Inmate killed in Cook County Jail shouldn't have been locked up there
Monday, February 16, 2015
Chicago Tribune by Annie Sweeney
Tony Purnell, who survived Chicago's tough Henry Horner Homes to serve in the Army and earn a college degree, had struggled for years with mental illness by the time he wound up in Cook County Jail early last year on a minor charge, unable to post the $500 bond.
By June 23, he had been slapped with a six-month sentence for swearing at a judge and was living in a four-man cell in the jail's psychiatric ward. But because of crowded conditions, temporary beds had been added that day to make more room for two more inmates.
Inside the cramped space that evening, Purnell was repeatedly pacing when a cellmate suddenly threw him against a wall and stomped on him, causing severe injuries, officials said. He died a month later.
But Purnell should not have been in the County Jail, the Tribune has learned from interviews with numerous law enforcement agencies. In 2013, he was given a 20-year sentence for threatening to harm a downstate judge and was supposed to be in state prison, but he had been mistakenly released from custody before landing in jail on a misdemeanor offense.
After recently learning of the mix-up, surprised and frustrated jail officials say the tragic attack reflects a broader problem with the thousands of inmates who have mental illness being cycled in and out of the criminal justice system on minor charges when they need intensive mental health care.
"They are both seriously mentally ill and the crimes that brought them here were exceptionally insignificant," said Cara Smith, director of the massive jail complex on the West Side. "They are ours, and we are responsible for managing that person and caring for them. (But) we have a lot of people who are very sick and should be in another setting."
At the County Jail, inmates who have the most serious mental disorders are assigned to the second floor of Cermak Health Services, a three-story, light brown brick building that serves as the jail's hospital. Dorm-type rooms line the L-shaped floor with a work station at the bend for the medical staff. Inmates are assigned a room — either single or shared — after an initial screening that considers their medical diagnosis and security risk, officials said.
For decades the jail has been under court-ordered federal monitoring for a variety of issues, from overcrowding to civil rights abuses. Cermak itself has not escaped criticism — a federal monitor in recent reports flagged overcrowding on the floor where Purnell was killed, saying extra beds were routinely needed there. The monitor also called staffing levels inadequate throughout Cermak.
Sheriff Tom Dart, whose office runs the jail, has gained national attention for his complaints that the jail has become a dumping ground for those with mental illness. He has gone so far as to dub the jail — which has about 8,500 inmates — as the largest mental health facility in the country. Officials estimate almost a third of the inmates might have a diagnosed mental disorder.
The shift in the 1960s away from institutionalizing people with mental illness forced many into the criminal justice system, said Pam Rodriguez, president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, a social service agency. While it was a well-intentioned idea to stop warehousing people with mental illness, local community health clinics and housing support never followed, she said.
"We never invested at the level we needed," Rodriguez said.
Often, inmates with mental illness end up at the jail on relatively minor offenses that don't carry high bonds, yet they don't have the financial resources or family support to raise the money for release.
Once people with mental illness are incarcerated, they are at great risk of suffering more problems — including assaults by inmates and staff, said Matthew Epperson, a professor at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration. Studies also have shown that mental health symptoms can worsen during incarceration. Not surprisingly, the mental strain of incarceration has an even more severe impact on those who already have a mental disorder.
A jail is simply not designed to provide care, Epperson said.
"Psychiatric hospitals can be very scary places ... but the goal is to stabilize the person to provide treatment," he said. "That really isn't the function of a jail. It's to provide safety for everyone, but really it's in a punitive system."
'Almighty Lord King Tone'
Purnell had shown promise in his youth, testing well enough to attend a competitive high school in Chicago. For much of the 1990s, he served in the Army on active duty and in the reserves. By 1999 he graduated from DeVry University and took courses at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
Over the years he held a series of odd jobs — selling trailers and working security — his family said. He was the fun-loving center of the family, always humming the same Earth, Wind & Fire song, "Brazilian Rhyme." He married and had three children who fondly recall family trips and lots of fatherly lectures.
Purnell's family said they began to notice slight changes in his behavior after 2001, a year in which he lost his mother and a brother. Then, in 2008, Purnell seemed to have a profound break, demanding that his sister take him to the church where his mother's funeral took place and insisting that he needed to get her out.
They sought help at a hospital that day, and did so other times as well. But Purnell, his sister said, could convince doctors he was healthy enough to leave. And, like many mental health patients, he didn't like being medicated because it made him feel drowsy.
Despite the struggles, they never really lost sight of their brother.
"He wasn't walking around in this cloud," said Purnell's sister Christine. "He was 'Tone.' He would be OK for this period of time and then ... he's not. ... He just had little spaces in his life where he was never himself."
In 2010 Purnell was charged by federal authorities with threatening to kill President Barack Obama in a series of emails he sent to the National Security Agency.
In the messages, Purnell referred to himself as the "Almighty Lord King Tone" and wrote about stoning the president to death on the West Side.
While in custody, Purnell was evaluated and treated at a prison hospital. In seeking to have him committed, federal prosecutors cited a preliminary psychologist's evaluation that concluded Purnell had a disorder that involved "persecutory and grandiose" delusions.
Eventually, Purnell was found mentally competent for trial, but he ended up pleading guilty in February 2012 and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
Purnell was released from a federal prison in downstate Pekin in December 2012, but he was quickly arrested in nearby Peoria for striking a police officer and was locked up in Peoria County Jail pending trial.
While in custody, Purnell threatened to harm a Peoria County judge by letter. In June 2013, he was sentenced to a combined 20 years in prison for the threat to the judge and the attack on the officer.
Released by mistake
But Purnell was not promptly delivered to state prison to begin serving his sentence. Instead, he first had to be returned to the custody of federal authorities in Chicago because his arrests in Peoria had triggered a violation of the terms of his release from federal prison.
He was transferred to Chicago's federal jail, the Metropolitan Correctional Center. He stayed there until October 2013, when a federal judge terminated his supervised release.
At that point, Purnell should have been returned to Peoria County, where he would have been processed and eventually taken to the Illinois Department of Corrections to serve out his state prison term, federal and local officials interviewed for this article agree. For reasons not entirely clear, he instead was released that October from the MCC.
Tim McFarden, assistant chief of the U.S. Marshals Service in Chicago, said Peoria jail officials had indicated by email that Purnell had been cleared for release.
Yet Brian Asbell, the director of the Peoria County Jail, told the Tribune that his staff found no record of emails concerning Purnell. He said Peoria officials released him to the marshals expecting he would be returned to their jail. They didn't learn of Purnell's release until last March, Asbell said. At that point, Peoria officials issued a warrant for his arrest.
By then, however, Purnell was locked up in Cook County Jail on a bond of just $500 on charges he walked into a Chicago attorney's office in January 2014 and made yet another threat. He said he would burn down the office if he wasn't paid money.
At a hearing in February 2014 on those charges, Purnell grew combative and uncooperative, hurling repeated expletives at Judge Peggy Chiampas as she sought to order a mental evaluation for him, according to a transcript. But it also appeared from the transcript that he tried several times to express one salient point — he had already been sentenced to prison.
"Whatever. (Expletive), I was given 21 years," he said in apparent reference to his 20-year sentence. "Enforce that."
But the point was lost in all the threats and expletives. The judge sentenced him to six months in jail for criminal contempt of court, citing Purnell's refusal to cooperate with the evaluation, his "contemptuous behavior" and for making a veiled threat by telling her she "ain't got much longer."
Purnell was returned to Cermak.
He 'just gets angry'
By last June, Jason Robles had been jailed and placed in the same room with Purnell.
Robles' mental health problems went back at least half a dozen years. In 2008, Robles, then 17, ran up to a man while screaming obscenities, punched him and then grabbed his cellphone, according to his arrest report.
Doctors determined that the teen had acute symptoms of a "psychotic mental disorder" and appeared to be hallucinating and responding to "internal stimuli," according to the court records.
He was convicted of robbery, sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to undergo mental health treatment.
By 2013 he was in trouble again, this time for spitting on his court-appointed lawyer at bond court. During a subsequent mental evaluation, he denied experiencing hallucinations, anxiety or depression, according to court records. He said he smoked crack cocaine and marijuana daily and admitted he "just gets angry."
Though the doctors could not determine a diagnosis, Robles was ultimately prescribed anti-psychotic medicine and found to be mentally fit to take part in his case. He was convicted of aggravated battery and sentenced to two years in prison, but this time officials found him ineligible for the court's mental health program because of his aggressive behavior and refusal to take his medicine.
Last June 16 Robles was released from prison and directed to a Chicago homeless shelter, Pacific Garden Mission, after his mother could not be located, a state prison spokesman said.
Over the next two days, he was stopped twice by police on the Northwest Side, once for being in a park after hours and then for refusing to leave the porch of a residence.
Four days after landing back at the jail, authorities said, Robles attacked Purnell without provocation, leading to his indictment on charges of first-degree murder.
Purnell's family — which filed a lawsuit last week — has many questions about how he could be fatally beaten inside the jail's medical ward. The suit alleges that staffers reached out to a jail doctor instead of immediately calling an ambulance, allowing "crucial minutes" to go by before Purnell got help. The jail denied the allegations.
"We knew that he had psychological issues," Christine Purnell said. "For me, it was a comfort to know … where he's at. He'll be fed. He'll have a warm place to sleep … and that he is safe from harming himself or any other people."
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