After hours of administering state testing for her Houston-area middle school students, Rowena Ward glanced at the phone silenced in her desk drawer to find dozens of missed calls from unknown numbers. She found that her son, Rory, 33, had died in Houston's Harris County Jail. Medical examiners eventually ruled it a homicide. Rory’s death highlights the devastating impact that decades of underfunding has on mental health programs meant to keep people rooted in their communities while providing therapeutic services, medication management and crisis mental health care. In the absence of adequate psychiatric services, Texans with mental illnesses like Rory often end up homeless, interacting with law enforcement and languishing in emergency rooms or jails, reports Houston Landing. The state's network of county jails is the largest mental health system in Texas, according to the Texas Association of Counties. “The holes in the community are big and gaping when you look at access to mental health,” said Lt. Scott Soland of the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office. “A lot of people typically get mental care when they wind up in the criminal justice system or family members force them.”
The Houston Landing examined thousands of public records to determine how many people who died from homicides, suicides and other unnatural causes in the custody of county and municipal jails in the Houston area over the last decade had previously exhibited mental health symptoms that were documented by court, jail or law enforcement personnel. The Landing created its own database from court documents, custodial death reports and police and jail records. The investigation found that 46 percent of the 114 people who died of unnatural causes in the custody of these jails had been flagged as potentially mentally ill at least once since the 1980s. A total of 52 people died. Five others with documented mental health concerns died of unnatural causes in jail during this timeframe. The Harris County Jail has become a particularly dangerous place to end up. For years, it has struggled with overcrowding and has run afoul of requirements set by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, such as failing to ensure that medical professionals review prescription medications for inmates. In 2022, 27 people died in its custody, the jail’s deadliest year over the past 17 years. Three more have already died in 2023. Facing a growing number of inmates with mental illnesses, Harris County has established systems to intercept these individuals and direct them to care instead of incarceration.