A new survey of counties and an analysis of jail dockets in Mississippi found that people going through the civil commitment process for mental illness are regularly jailed as they await evaluation and treatment, even when they haven’t been charged with a crime, according to ProPublica. Some counties routinely hold such people in jail. People awaiting treatment for mental illness or substance abuse were held in jail without charges at least 2,000 times from 2019 to 2022 in 19 counties alone, sometimes for days or weeks. Civil commitment laws are meant to ensure people get treatment even when they don’t recognize that they need it, said James Tucker, an attorney and the director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. At least 12 states plus the District of Columbia prohibit jailing people undergoing commitment proceedings for mental illness unless they have been charged with a crime. Mississippi law, however, allows people going through the civil commitment process to be sent to jail if there is “no reasonable alternative.”
A sister of one woman who had died in a Mississippi jail in 1987 tried and failed to convince a federal judge that the woman’s rights had been violated when she was incarcerated without treatment. Mae Evelyn Boston, dealt with paranoid schizophrenia for most of her adult life, and suffered from a psychotic episode shortly after giving birth. Once Boston was in jail, guards did not complete a medical screening required by department policy and therefore didn’t know Boston had given birth via cesarean section 12 days before, U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers wrote. Boston died two days in jail from heart failure caused by blood clots. Biggers concluded that the “medical care customarily provided by the county for mentally ill detainees does not fall below constitutional standards” and that what happened with Boston represented a “scheduling error” and an “isolated instance.” The county, which argued it had provided adequate care for Boston, had the right to detain people like her “in the interest of societal safety,” he found, and those people were not entitled to placement in the “least restrictive alternative” such as a hospital. Since then, at least nine lawsuits have been filed over the deaths of Mississippians incarcerated during civil commitment proceedings. However, none of those lawsuits directly challenged the constitutionality of being jailed during the commitment process.