Autistic Man Faces Years In Prison As The Justice System Ignores His Mental State

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Days before a Virginia inmate with autism faces trial for allegedly assaulting a corrections officer, mental health advocates and civil liberties groups are asking Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to grant the man conditional clemency so he can be transferred to a secure treatment facility in Florida.

Supporters and lawyers of Reginald “Neli” Latson say that his intellectual disability played a role in his altercations with law enforcement. In 2010, Latson hit a police officer trying to take him into custody when responding to a report of suspicious activity. Two years later, he tried to kill himself with an officer’s gun in a group home after become agitated during a phone call with his mother.

Latson’s most recent offense, during which he allegedly punched a guard, postponed his February release and immediate transfer to the Florida treatment center. If convicted, he faces six months to five years in prison. Those seeking leniency for Latson argue that lengthy stays in solitary confinement and lack of emergency mental health services in the group home caused him to lash out at officers.

“He is in prison because law enforcement, prosecutors, and correctional officers failed to understand or accommodate his disabilities, a problem that more and more people with autism and other developmental disabilities are experiencing when they interact with the criminal justice system,” American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia executive director Claire Guthrie Gastanaga wrote in a Dec. 23 letter to McAuliffe.

Latson counts among thousands of mentally ill people across the United States funneled in and out of the prison system. Mentally ill people often meet this fate because untrained officers misinterpret psychosis for acts of defiance. A lapse in communication between the officer and the person in question — who more than likely cannot explain their behavior — further complicates any situation for officers trained to mitigate incidents quickly.

Plus, when officers ignore the mental state of assumed perpetrators, the results can be deadly. In Cleveland, a mentally ill woman died when officers physically restrained her after the family made a mental health call. The county medical examiner recently ruled her death a homicide.

Latson’s case comes years after the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation of the treatment of mentally ill prisoners in Virginia’s department of corrections. Previous studies found that some jails in the state correctional system violated the constitutional rights of inmates, including protection from harm and access to psychical and mental health resources.

While 90 percent of inmates in Virginia receive mental health screenings, less than half of those who tested positively for a mental illness receive follow up care, according to data collected by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Gaps in mental care make for an unpleasant experience in cold, compact cells. In Fairfax County, pre-trial male detainees who suffered psychotic episodes stayed interred more than six times longer than their mentally stable counterparts.

In recent years, state officials have tried to find alternate means of treatment for the mentally ill who come in contact with law enforcement. Even with the launch of a jail diversion program in nine localities, however, the Virginia Department of Corrections’ mentally ill population still eclipses that of the state hospitals by 300 percent. In 2012, the state negotiated a settlement that required law enforcement officials to improve officer training and expand community services within the next 10 years.

Latson’s attorney, Julie M. Carpenter, said that events surrounding Latson’s initial arrest and time behind bars have shown that police officers and the department of corrections have fallen short in properly mitigating situations involving the mentally ill. In a letter to McAuliffe in May 2014, she argued that Latson would have fared much better in a state mental facility, not incarcerated with violent offenders.

“This is the sort of situation that an autistic young man simply cannot comprehend — he had done nothing wrong and yet the officer was restraining him — and the actions of the officer seemed threatening to Neli because he does not understand social roles the way others do,” Carpenter wrote.

Other states have faced similar issues in meeting the mental health needs of their inmates, especially in the years since the mentally ill inmate population topped 70 percent nationwide. In 2012, for instance, more than 33,000 inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against Arizona’s department of corrections for failing to hire medical personnel and withholding mental health care to inmates suffering from thoughts of suicide.