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Mentally Ill Fill Prisons With Sometimes Deadly Results

Mentally Ill Fill Prisons With Sometimes Deadly Results

CREATED May 9, 2011 - UPDATED: Mar 11, 2014

By Ben Hall
Investigative Reporter

A NewsChannel 5 investigation is raising serious questions about Tennessee's mental health system.

As the state cuts the number of mental health beds, more and more mentally ill people are going to prison.

The Department of Corrections says nearly one of every three inmates (32.2%) is mentally ill. 

NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed the case of William Runnells which shows how putting mentally ill people in prison can have deadly results. 

"William was a happy kid," said his mother Tawnja Davis as she looked through old pictures of her son.

Pictures show he had a big smile, friends and a knack for sports, but Davis remembers when her son suddenly changed.

"William was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was 16 years old," Davis said.

That's when he started hearing voices in his head.  It took medication to keep him calm.

"William on his medication passed his GED with flying colors. You would never know anything was wrong with him," Davis said.

But it was off his medication that he wound up not in a hospital, but in prison, then dead at age 26. 

"The way he was treated has got to concern anybody.  I mean it's like an animal," said civil rights attorney Richard Brooks.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained Runnells' autopsy which reveals he died handcuffed, with his legs restrained, after a corrections officer put a knee to his back. 

It says officers tried to calm him down after he started displaying psychotic behavior.

"These guards all they know to do is go in and restrain," Brooks said.

Brooks says corrections officers aren't trained to deal with the mentally ill. 

Runnells' autopsy indicates he died while being restrained, but lists the manner of death as undetermined.

"This is wrong, and it would appear that this is a homicide rather than an unknown death," Brooks said.

"He couldn't breathe, and the pain he was going through I can't imagine" said Runnells' mom.

Davis is haunted by thoughts of her son's final hours, but she's equally haunted by how her son wound up in prison.

It started in 2006, when she called a crisis hotline concerned her son was off his medication. 

They told her to call the sheriff's department.

She was shocked when officers came to her house and arrested Runnells for domestic assault -- against her.

"I'm like 'no, you don't understand he's mentally ill, and we need to get crisis so he can be sent to the hospital,'" Davis said.

In the White County Jail Runnells continued acting oddly.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the sheriff, "What capacity do you have for dealing with the mentally ill?"

White County Sheriff Oddie Shoupe responded, "Zero."

The sheriff remembers that officers took Runnells to the local hospital. 

Doctors there said he needed to be driven immediately to the nearest mental health facility, Moccasin Bend, in Chattanooga.

"These officers transporting these people, they're not equipped in the patrol cars to handle these types of emergencies," Sheriff Shoupe said.

But after driving all the way there, Moccasin Bend refused to admit Runnells. 

On the long drive back to jail, things really went wrong.  

Runnells attacked the officer.  The officer shot him in the arm, and Runnells was charged with attempted murder.

"This gentleman should have never been brought back," Sheriff Shoupe said. "He should have been left at that facility or at a facility where it was secure and be sedated or whatever, but he was not."

Runnells' mom believes her son would be alive today if Moccasin Bend would have admitted him.

The sheriff says Moccasin Bend often won't take violent, mentally ill patients, but he says that's the problem, almost nobody does. 

State budget cuts have slashed the number of mental health beds in Tennessee. 

In 1990, there were 1700 beds.  In 2000, it fell 1000 beds.  Today there are 660.

"The system is not working," said Sheriff Shoupe.

A judge sentenced Runnells to ten years in prison for attempted murder of a sheriff's deputy, but Runnells didn't go a state mental facility. 

He went to a regular prison and died in the general population at the Turney Center.

"My feeling is prisons are being used for mental hospitals," Davis said.

She wouldn't blame corrections officers for her son's death. 

She blames a system that doesn't know what to do with the mentally ill.

"The good Lord chose me to be the mother or William Runnells," Davis said.  "I don't regret that for a minute."

Email: bhall@newschannel5.com

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