I first met “Kelly Thomas” while I was an intern in the Mental Health Department on Rikers Island. With the IQ of a small child, and a diagnosis of schizophrenia, the twenty-seven-year old Kelly Thomas had been transferred to the Mental Observation Unit upon her arrival at the women’s jail. Her crime? A couple of weeks earlier, Kelly had entered a residential program for the mentally ill. As soon as she’d settled in, the other patients began picking on her. When a group of her tormentors wandered into her room, Kelly panicked and struck a match to a scrap of toilet paper on the floor to scare them off. Although the tissue extinguished itself as quickly as it was lit, the police were called, Kelly Thomas was charged with arson, and promptly shipped to Rikers.
When I tried to introduce myself, the slender woman was frantic, her trembling hands cupping her face. “Who are you? Why am I here?” she asked me. Unlike many of her mentally ill peers, I noted that Kelly Thomas was neatly kempt, her hair stylishly fashioned. I would later learn that this was due to the efforts of a devoted mother.
“My name is Miss Buser,” I said, “I’ll be working with you…”
“When can I go home? I wanna go home! I want to talk to my mother!”
“You can talk to your mother, Kelly. Why don’t you call her?”
“Those girls won’t let me use the phone. They say I have to pay them! If I could call my mother, she’d send me money and I could give it to them.”
“Kelly, you don’t have to pay anyone to make a phone call.”
This was a bad situation. Even on the protected Mental Observation Unit, because of her severely limited mental capacity, she would face constant exploitation.
“I’m scared,” she shrieked. “If I’m good, will they let me go home?”
As she looked to me for answers, I struggled for answers, myself. This woman had been abruptly transported from everything she knew to a cold jail on Rikers Island, for reasons she would never understand. What was the point of this? Was there no accountability for the staff who had allowed matches to be in reach of someone they knew had the mentality of a child?
But the whys and wherefores meant nothing in the present moment. I needed to focus on helping Kelly. My relationship with her would be very basic. I would try to calm her down, see that she took her meds, and generally try to advocate for her. My supervisor also suggested I speak with Kelly’s mother for background information.
Kelly recited her mother’s number, and when I returned to the clinic and placed the call to Gloria Thomas, I was a little wary, unsure of just how a call from a stranger inside jail would be received. You never knew. But Mrs. Thomas was practically ecstatic, deeply relieved to know that someone on Rikers Island was looking out for her daughter. “Oh, God, thank you -- thank you for calling me. All I’ve been doing is praying – crying and praying – praying and crying!”
I started to say something, but realized that Gloria Thomas was weeping. As this poor woman sobbed, I thought how painful it must be to have a loved one in jail, especially someone as vulnerable as Kelly. After she’d composed herself, Gloria Thomas poured out the trials of caring for a mentally ill child. “She can’t be left alone – she’s got to be supervised, but there’s no place for her to go. They shut down all the hospitals because they said they were snake-pits. Okay, fine! But what did they replace them with? A few programs here and there, yeah -- but not nearly enough for everyone who needs one. It’s simple math! What am I supposed to do? I have to go to work, but I can’t just leave her with a babysitter – people don’t understand. My marriage ended over Angie -- my husband couldn’t take it anymore. I live in constant crisis. It took years for me to get her into this program. Years! And here I thought this was finally the answer to my prayers. Instead, it turned out to be a stepping stone to something even more horrible -- my daughter is on Rikers Island! For arson! Arson! Dear God, when will this nightmare end? When? Will my retarded, schizophrenic daughter now go to prison with drug dealers and murderers, and rapists? Does that make any sense to you?”
“No, Mrs. Thomas – it doesn’t, it surely does not.”
She broke down again and I just stayed with her while she sobbed. Her daughter wasn’t the only one who needed support. She was right – none of this made any sense. When Gloria Thomas finally calmed down, we coordinated schedules and agreed to speak regularly. “I’m home in the evenings,” she said, “except for about half an hour when I take the dog out for a walk – my half hour of peace.”
I would keep her updated on Kelly, and she would talk to the public defender about alternatives to incarceration.
There was actually some hope that Kelly might go to a court-mandated program for the mentally ill. But all of this took time and Kelly was becoming agitated. Although I tried, I couldn’t protect her from being bullied, and in an altercation with another patient, she wound up with a black eye. No one seemed to know exactly what happened, but after that, whatever composure she’d been capable of was gone and Kelly became irrational, now blaming me for her confinement. “You said if I was good, then I could go home!”
“No, Kelly, I never said that. What I said is that we have to be patient – remember? Your lawyer is working on something for you.”
But nothing was getting through and she simply trembled and cried. “Get me out of here! You get me out of here!” And then one morning, to show me she meant business, she tried a new strategy – “If you don’t get me out of here – then -- I’m going to escape! I’m going to do it. I’m really going to do it!”
“Shhh, Kelly! Let’s keep our voices down!” Although Kelly Thomas was the last person in the world capable of engineering an escape, if any of the officers even heard the word “escape,” or noted any behavior in that regard, they would be duty bound to report it to a captain, who would report it to a deputy warden, and so on. The same mindless chain of events that got her arrested in the first place would spring into action. My fear was that any crude, transparent overture in the direction of an escape would never be interpreted within the context of Kelly’s mental limits, but taken seriously, quite possibly resulting in a new and very serious charge. As bad as this whole mess was, it actually held out the possibility of getting worse.
Thankfully, there was some progress with her case. Kelly’s lawyer arranged for a “730,” the legal term for an outside psychiatric evaluation ordered by the courts to determine mental competence. Since the law requires that defendants are able to understand their charges, inmates with psychiatric histories routinely undergo these exams at designated forensic hospitals.
Kelly understood little of this, but what she did understand was that she’d be leaving Rikers Island. I thought it best not to point out that once the exam was completed, she’d be returning.
Once Kelly knew she was leaving, she calmed down and began quizzing me about the state hospital. “Will it have trees?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think I can walk around outside?”
“Might be a little cold for that.”
Nonetheless, Kelly Thomas was momentarily content as she imagined the possibilities for herself at a state forensic hospital.
Two weeks later, she was bussed off Rikers Island to undergo the 730, which took anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. I never saw Kelly Thomas again, as my internship ended before her return. In a final conversation with her mother, I wished her well, and when we hung up, I was left with an image of Gloria Thomas walking her dog, alone on a city street, wondering what was next in the ongoing nightmare of caring for a mentally ill child.