Spotlight PA, 03/09/23: “Rachel Bridgeman thought she could hear God.
Locked in the Allegheny County Jail, she slid from reality. The voice in her head, the one she called Lord Jesus, told her that if she smashed her face against the floor and walls of her cell she would save humanity.
Jail staff knew she had a history of psychosis and had spent time at two inpatient treatment facilities back in Georgia, her home. But as the conditions of the jail eroded Rachel’s sanity, a process intended to help her would keep her there longer.
The court needed to determine whether Rachel, then 22, would be “competent” to stand trial. The legal procedure is designed to protect someone, who because of a mental health issue, cannot participate in their own defense.
But for Rachel, referral to the competency system meant that, because of her mental illness, she could not leave the place making it worse.
A six-month investigation by Spotlight PA and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism found that Pennsylvania laws and policies meant to aid people who have severe mental health issues and have been accused of a crime often do just the opposite.
The investigation also found there is no single state agency tracking what happens to people once their competency is questioned.
Instead, a patchwork of state and local agencies facilitates the detention, treatment, and trial of someone found incompetent, with little oversight.
The result is a system that can strand people with serious mental health needs in jail, where their conditions may worsen; a system that prolongs detention for low-level crimes that experts say are often a symptom of mental illness; and a system so broken, some defense attorneys avoid it altogether.”