In the months leading up to Rory Ward’s death in the Harris County Jail in 2021, the Houston native waited for an evaluation that would have determined his capability to understand and participate in his legal case.
And if he couldn’t – if he was found incompetent to stand trial – Ward could have entered the county’s jail-based competency restoration program and stay out of jail.
Instead, an evaluation was never filed and another inmate beat him to death in a jail cell. He was 33.
“We’ve heard over and over again stories like Rory Ward, in jail with mental health issues, dying too young,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during a news conference Thursday in Houston. “This program will help address those kinds of situations.”
Hidalgo cited Ward’s story – and a Houston Landing investigation that focused on his case – in announcing Thursday a $645,000 investment from the county to more than double the number of people whose competency can be restored through the county jail’s competency restoration program – from 70 people to 150.
Hidalgo’s announcement came a day after the Landing’s investigation revealed that 46 percent – or 52 – of the 114 people who died of unnatural causes in the custody of Houston-area jails over the past decade had exhibited mental health concerns that were documented by court, jail or law enforcement personnel.
At the Harris County Jail, nearly 60 percent of the 61 people who died of unnatural causes in jail custody were flagged as mentally ill during that same timeframe.
Statewide, at least 33 percent — or 178 — of the more than 540 individuals who died of unnatural causes in jail custody over the past decade had been flagged as potentially mentally ill at least once since the 1980s.
“The bottom line is, there are too many folks with mental health issues stuck in jail,” Hidalgo said. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
The need for a competency restoration program comes after a person is found incompetent to stand trial – meaning they are unable to understand and participate in their legal case. Once this finding is submitted to the court, the legal case cannot continue until that person’s mental health is restored.
In years past, that meant a defendant would be sent to one of the state’s 10 publicly funded psychiatric hospitals for competency restoration. But since 2012, the waitlist for beds in those hospitals has steadily increased.
By September 2020, almost 1,300 people across Texas were waiting for a bed, and the average wait time was 274 days for a maximum security bed and 137 days for minimum security.
That month, Harris County started its jail-based competency restoration program in an effort to keep people from languishing in jail.
The waitlist for state hospital beds has continued to grow, seemingly unchecked.
As of December, that number had reached more than 2,500, with average wait times stretching to almost 700 days for a maximum security bed and 227 days for a minimum security bed.
Critics argue that jail-based competency restoration programs are not the answer.
The programs “not only do not offer meaningful care, but they’re also in the worst possible non-therapeutic settings,” Krish Gundu, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, told the Landing. “We need to invest in solutions before people get criminalized for their behaviors that mandate competency restoration services.”
Competency restoration narrowly focuses on stabilization, required legal education and symptom management. It does not provide access to a complete treatment plan or services with a long-term recovery goal, according to the Texas Judicial Commission on Mental Health.
Hidalgo acknowledged that more needs to be done before someone who is mentally ill ends up in jail. In a perfect world, the more than 220 people waiting for competency restoration in the Harris County Jail wouldn’t have ended up in jail in the first place, she said.
But this isn’t a perfect world.
“These folks aren’t able to go and be treated outside the system or proceed to trial and that is untenable,” Hidalgo said. “Do we need to add mental health programs in the community? Absolutely.”