Revolving door: Jailing the mentally ill

ORLANDO, Fla. — An Orange County veteran returned from overseas, only to end up shot and nearly killed by police. A man had parked his car in the middle of a busy road in Osceola County, and when a deputy spotted him wandering around a nearby neighborhood, he told him that the FBI and CIA were after him and he was in search of the international police. Both men were suffering a mental health episode, living with PTSD and schizophrenia, respectively.


Months ago, 9 Investigates’ reporter Daralene Jones became concerned about several arrests involving people living with a mental illness. We embarked on mission to dig into the mental health crisis plaguing our community, specifically, why there are so few resources leading to so many people landing in our county jails. We discovered just how massive and complicated this problem is that will take more than $49 million to fix, in just one of our Central Florida counties.

Few government agencies track the problem, but at the time we started researching the topic, we learned that Orange County was close to wrapping up a mental health study that had been ongoing for more than a year. For our reporting, we relied on interviews with families, mental health experts, government, and law enforcement officials.

“The FBI and CIA are after me.”

We found Stefanie at the Osceola County jail on a sunny afternoon, mid-week. She was in the lobby of the reception area with her husband’s mother and father, who’d flown in from New York. “We called the authorities and we called EMS and everything. We asked them to take him to the proper hospital, but instead, they took him to a hospital that was not equipped to handle people with mental health issues. So, when he was in the hospital, he made a scene. And during that time, he was charged with criminal mischief because of what happened, but he wasn’t, you know, he wasn’t fully there. And instead of taking him, giving the medication that he needs or giving him the proper care that he needs, they took him to jail,” Stefanie told investigative reporter Daralene Jones.

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It was the second time in just a few days that Stefanie’s husband was arrested. The first time, he was arrested on loitering and prowling charges, telling the Polk County deputy, that the FBI and CIA were after him, and he was in search of the international police department, according to the arrest affidavit.

“We’re fighting for him everyday.” - Stefanie

The deputy responded to a neighborhood after people reported seeing a “strange” man wandering around the area. The deputy first spotted a car parked in the middle of a busy intersection, according to the law enforcement report. Shortly after is when he found Stefanie’s husband. “We’re fighting for him every day so that he can get to a place that, you know, we can take care of that can take care of him and help him mentally. But right now we can’t even call him. We are not able to see him. We can’t give any support to him, except for doing everything in the background. You know, trying to figure out what we can do to put him in a nice hospital that will take care of him and a hospital that is not overcrowded.

He bonded out of jail, and then the next morning, another episode and Stefanie called 911. “We’re fighting for him every day so that he can get to a place that, you know, we can take care of that can take care of him and help him mentally. But right now, we can’t even call him. We are not able to see him. We can’t give any support to him, except for doing everything in the background. You know, trying to figure out what we can do to put him in a nice hospital that will take care of him and a hospital that is not overcrowded,” Stefanie said.

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He was involuntarily hospitalized, a process in Florida that can be done under the Baker Act. While in the hospital emergency room, Stefanie’s husband had another mental health breakdown. The staff called the sheriff’s office. The deputy wrote that he became irate and aggressive for no reason and began damaging hospital. Sgt. Gaylan Harris is used to the revolving door of inmates. “I supervise the corporals as well as officers who manage the inmate population. We generate reports, we do constant coaching training and mentoring for the staff growth and development. We also encourage interaction with the inmates, we do rounds around the units just to make sure that we’re resolving any issues or answering any questions or concerns that may arise and make sure that we’re providing continuous care, custody and control,” Harris told Jones.

Those job duties also include managing an increasing population of inmates who are mentally ill. “It can be difficult to manage the mental health population because we don’t know what we’re going to get from one moment to the next. Sometimes we’re not just the officers. Sometimes we have to be the counselors. Sometimes we have to console the inmates when possible. So, the training that we receive is very essential so that we, we can ensure that we are providing the care for the inmates and getting them the treatment that they if need be,” Harris said.

Harris told us that they’ve seen a steady increase of inmates with a mental illness since the start of the pandemic in 2020. “Whether it’s someone who does have a diagnosed mental health illness, or if we have someone coming in, that’s suffering from an alcohol dependence or a drug dependence. What you consider to be the norm at one point has totally shifted. So that in itself has caused a lot of people to suffer mentally,” Harris explained.

“Most of our patients have a mental health disorder.” -- Dr. Gregorie Constant-Peter, Orange County Jail Assistant Medical Director

Using prescription data from local county jails, 9 Investigates found that 22 to 45 percent of the inmate populations in the jails in Lake, Brevard, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties are on psychotropic drugs, used to manage mental illnesses caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, but that care is short-term. Dr. Gregorie Constant-Peter is the assistant medical director at the Orange County Jail, serving the largest mental health population in Central Florida. “I personally feel the mental health population should be in a hospital setting, mental health facility,” Dr. Constant-Peter said.

She told us the problem is that there aren’t enough short or long-term resources. “Most of our patients who have the mental health disorder. they may be there for 30 days, three weeks and so they’re on medication and they feel better. We don’t have a liaison in the community to basically say, you know, this is where you need to go to continue treatment,” Dr. Constant-Peter explained.

During a Board of County Commission meeting in February of 2022, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings told the public that the county can no longer arrest its way of out the current mental health crisis.

“The police officers did not know he had PTSD when they shot him.” -Kris Haskins

Kris Haskins agrees. Her son, was arrested and charged with a long list of felonies after a PTSD episode in December of 2021. “The police officers did not know he had PTSD when they shot him,” Haskins told us from her home in Ohio.

Neither did his neighbors who had called Orlando police when they heard bizarre conversation coming from his apartment, where he lived alone, and then gunfire. “He saw military men in his apartment with guns, who said they were coming to kill him and his service dog. His neighbors said that they heard him fighting with someone and then he jumped up, he told us he cleared the bathroom. He cleared his living room and he jumped out the window, ran after his dog,” Haskins explained. In his mind, his mother told us, the army veteran was trying to escape enemy forces. He allegedly, carjacked the man seen running from his car in this body camera video, as police surround Haskins, shooting him three times, once in the face. They don’t know my client from anybody else. They don’t know that he’s a veteran, they don’t know that he’s having a mental health crisis. “I don’t know what the answer to that is,” Attorney Mark Longwell told us. He now represents Haskins in his criminal case.

He told us Haskins didn’t belong in the country jail, not only because of his severe injuries, but largely because he didn’t believe he’d get the treatment he needed to manage the ongoing struggles with PTSD, which set off the near deadly encounter with police. “Steffan had us, who knew that he had PTSD, who hired an attorney to let the court know he had PTSD, and we’d like for him to get the treatment. I wonder how many people are not as fortunate as Steffan, and don’t have an advocate and are thrown in jail who have PTSD or mental illness. And they’re not getting the treatment that they need. They’re being treated like prisoners,” Haskins’ mother said.

Steffan was released on bond, as he awaits trial for the felony charges, despite opposition from an assistant state attorney concerned about where he would go and whether he’d really get treatment. He’s been at the Orlando VA for nearly a month, where his mother hopes he can stay, until there’s a resolution with the criminal case. “He needs professional mental health treatment, not jail time,” Haskins said.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.” -- Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings

Orange County knew it had a problem with a growing number of mentally ill people in the community, dating back to 2020. Mayor Jerry Demings commissioned a $300,000 study that started in October of the same year, to analyze the resources available and where gaps existed. Florida ranks 25 for adults with mental illness and behavioral illnesses and 30th for youth. According to data 17.8 percent of the adults with mental illnesses did not receive mental treatment they needed and 67.3% of youth. Their study focused on advocacy, business and philanthropy, continuum of care, criminal justice, homelessness and housing. “When the Mayor challenged me a few years ago, I said I don’t think you’re doing to like the price tag and he didn’t flinch,” explained Donna Wyche, who is the county’s mental health expert and oversees the project.

The price tag to start is at least $49 million dollars, according to the study led by the Heart of Florida United Way. “We live with diabetes, we live with hypertension, all of those diseases that are chronic, we can live with this one, too,” Wyche said, during her comments to the county commission during the meeting in which they voted to accept the 16 recommendations from the study. 19-year-old Anastasia Soileau was part of the study. Her mother realized she was living with bi-polar disorder when she tried to commit suicide her sophomore year of high school. “I think it’s severely overdue and it’s not going to be enough, but I do have the belief that with government systems it’s impossible to have enough,” Anastasia said.

Some of the highlights from the study sound overwhelming, but Wyche said it’s not unreasonable to be optimistic about getting the work done, a little bit at a time.

The study recommends better information technology support for collaboration among social service and government agencies, integration of mental health in the primary care setting, development of drop-in intake and triage centers, strengthening and expanding crisis management activities and CIT training to more emergency responders. In addition to that adult mobile crisis units, intensive outpatient treatment, increased qualified workforce, affordable housing, and peer support services. “The increase in our homeless population, the balance between the baker act system (involuntary hospitalization), the streets of our community and the orange county jail is something that has to improve. The jail should never be the last resort for people with these disorders,” Mayor Demings told commissioners.

The biggest obstacle, though, remains to be how the county will come up with the revenue to provide the services need. “The implementation team will look at existing budgets and allocations through the different community stakeholder organizations and see if there’s an opportunity for re-alignment of existing dollars,” Mayor Demings told Jones when she asked about funding. And new money could come from federal, state and private sector revenue.

Anastasia will tell you that the consequences for doing too little, have been too grave. “They say that it takes a village to raise a baby it is kind of the same, it takes a village to heal,” she said.

We spoke with Stefanie and her husband after our initial interview with her. It was clear that he was having another mental health breakdown. His family has moved him out of state in hopes of getting him long-term care. His criminal charges are still pending.

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