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Lawyers say a Pennsylvania county traps people with mental illness in jail indefinitely

Samantha Melamed, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

“In probation, we see this over and over again: So many people who are incarcerated have disabilities. Those disabilities are very rarely taken into account,” said Nyssa Taylor of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

She said such cases raise numerous legal issues — among them, potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, since schizophrenia is a recognized disability. “The probation department should be working with these people to make sure those who are struggling with a disability have the necessary accommodations to succeed.”

The situation mirrors practices in some other counties, including Montgomery, where a schizophrenic man was killed in jail in 2019 while awaiting a referral to a probation-approved address.

“People were being held indefinitely because they do not have an address ... and homeless shelters did not qualify,” said Keisha Hudson, a visiting professor of law at Temple University who was ousted from the Montgomery County defender’s office last year after warning of illegal bail practices there. “It’s not legal at all. The problem we have is, in a lot of these counties, the courts don’t really think that the case law applies to them.”

In Delaware County, the district attorney’s office agreed to immediately release some of the people the defenders said were illegally trapped in jail.

One was Tyler Diamond, 27, whose schizophrenia, depression and history of substance abuse have kept him cycling in and out of Delaware County’s George W. Hill Correctional Facility for seven years.

 

The last time he was released, in 2019, he was sent to a halfway house run by GEO, which also holds the contract to run the jails. According to Diamond, once there he was mandated to take the psychotropic medication Seroquel. But the drug caused him to sleep all day, making it impossible to complete the programming required as part of his probation for a 2018 robbery — let alone hold a job so he could secure his own housing.

So Diamond stopped the medication, and got a job at a dollar store.

“I graduated from my [outpatient treatment] and I kept going. I was the only person going to AA meetings twice a day. I was really trying to change my life,” Diamond said. “And as soon as probation found out I was not taking my medication, they sent me to jail.”

Court documents say the violations were for failing to comply with halfway house rules, such as by leaving food wrappers in his room, and failing to pay court costs. For that, Diamond remained jailed for six months, resentenced for the purported probation violation but stuck waiting for a probation-approved address.

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