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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Mother Fights As Brain Injured Son Languishes In Jail

A federal judge in Seattle has made it clear to the state that mentally ill jail inmates need to be evaluated within seven days to see if they’re competent to stand trial.

But what if it takes nearly a month for a judge to order that evaluation? That’s what happened to a former high school football player with a traumatic brain injury. His mother has been fighting to get her son the help he needs.

On a recent morning, Karri Phillips passed through a double set of steel doors at the Thurston County Jail in search of some answers. Her son Brian was being held in 23-hour-a-day lockdown inside. Phillips approached a bulletproof reception window. She was seeking information regarding her son’s medication.

Phillips’ son is brain injured and mentally unstable. The reason he was put in jail is because he stopped taking his medications -- in violation of the conditions of his release.

Phillips said she’s marking the days Brian’s been locked up. It was the 57th day that he’s been in lock-up.

'You’re probably going to notice some differences'

Phillips traces her son’s troubles to his days as a football player at Timberline High School in Lacey. She said he sustained four football concussions. The school district has a record of one. In any event, one evening Brian passed out.

“We took him in for CAT scans,” Phillips said.

There was damage to his frontal lobe.

“The neurologist at that point said, ‘Karri you’re probably going to notice some differences down the road,’” she recalled. “I didn’t get it then, I didn’t understand it.”

Sure enough, during Brian’s second quarter of community college his behavior started to change. He was no longer his mother’s “gentle giant.”

“Just real heightened, boisterous, non-boundary, out-of-control type behavior, essentially,” Phillips said. “And then it just spiraled.”

Brian became delusional.

He was first arrested in November of 2012 after making threats about doing harm to family members. He was arrested again the following February after he broke into his former high school.

“In the police reports and stuff it states that he was walking robotically and that he wasn’t about himself when they took him into custody,” Phillips said.

Placed in isolation

Brian spent more than 100 days in jail and at Western State Hospital. Eventually, the court allowed his release while his mom tried to get him into a Traumatic Brain Injury program.

Then this past June, Brian had a series of confrontations with police officers. He was off his medication. On June 25th, he was re-arrested. Because of his behavior, he was placed in isolation.

Phillips said it makes her sick to her stomach to think of her son in isolation. “Fundamentally it’s inhumane,” Phillips said. “It not right in any aspect.”

Mentally ill inmates are often put in isolation. That’s one reason why the state is under a federal court order to move quickly to evaluate them. But that seven-day clock doesn’t start ticking until a judge orders an evaluation. It’s common for inmates to wait several weeks as the slow wheels of justice turn.

That’s what happened to Brian.

First, his private attorney dropped out of the case and a public defender had to be assigned. The prosecutor wanted to move quickly to get a competency evaluation ordered. But Brian’s new attorney was still getting up to speed on the case. Once the defense signed off, another week went by before they could get before a judge.

Finally, nearly a month after Brian had been locked up, the order for a competency evaluation was issued.

'I won’t stop fighting for him'

But the delays weren’t over yet. For some unexplained reason it took eight days for the order to reach Western State. Then came word it would take at least another two weeks to schedule the evaluation. By this time, Brian had been in jail for more than a month.

His mom was calling or emailing someone about his case almost every day.

“I’m doing what I can and I won’t stop fighting for him,” Phillips said. “But what about those kids that don’t have it, what about those young adults or adults that don’t have people there to fight for ‘em?”

Brian landed back in jail because he stopped taking his medication. It was red tape and bureaucratic delays that kept him there. So why not release him for treatment? Tom McBride with the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys said it’s not that easy -- especially when public safety is on the line.

“We’ve got decades of experience sending people over to the mental health system and nothing happens,” McBride said.

He said prosecutors are open to the idea of treatment over prosecution in some cases if they’re confident the person will actually get the help they need.

“Twenty years ago when I started, diversion was something prosecutors got criticized for,” McBride said. “I would say now I don’t think there is that view. I think prosecutors can be a little bit more open about diversion because it’s not seen as a bad thing.”

Washington’s new budget includes nearly $5 million to fund alternatives to prosecution. Brian Phillips finally got his competency evaluation. After all that, he was found competent to stand trial -- perhaps because he was back on his medications.

Now his mom holds out hope the prosecutor will agree to a pretrial release plan. Anything to get him out of jail.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."