Justice Delayed

A mentally ill man remains in isolation at Pima County Jail, thanks to a paperwork snafu.

A mentally ill deaf man who has been in isolation in Pima County Jail for almost a year faces at least several more weeks behind bars after a hearing was delayed because prosecutors failed to complete the proper paperwork.

Stephen Bertrand, 25, was prepared to plead guilty but insane last Friday, Nov. 21, to charges that he assaulted a jail officer last January, shortly after his arrest on a probation violation. Now, he'll have to remain isolated until Dec. 8, his next court hearing.

Bertrand, who has been deaf since birth and has struggled with a bipolar disorder most his life, appeared calm in the courtroom as he pled guilty to the probation violation. Judge Virginia Kelly sentenced him to time served on that count.

Bertrand's mother, Marcia Rocha, expressed her dismay over the stalled case--especially since a similar problem delayed a scheduled hearing last month.

"I'm not happy," Rocha said. "I want something to get resolved. I think something should happened a long time ago. I don't think Stevie should have been sitting in there this long."

More than a year ago, it was Rocha who inadvertently launched the chain of events that put Bertrand behind bars. (See "Seeking Asylum," July 24.)

During the summer of 2002, Bertrand was living at Rocha's home and attending classes with Pima County's Adult Ed program following series of scrapes with the law.

Gene Jackson, who has been teaching students at Adult Ed for more than 10 years, remembers Bertrand as a bright and committed student.

"Steve Bertrand is the kind of person (who) everybody seemed to love," Jackson said. "There was a lot hope that Stephen would get his GED. He was a smart kid. He was no dummy."

But when Bertrand began exhibiting aberrant behavior, Rocha contacted officials with La Frontera, a local mental-health agency. When Bertrand balked at changing his medication, Rocha says, she was encouraged by Bertrand's caseworker to seek a brief involuntary commitment for her son in hopes of helping him stabilize.

After sheriff's deputies picked up Bertrand in October 2002, he bounced rapidly through the mental health system. He spent less than four weeks at Kino Hospital before being released into the community; a week later, he was arrested after being found wandering the streets in a disoriented state. He was then released into a group home.

An altercation at the group home at the end of last year triggered a decision by Bertrand's probation officer to put him in the Pima County Jail. A scrape with a jail guard resulted in the criminal assault charge he is now facing.

Other than brief stays at Kino Hospital and the Arizona State Hospital over the summer to restore him to competency to stand trial, Bertrand has remained in isolation at Pima County Jail.

Once he pleads guilty but insane, Bertrand will likely return to isolation for several weeks until a spot opens up at the Arizona State Hospital. Such patients are typically limited to a 75-day stay.

Bertrand's hearing disability makes mental health treatment a challenge, according to Arizona State Hospital CEO Jack Silver.

"I wouldn't say that we're highly competent to deal with a dual disability," Silver told The Weekly last summer.

After her son is released from the state hospital, Rocha hopes he'll be eligible for a stay at a small mental health unit at St. Mary's Hospital, overseen by La Frontera.

Rocha worries that if Bertrand is placed back on the streets before he's fully stabilized, he's likely to end up back in jail.

Bertrand's plight illustrates a continuing trend of putting mentally ill people behind bars rather than in treatment programs. One court official close to the case called Bertrand a "poster child" for mentally ill individuals caught up in the criminal justice system.

A report released last month by Human Rights Watch estimated that as many as 300,000 men and women in U.S. prisons suffer from mental disorders, including such serious illnesses as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, but most do not get treatment for their illnesses.

The report estimated that there are three times more mentally ill men and women in prison than in mental health hospitals.

"Many of the men and women who cannot get mental health treatment in the community are swept into the criminal justice system after they commit a crime," it stated. "Without the necessary care, mentally ill prisoners suffer painful symptoms, and their conditions can deteriorate. They are afflicted with delusions and hallucinations, debilitating fears, extreme and uncontrollable mood swings."

Seen as discipline problems by prison authorities, mentally ill people often end up in isolation, which exacerbates their mental illness.

"The penal network is É not only serving as a warehouse for the mentally ill, but, by relying on extremely restrictive housing for mentally ill prisoners, it is acting as an incubator for worse illness and psychiatric breakdowns," the report added.

Jamie Fellner, director of Human Rights Watch's U.S. Program and a co-author of the report, says that prisons "have become the nation's primary mental health facilities. But for those with serious illnesses, prison can be the worst place to be."

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