mother, asked the police to take him to jail.

What her son needed was to be taken to a mental hospital. She had called CARES, fearing he would harm himself or someone else. His medications needed to be re-evaluated; a 72-hour hold in a mental hospital would have stabilized him.

He’s on three different medications. They keep him “normal,” able to cope with the world he sees through the lens of his unique mind. “They” say he has a neurological disorder, and though high functioning, meaning he has a high IQ, he sometimes has trouble processing verbal information and is behind his peers socio-emotionally. She comforts herself, thinking, he’s catching up!

He doesn’t get jokes and is therefore the butt of many. His innocence in viewing the world renders him an easy target for bullying and ridicule—always has. Then, three years ago, four police officers took offence when he politely, naively, asked “Why?”

He had been pulled over for rolling a stop sign. There was a box of beer visible in the bed of his truck. As he was only 18 years old, and the three boys with him were 16, the police demanded that they get out of the truck and sit on the curb while it was searched. One of the boys had stashed marijuana under the driver’s seat. The officers found it. To protect the younger boy, her son said it was his. There was another box of beer in the backseat.

Her son was the designated driver. He doesn’t drink. He and the three 16-year-olds were headed to the beach to party for the evening.

They had been sitting on the curb quite a while. A short male officer called out to her son, ordering him to get up from the curb and walk over to talk. Her son complied. He walked up to the officer. They spoke for a moment when the officer was interrupted by another officer. Her son was ordered back to the curb. He obeyed, walking over and standing where he had been sitting. The officer turned around and ordered him to sit back down on the curb. That’s when her son put the palms of both hands out, shrugged his shoulders and, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, asked, “Why?”

Two years earlier, sitting there watching the police video of this incident, she was horrified when four officers suddenly jumped him, striking his torso with mag lights and billy clubs. It was all caught on that video, too: the screaming, “Why are you hitting me? What did I do? Why are you hitting me? Please stop hitting me!” The officers being obvious as they ushered her son out of the line of the camera’s vision, but the sounds of clubs slamming into his young body remaining audible.

The harder they struck him, the harder he tried to get away from them.

When she asked him later where he was going to go if he had gotten away, his answer broke her heart. “Mom, I was gonna go back and sit on the curb,” as if that was the obvious answer.

She urged him not to plead guilty to anything he didn’t do.

But the public defender told him the prosecutor had offered him a deal. Apparently neither the public defender nor the prosecutor wanted the judge to see the video. The DA offered to let her son keep his driver’s license, drop the charge for rolling a stop sign (which he had done), drop the charges for possession of alcohol and a small amount of marijuana.

All her son had to do was plead guilty to resisting arrest (shielding himself from a police assault) and assault on an officer (one of the officers had scratched his finger while beating her son). Her son took the plea and was given probation. Nothing was more important to him than being able to continue to drive his truck. But her son now also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, to add insult to injury.

When she called CARES asking them to take her son to a mental hospital, they came to the house but refused to talk with her. CARES decided he was fine—psychotic perhaps, but not really a danger to himself or others. The purpose of a 72-hour hold is not to stabilize medication, as she had heard before; it’s to prevent someone from harming themselves or another.

She knew when she called CARES that he was not fine. Then, when they refused to take him, he was really not fine—she, his own mother, had called the police on him! His fury with her was palpable.

One of the police officers asked, “Do you have a Plan B?” she didn’t get it at first. Then he said, “Nancy, I don’t think CARES is going to take him.”

“What? Look at my backyard! You don’t think he’s dangerous to himself or me? Do you have any idea how enraged he is because I called the police?”

What else could she do? She signed a police complaint alleging her son had vandalized his own backyard. The glass top of their patio table was on the grass, broken into shards the length of a sword’s blade. He had severed the hose and broken a plastic plate and a drinking glass. At least in jail he would see a psychiatrist and hopefully they could stabilize him.

In court that afternoon, the judge was as disturbed as she had been. He liked her son and asked the public defender if there was someone that he, the judge, could write, could call? The two of them talked of drafting a letter to the county requesting that the criteria used for placing an individual on a 72-hour hold be reviewed and adjusted. Obviously the criteria they have in place had failed her son.

He ordered her son released from County Jail and dismissed the charge of vandalism.

So there she was, at 1:30 a.m., standing in the well-lit, high-ceilinged entrance to County Jail, a big camera-voyeur looking down on them, weeping in her son’s arms. He whispered he was sorry and she answered, “I’m sorry too.”

The spirit of the man who had just left in the cab, and the elements so prevalent in that unkind place, swirled invisibly around them, but each now felt safe for just a moment, holding onto what remained of their relationship as mother and son.

What has happened to common decency? How long can we continue to deny care to those in need, beating, punishing, and incarcerating them for their illnesses or for the fact that their thinking is ordered differently from ours?


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.