In 2012, a 16-year-old boy named Tyler Haire was locked up in a Mississippi jail cell after committing a violent crime against his father’s girlfriend. Tyler ended up spending years behind bars while waiting for a psychiatric examination, despite having a history of issues dating back to early childhood. Sarah Smith‘s ProPublica story, “What Are We Going to Do About Tyler?” was a recent No. 1 pick here on Longreads. It offers a sobering look at America’s failures when it comes to treating mental illness.
I spoke with Smith recently about her reporting process, and the remarkable way she discovered the story: dialing up all 82 sheriffs in Mississippi in order to find a case like Tyler’s.
I spent three months in Jackson as the legislative relief reporter with The Associated Press just covering the session, and I heard about these forensic evaluation delays there. It’s a pretty well-known problem in the state, and it was something that I wanted to delve into.
So I figured, the people who would know where the good stories are were the local sheriffs. When I got back to New York and it was decided that we were going to do the story with ProPublica, I sat down and I called each one of the 82 sheriffs in Mississippi. Many of them were actually really happy to return my call and talk about this problem. I was actually referred by another sheriff to the sheriff in Calhoun County, which is where Tyler stayed. He said, ‘You have to talk to Greg Pollan, the Calhoun County sheriff. He had one. And that’s how I came across the story of Tyler.
Tyler ended up spending nearly four years in Calhoun County Jail, waiting for a psychiatric evaluation.
It wasn’t one of those situations where the judge thought it was the defense attorney’s responsibility, who thought it was the prosecutor’s, who thought it was the sheriff, who thought they had it.
It wasn’t one of those cases which happens of course all across America, where someone just falls off the cracks. Tyler, the whole time, was in the system. Everybody knew there was a massive delay. He was on the state’s list the whole time. He just hadn’t received the forensic evaluation necessary to move his process forward.
As it turned out, there simply wasn’t space for Tyler to receive an evaluation. There are just 15 beds at the facility for pre-trial examinations in the entire state of Mississippi.
In this case there simply wasn’t bed space available for him throughout the case. Different actors would be told that maybe it would just be two to three months, which is what the defense attorney heard. There’s a note in this case file that says he should be in within two weeks. And of course at that point it would take almost another two years to get him in there just simply wasn’t space for him.
Tyler’s story isn’t unusual. A lack of funding, lack of space, and lack of support in Mississippi, and around the United States, means we continue to neglect the repercussions of mental illness everywhere — from homelessness to health care to violent crime. Says Smith: “It really just touches all aspects of life, and it’s not paid attention to enough.”
For more from my interview with Sarah Smith, listen here: