Tax proposal on Dec. 8 ballot would fund new mental health center for Baton Rouge
Crystal Harris tries to follow her usual routine, even when she finds herself sitting in jail dealing with a nervous breakdown.
She requests solitary confinement to avoid "all the drama" and find "peace of mind." Then she meets with the psychiatrist and gets her prescriptions filled, which can take a couple weeks.
Sometimes she bonds out as soon as her condition stabilizes. But other times she spends several more weeks incarcerated before she can afford her release.
Then it's time to start over again — the familiar struggle of finding shelter, staying medicated and showing up in court.
A tax proposal on the Dec. 8 ballot would fund a new mental health crisis center in Baton Rouge aimed at helping people like Harris who suffer from mental illness and rotate through the criminal justice system. It has garnered widespread approval within the local law enforcement community as supporters argue it's long overdue and would be relatively inexpensive, costing a person with a home valued at $200,000 about $18.75 annually.
Harris, 37, said the proposed Bridge Center would be a godsend.
She was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager, not long after graduating from Plaquemine High School in 2000. She has since been booked into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison at least a dozen times and hospitalized for emergency mental health treatment even more often. She moved into her own apartment earlier this week after being homeless for years.
Most of Harris' arrests have resulted from minor nonviolent offenses, including urinating on the floor of a convenience store, making false 911 calls because she needed somewhere to sleep and berating nurses when the hospital didn't have an available bed.
When Harris is stable and lucid, she understands that she encounters law enforcement on those occasions because her actions are inappropriate. But she's frustrated at the outcomes nonetheless.
"The police all know I have a mental condition and sometimes I'm not properly medicated. Why are you taking me to jail?" Harris said in a recent interview, her voice firm and incredulous. "(The guards) don't know how to treat people with mental illness. … Some of them treat you like you're not human. I think that's not right."
Baton Rouge leaders have long voiced concern about the shortage of mental health services here, which became even scarcer following the closure of several local facilities due to state budget cuts under former Gov. Bobby Jindal. That shortage often means people like Harris end up incarcerated because there's nowhere else for authorities to bring them.
Local officials are now asking the public to consider funding the proposed Bridge Center. Early voting starts Saturday for two taxes on the Dec. 8 ballot — one for the mental health center and another to improve road congestion.
This marks the second time in recent years that parish voters have considered funding mental health services. Residents rejected a similar proposal in 2016. But local leaders are expecting more public support this time around, arguing the need has grown too large to ignore.
'Crystal the human being'
Harris' story illustrates what experts describe as the widespread impacts of insufficient mental health treatment, which can affect entire families and ultimately place an added burden on other social programs and the criminal justice system.
Harris grew up in Plaquemine, one of three sisters.
She described watching her own mother experience mental illness without understanding her behavior. Sometimes the children would stay with relatives while their mom was getting treatment and their dad, a truck driver, was on the road.
Harris became pregnant her senior year of high school and gave birth not long after graduation. She said it was around that time she started "hearing and seeing things and getting really paranoid" — a "real scary" experience that prompted her ongoing efforts to understand the science behind mental illness.
"People look down on you and treat you different (because of mental illness), like you're handicapped," she said. "That makes me feel like I wasn't even part of the world no more — just in the world and not a part of the world. … I want people to see me as Crystal the human being, instead of just calling me crazy."
Her symptoms escalated over the next several years. Eventually her daughter was placed in foster care and later adopted, leaving Harris even more distraught. Her voice fills with regret when she describes losing the child, but then she smiles with pride thinking about her daughter's upcoming high school graduation next spring.
Harris said a relationship, one that ended when she was arrested and accused of stabbing the man in 2005, also contributed to her deteriorating mental health. That case appears to be the only violent offense in Harris' long criminal record. She pleaded guilty to a reduced charge but remains a convicted felon.
Harris said the stabbing arose from "a unique situation" and doesn't attribute the incident to her mental illness. But the conviction "kind of stopped me from getting a decent job after that."
She worked as a waitress and cashier for some time, but had to stop after the long hours and little sleep interfered with her mental state. Now she lives off a monthly disability check — which she said sometimes goes straight toward posting bond.
Harris stayed with her sister for a while several years ago, but got kicked out of the apartment complex. That's when she started living on the streets. She said being homeless makes it more difficult to stay on her medications because some of them cause drowsiness, which makes her more vulnerable when sleeping outdoors. But she often lands in jail when she stops taking them.
She also said she was banned from using the Capital Area Transit System in September, which means she has to walk everywhere.
Kelly Harris said she helps her sister whenever possible — and has for decades — but she also "can't give my whole life to her when I've given so much already." She recounted multiple times that she moved out of Louisiana hoping to find a better future for her children, but ended up returning home to help take care of her mother and sisters.
She said another problem is that Crystal is independent, sometimes stubborn, and doesn't always want help.
But that doesn't stop Kelly Harris from worrying about her little sister, especially after losing both parents and their third sibling in recent years.
"There are nights when I can't sleep because I'm thinking about her, wondering if she's OK," Kelly Harris said. "There have been instances when she's mistreated in jail and stuff. … I'm worried about her interactions with the police — worried that something bad will happen."
The East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office did not respond to a request for comment about the allegation of mistreatment.
The Bridge Center
Local leaders hope that the proposed Bridge Center will give law enforcement officers somewhere to bring people experiencing a mental health crisis who would otherwise wind up in Parish Prison or emergency rooms, which lack the resources to address a high volume of psychiatric patients.
The new program would provide about 30 beds for people needing acute psychiatric care, including detox. Patients would be discharged once they're stabilized and offered ongoing outpatient treatment options.
The proposed tax would raise about $6 million per year for 10 years, costing roughly $18.75 annually — or $1.50 a month — for someone with a $200,000 home.
East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux estimated at a recent press conference that 65 to 70 percent of people in Parish Prison have a diagnosed mental health disorder and a large number simply "don't need to be in prison."
"God forbid that this could be one of my family members," he said. "This is something that touches all of us — something that we need to address. We can't just close our eyes to it."
Crystal Harris agrees that the general public should be more understanding toward people with mental illness, more aware of the sometimes insurmountable challenges facing them. She said the Bridge Center would be a clear step in the right direction.
"I think it's a perfect idea for the citizens of Baton Rouge," she said. "Maybe I'm safer in jail than on the streets, but a medical facility would be better than both."
Harris just moved into a new apartment earlier this week — the first time in several years that she's had somewhere stable to call home.
She recently discovered the Louisiana Housing Corporation, which uses federal and state funds to connect people with affordable housing and other services. She also found Start Corporation, a nonprofit that provides assistance, including some psychiatric services. Harris said both programs are helping her get her life together.
She's feeling optimistic about the future, having stopped "hanging around the wrong people" and engaging in the occasional drug use that she refers to as self medication. Now that she has stable housing, Harris is hoping to start working and saving for a car.
Her ultimate goal is to go back to school and become a social worker. She's also hoping for a better relationship with her sister Kelly "because she's pretty much all I got."
But her top priority in the meantime is avoiding another arrest — because that could put all her other plans on hold.
"I'm praying that I don't go back to jail again anytime soon. That's for sure," Harris said. "Please Lord, not again."