HE WAS SITTING CROSS-LEGGED in the corner of a barren cell that contained only one piece of furniture: a bed fashioned from heavy plastic that was bolted to the floor. Beside him was an unopened Bible.
“Grant?” said the guard as he opened the door. “The reporter is here to see you.”
Grant Williams, nineteen years old, stood up and gently shook my hand. He was a good-looking kid, his brown eyes soft and almost liquid, tinged with a kind of melancholy seen in Renaissance-era paintings. He wore an orange uniform that looked like doctors’ scrubs. On his feet were white socks and brown plastic slippers.
“So,” I said, not sure where to begin.
“It’s okay,” he replied, as if to make me feel more comfortable.
“I wanted to ask you about …” and I hesitated.
“The voice,” he said, and he gave me an embarrassed smile. “You want to know about the voice.”
It was a beautiful spring afternoon, the sunlight glittering off the tall chain-link fences that circled the spacious grounds of the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center, the state-run institution south of Dallas that is populated solely by mentally ill children and teenagers who have committed serious crimes. But in Grant Williams’s windowless cell, in a cinder-block building in the back of the property, the only light came from the fluorescent lightbulbs in the ceiling, which stayed on day and night.
“Yeah, man,” he said, nodding his head. “The voice talks to me all the time. It’s like a grown man talking to me, a nice man. He talks to me about doing bad stuff—about stealing things, breaking into places, hurting people, things like that. Sometimes he tells me that I should kill someone.”
“The voice tells you to kill people?”
For several seconds, Grant said nothing. He shut his eyes, seemingly distracted by something else that was going on in his mind—something he did not want to be there.
“Yeah,” he finally said. “And sometimes he tells me a fifty-headed snake is coming to get me.”
HE IS THE KIND OF KID who scares people half to death: a mentally ill teenage troublemaker, driven by demons he cannot control. He has been arrested for theft, for setting a fire, and for assault, and the way he talks, he seems capable of doing much, much worse.
Perhaps most frightening of all is that Grant Williams is not alone. The Texas Department of Mental Heath and Mental Retardation ( MHMR) places the “at risk” juvenile population—those who have the most-serious emotional and mental disorders but whose families can’t afford treatment—at 150,000 kids. Already they have overwhelmed the state’s mental health system; MHMR has sufficient funding to treat fewer than 40,000 of these at-risk kids.
The absence of an adequate public mental health system is the main reason so many mentally ill kids are now in jail. They can’t get help early in their lives, before the problems become dangerously acute. The burden then falls on the juvenile prisons, and it keeps getting heavier. Of the 5,000 juvenile offenders kept in the fifteen state juvenile correction facilities run by the Texas Youth Commission ( TYC), the state agency that oversees the incarceration of Texas’s worst young criminals, 49 percent have been diagnosed by TYC mental health professionals as having either a serious emotional disturbance or a mental illness—a significant jump from 1995, when only 27 percent of the TYC kids were so diagnosed. Another 100,000 juveniles are arrested and referred to officials at the county level every year; a recent study of 3,000 of these offenders concluded that 48 percent had a serious mental disorder. “This is no longer just a problem,” says Elmer Bailey, the chief juvenile probation officer for Harris County. “This is a crisis.”
What happens to kids who do not get into a mental health treatment program is no mystery. Study after study shows that they are likely to drop out of school, turn to illegal drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate, completely disrupt their family’s home life, and as they become more unstable, engage in criminal behavior. “Too often,” concluded a 2000 report from the U.S. Surgeon General’s Conference on Mental Health, “children who are not identified as having mental health problems and who do not receive services end up in jail.”
This situation suggests that it is time to rethink our ideas about juvenile crime. In the fifties and sixties, when Americans thought of a typical offender, they pictured the Jets and the Sharks of West Side Story—fundamentally decent kids trapped in an urban jungle, unable to catch a break. In the nineties the image was the violent and remorseless gang members in Boyz N the Hood. Today, the poster child for the epidemic of juvenile crime is a victim of mental illness, like Grant Williams.
Texas is widely known for its tightfisted approach to social-services spending, but the policy of ignoring its disturbed youths seems particularly shortsighted. Mentally ill juvenile criminals grow up to be adult criminals. They steal or destroy property. They commit acts of violence that devastate families and ruin productive lives. When they are caught and convicted, the state must build prisons to house them, hire three shifts of guards a day to watch them, and create huge bureaucracies to oversee their incarceration and release. You don’t need a blizzard of statistics to know that treatment is far cheaper—and far more effective—than imprisonment. Some juvenile gang members may be unrehabilitatable, but most juvenile victims of mental illness—if identified and treated early enough to make a difference—are not. Recent advances in pharmaceutical drugs make it possible to treat many of the worst forms of mental illness. “What so many people still don’t understand,” says Linda Reyes, the head of the rehabilitation program for all the TYC state schools, “is that it’s far, far more effective to pay for mental health services early on, rather than letting kids drop out of school and get sicker and then eventually sending them to us or to the state hospitals. A few dollars a day