(News) Deaf Man Wrongly Jailed for Nearly 2 Years
- Deaf Man Wrongly Jailed for Nearly Two Years
By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON (Aug. 31) - A deaf man with a serious mental illness who cannot
speak was wrongly jailed for nearly two years in the nation's capital even
though minor charges against him were dismissed, prison officials said on
In an extreme case of bureaucratic bungling, the 42-year-old drifter spent
669 days in a solitary cell in a mental health unit of the city's jail until
his case file was retrieved from storage where it had been put in error.
Prisoners' rights groups lambasted the D.C. Department of Corrections and
said the case highlighted the serious lack of attention given to a growing
number of mentally ill and disabled inmates in America.
''This case is very disturbing. There appears to have been no effort to
communicate with this inmate, who was not only deaf but mentally ill'' said
Kara Gotsch of the prisoners' rights group, the National Prison Project.
''There obviously was negligence on the part of the D.C. Department of
Corrections and they need to be held accountable for that,'' said Gotsch,
whose organization is affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The inmate, Joseph Heard, had a history of arrests in the capital, Maryland
and Florida, and was detained on a misdemeanor charge for trespassing on the
grounds of George Washington University in November 1998.
After his arrest, Heard was sent to a mental hospital where he was diagnosed
with paranoid schizophrenia, claiming in writing and through interpreters
that he was related to late President John F. Kennedy.
Even though the charges against him were eventually dropped, Heard was
transferred in September 1999 to the city's detention center, where he stayed
until his release on Aug. 13, said a spokeswoman for the Department of
It was only when jail officials were recently reviewing case files of inmates
in the mental health unit that they realized Heard's file was missing. It was
finally tracked down to a storage center in Maryland and Heard was released,
voluntarily returning to the mental hospital.
NO VISITORS IN JAIL
News of the man's unlawful jailing first emerged on Friday in The Washington
Post, which said the corrections department chief accepted full
responsibility for the jailing.
''We knew from day one that his case had been dismissed,'' Department of
Corrections Director Odie Washington was quoted as telling the Post.
''It was kind of unbelievable to me that we could hold a guy for nearly two
years who should not have been there,'' he said.
Washington, who has ordered an investigation into the incident, declined to
be interviewed by Reuters but a spokeswoman confirmed his comments to the
Post were accurate.
Jail records indicate Heard never received any visits from relatives, friends
or lawyers but that he had tried to use a telephone for the hearing impaired
Corrections officials told the Post Heard never complained about his
incarceration and described him as a ''model prisoner'' in the jail's South
However, in an interview with the Post through an interpreter, Heard said he
thought he was in the jail for four years and had known all along he should
not be there.
''I do not know why I stayed in jail ... I was not happy in jail,'' the
interpreter quoted him as saying.
In the past 20 years, America's prison population has more than tripled,
reaching over 2 million inmates last year, one of the highest per capita
incarceration rates in the world.
With a campaign since the 1960s to release more and more patients from mental
institutions, the number of people jailed with serious mental disorders has
also soared. Officials estimate one in six inmates has a history of mental
Marc Mauer, associate director of a non-profit group called the Sentencing
Project, said Heard's case was ''just the tip of the iceberg.''
''People with mental illnesses do fall between the cracks,'' said Mauer,
whose group looks at crime policy issues. ''They (mentally ill inmates) don't
have the same defenses or advocacy skills. It is too easy just to write them
off as crazy,'' he added.
Bureaucratic bungling was common in prisons, he said, pointing to a case in
New York state recently where a mentally ill man spent two years in prison
instead of the real criminal who had a similar name.
''In that case, on a number of occasions, he complained that he should not be
there but he was dismissed as just being mentally ill,'' said Mauer.
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