Lacking Options, Officials Keep Schizophrenic in Jail

Angela Ramos-Michael holds a photo album with an old snapshot of her brother, Jonathan Ramos. i i

hide captionAngela Ramos-Michael holds a photo album with a snapshot of her brother, Jonathan Ramos, when he was 4 years old, dancing with his brother. Jonathan is on the right.

Courtesy Angela Ramos-Michael
Angela Ramos-Michael holds a photo album with an old snapshot of her brother, Jonathan Ramos.

Angela Ramos-Michael holds a photo album with a snapshot of her brother, Jonathan Ramos, when he was 4 years old, dancing with his brother. Jonathan is on the right.

Courtesy Angela Ramos-Michael
Jonathan Ramos i i

hide captionA photograph of Jonathan Ramos at age 4, from his sister's collection.

Courtesy Angela Ramos-Michael
Jonathan Ramos

A photograph of Jonathan Ramos at age 4, from his sister's collection.

Courtesy Angela Ramos-Michael
Jonathan Ramos in 2002

hide captionJonathan Ramos, shown here in 2002 after he was arrested for stealing a bike from a K-Mart in St. Thomas. The charges were later dropped and officials admit he is seriously mentally ill, but Ramos remains in jail.

Courtesy U.S. Virgin Islands Bureau of Corrections

There is a place where seriously mentally ill people are locked away for years in prison with little treatment because there is nowhere else to put them. Is this Romania? China? Nope. It's the U.S. Virgin Islands, whose residents are supposed to be protected by the U.S. Constitution.

That's exactly what happened to Jonathan Ramos. Ramos got locked up for riding off on a bicycle from the Kmart in St. Thomas in 2002.

Though the government of the U.S. Virgin Islands dropped those charges a while ago, Ramos remains locked up — and officials admit that it's because he is seriously mentally ill. He has chronic schizophrenia.

'Like His Eyes'

Ramos was a sweet boy, a math wizard whose teachers in St. Thomas still ask about him. He used to tool around on his bike, and he doted on his father like a puppy.

His father doted on him, too, said Ramos' sister, Angela Ramos-Michael. Jonathan "was like his [father's] eyes. I mean, he loved that child so much," she said.

Their father died nine years ago. Jonathan Ramos has been in and out of institutions since then.

Ramos is a danger to himself, to his family and to anyone who gets close to him. He has attacked a caretaker and most of his family members.

The government says it has nowhere else to put him — so he has sat in a jail cell for five years.

Ramos is not the only one.

Right now, five other people are in prison in the U.S. Virgin Islands, instead of in a psychiatric hospital. They've been found not guilty of crimes by reason of insanity.

Correctional mental-health experts say they know of no other place where seriously mentally ill people are imprisoned indefinitely because they are mentally ill.

"Keeping people in prison because they're mentally ill is an antiquated practice that went out in the 1800s," said Ray Patterson, a prison psychiatric expert.

He said it's an outrage that people protected by the U.S. Constitution are dealt with this way.

Contempt of Court

A federal judge has found the government of the U.S. Virgin Islands in contempt of court for using prisons to house mentally ill people. He's done so four times in the past 10 years.

But in all that time, little has changed.

"We have, today, essentially the same health care system we had a dozen years ago," said Eric Balaban, an ACLU lawyer representing Ramos and the five other mentally ill men in prison.

Despite all of the court orders and hearings over the years, the judge has never hammered the government into action.

For instance, the judge ordered the government to move Ramos and others out of the jail and prison to a hospital that could treat them.

The order came two years ago.

Balaban wants the judge to fine the government for stalling.

He has even asked the judge to take the job of dealing with mentally ill inmates away from the government and to appoint someone else to do it.

'Not Good for Their Treatment'

Vincent Frazer, attorney general of the U.S. Virgin Islands, said the Virgin Islands doesn't have a forensic hospital for seriously mentally ill people like Ramos. He says the government is working on getting one.

"We recognize there have been lapses and misunderstandings as to the responsibilities, and that having these people placed in a jail setting or prison setting is not what is statutorily mandated in the [Virgin Islands] and is not good for their treatment," Frazer said.

He said the government has tried to find a place for Ramos and the others at hospitals in Puerto Rico and stateside. But so far, they haven't succeeded.

The costs of paying for good treatment are enormous.

At the latest hearing, U.S. District Judge Stanley Brotman said that if the government didn't fix the problem once and for all, he would.

Ramos in Jail

The day after the hearing, Jonathan Ramos is seated in the visitors room at the St. Thomas jail.

The guard hands him the telephone receiver. He puts the ear piece to his ear, but it's as though he doesn't know what to do with the mouthpiece. It dangles below his chin.

He's wearing a red T-shirt. He looks unremarkable, one face among thousands of young black men in prison — except for his eyes. They are like the weather changing — going from clear, to foggy, to dark and raw, to soft and then clear again.

His smile is like lightning, a bright flash out of nowhere.

He is 23 years old. He's been in jail since he was 18.

Out of nowhere, he says, "Strong. Are you strong?"

The corrections officer asks after the interview whether Ramos had spoken. Ramos has all but stopped speaking.

'Wasted Away'

Angela Ramos-Michael says she tries not to think too much about her brother being locked away.

She would rather think about him when he was little, before he became someone who could — and would — hurt her. The only photos she has of him now are from when he was 4 years old.

After their father died, she spent tens of thousands of dollars from her father's estate to get Jonathan help. She placed him in a private psychiatric hospital for teenagers at $11,000 a month.

He was there for eight months until the money ran out. He wound up a ward of the state until he turned 18. Then he was set free. He lived on the streets of St. Thomas until the day he hopped on that bike at the Kmart and the police picked him up and put him in jail.

Ramos-Michael feels responsible for her brother. She can't take care of him anymore. She says the folks at the jail are good to her brother, but they can't take care of him, either — not the way he needs.

"It's like my brother is being wasted away," she says. "My brother's being wasted."

She says he no longer recognizes her. It used to be that when she talked about their father, Jonathan would laugh or show some sign that he knew what she was talking about. Now, she says, there's nothing.

But she believes her brother is still in there, beneath the schizophrenia. She says what he needs is serious help to get free.

Correction Dec. 20, 2007

In the broadcast version of this report, and in an earlier version of the story published online, we said that Jonathan Ramos was incarcerated after riding off on a bicycle from the Wal-Mart in St. Thomas. In fact, the store was a Kmart.

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