Will Amy Lynn’s Death Change the Way Jails Operate?Jan 28th, 2013 | By admin | Category: Gregg County, Lead Article
By Glenn Evans, Longview News Journal , Sunday, January 27, 2013
GILMER — No one disputes the death of Amy Lynn Cowling while in Gregg County Jail custody was tragic.
Two years later, no ways have been determined to prevent similar deaths or stop the increasing use of jail cells to hold those with mental health disorders or other illnesses.
“Something like this should scare people to make something happen,” said Cowling’s mother, Vicki Bankhead, who sued Gregg County over the December 2010 death. The lawsuit was settled out of court earlier this month, and terms of the settlement could become public once it is signed by U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap in Marshall.
Cowling was arrested Dec. 24, 2010, after a traffic stop for speeding uncovered outstanding warrants for misdemeanor theft on the 33-year-old.
When stopped, Cowling said she was en route to the Methadone Clinic of East Texas in Tyler, where she would have refilled a methadone prescription she’d taken for almost 10 years in recovery from opiates in prescription drugs such as hydrocodone.
According to the lawsuit, Cowling told the highway patrol trooper who arrested her where she was going and that she also took prescriptions of Xanax and Seroquel, respectively for anxiety and bipolar disorder.
The latter disorder previously was better known as manic-depression and is a mental illness.
Cowling’s drugs are not on the list of medications allowed in the Gregg County Jail. Such policies — that county jail inmates have no guarantee they will receive medications prescribed by their own doctors — are not unusual, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Inmates often receive medications chosen by the government’s physician. Among the reasons is the difficulty of verifying inmate prescriptions.
The lawsuit brought by Bankhead and Cowling’s three children argued the sudden withdrawal from a drug cocktail they said was working well for Cowling prompted her death 111 hours after her arrest.
Her death was ruled probable seizure due to methadone and Xanax withdrawals.
While multiple bills relating to how the state handles people with mental illness have been introduced in the 83rd legislative session in Austin, none would have affected Cowling’s situation.
“Too often, jails are used as holding facilities for persons with mental illness who have not committed a crime,” state Sen. Judith Zaffirini said, acknowledging many are picked up on misdemeanor theft or trespassing counts. Zaffirini, D-Laredo, is a member of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services and has filed seven bills dealing with mental health.
Two of those bills deal with people who refuse psychoactive medications in jail and clinical settings. But she knew of no bills pending that would make prescribed medicine available to county jail inmates pleading for their prescriptions as Cowling did.
“In most cases, jail staff is not trained to deal with persons with mental illness,” Zaffirini added.
Since 2011, Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano has taken steps to increase health care in the jail. He has added two nurse practitioner visits a week to the jail regimen, on Mondays and Fridays, to bracket the Wednesday stops by County Health Authority Dr. Lewis Browne. Cerliano also boosted the number of jail staffers who either are paramedics or licensed vocational nurses from eight to 10.
The jail continues to deal with a sizable population of inmates requiring mental health care. On Jan. 18, jail staff provided mental health medications to 64 inmates, the sheriff said. The total jail population at the time was 608.
“Some of these inmates are either housed in an observation cell where they have increased (welfare) checks,” the sheriff said. “Some are in separation cells. … There’s a lot of added responsibility when dealing with these inmates.”
While little apparently has been accomplished at the state level to alleviate such pressures on county jails and their related expense, local officials are taking steps. Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt on Thursday rallied leaders of 14 Northeast Texas counties to renew their commitment to establishing a regional treatment facility for mentally ill people.
Stoudt and County Court at Law No. 1 Judge Becky Simpson have for years offered the same criticism as Zaffirini, that county lockups are poor substitutes for mental health treatment.
A regional facility would fill the gap between jail and emergency rooms, the latter being the other default destination for mentally ill people who experience an episode of psychosis.
Stoudt said he favors making use of a Medicaid law governing medical delivery that encompasses mental illnesses and repays local governments $2.50 for each $1 spent providing services.
Thursday, he asked staff at the East Texas Council of Governments to compile the mental health spending of all 14 counties in the ETCOG region.
“And you put all that in one big pile, and we use that money in a matching plan,” Stoudt said. “If we apply together, you’re probably talking about millions of dollars. Next, we select the Medicaid entity to carry the concept forward into some 24-bed critical care mental health unit.”
Whether such an option would have helped Cowling is speculation. Her mother said she hoped simply that common sense can gain a louder voice when inmates exhibit seizures, become incoherent, howl and withdraw like her daughter did.
“I know that she was scared,” Bankhead said. “It had to have been so obvious that she was going down and down and down.”