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Prison, or Treatment, for the Mentally Ill?

Pete Earley

Virginia has nine mental hospitals caring for about 1,400, but an estimated 13,000 people with serious mental illness are locked up in Virginia prisons and jails. Now, however, some communities have begun diverting those with mental health issues to treatment programs. 

In 2003, Fairfax County resident Pete Earley got a frightening phone call. His college-aged son Kevin had suffered a mental breakdown, stopped taking the medication doctors prescribed, and was found wandering the streets of New York.

“For five days, he’d barely slept. He’d barely eaten. He was convinced God had him on a secret mission, and on the car ride from New York to Fairfax County, Virginia he would laugh one minute, cry the next,” says Earley.

Kevin refused medical care, and state law didn’t allow doctors to commit him to a mental hospital unless he harmed himself or others, so Pete Earley took him home.

“Forty-eight hours later he slipped out of the house. He broke into a strangers house. He broke in to take a bubble bath," Earley says. "Luckily no one was there. Five officers came and took him out, and all of a sudden I discovered that my son was one of 365,000 people with mental illnesses who are in our jails and prisons.”

Actually, Kevin got probation -- but as a journalist, his father decided to do time. He found a jail that would let him take up residence for ten months, and wrote about all the mental illness he saw behind bars.

All of a sudden I discovered that my son was one of 365,000 people with mental illnesses who are in our jails and prisons.

More than a decade later, seven communities in Virginia are taking a different approach when individuals with mental illness commit crimes.

David Pastors is Director of Blue Ridge Court Services in Staunton, one of those communities. 

“We are down at the local jail every morning to interview people, and we do a brief mental health screen on those individuals,” says Pastors.

If a panel of legal and medical experts agrees, criminals with mental illness can be diverted to a 12-month treatment program. If they stay with it, their charges are dismissed.

“It’s a pretty big commitment," he says. " You have to see a clinician once a week. You have to see your probation officer once a week, and you have to go back before the judge every two weeks.”

Similar programs, funded by state and local government, are underway in Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk, Manassas, Henrico and Roanoke.

Because it doesn’t require residential buildings or security, this approach is far cheaper than prisons or mental hospitals, and people who take part are far less likely to have future problems with the law.

Jan Jarvis was the first person to graduate from the program in Staunton. In his early 40’s, he was picked up on charges that could have sent him to jail.  

“I was at the park, and I was playing with this turtle – flipping it over and over with my foot, and somebody called and said I was trying to kill the turtle,” says Jarvis. “It was stupid."

Credit Sandy Hausman / WVTF
Jan G. Jarvis, alias Turtle Man, and his sponsor Gerry Coe.

He loves turtles and refers to himself as turtle man, often dressing in olive green sweats. Still his friend, 72-year-old Jerry Coe, a retired high school art teacher, encouraged him to plead guilty to charges of trespassing and obstructing justice and to get therapy through the program.

She knew he was bi-polar and had schizo-affective disorder.

“Which is what my daughter killed herself over a couple of days from her 37th birthday,” says Coe.

She also heard his desperation when the two attended meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

“One thing he said was, ‘I can’t get sober. I can’t stay sober. I’ve decided to go out and do something bad enough that they’ll lock me up."

Coe is convinced jail time for a more serious crime would have made Jarvis worse, while the Therapeutic Docket has made him better.

“He became a little bit more responsible, more interested in working with others," she says. "In my opinion that’s exactly what he ought to do."

Jarvis is good with kids, Coe says, and he’s got an infectious laugh. The two make a funny pair. He’s more than a foot taller than she, and 150 pounds heavier, but Coe had a big house and almost no family, so she invited Jarvis to move in.

As she battles cancer, she finds Jarvis is good company and a fine housemate. He’s learning to cook, does the shopping, is an excellent dishwasher and takes care of the yard. Next year, he’ll start working for the Therapeutic Docket, counseling others who are eligible.

Kevin Earley, the journalist's son, is also doing well. He's working as a peer specialist who helps other people recover from mental illness. 

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