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How Mississippi Jails People for Mental Illness

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Mississippi Today and co-published with the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, the Sun Herald and MLK50. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. 

When Sandy Jones’ 26-year-old daughter started writing on the walls of her home in Hernando, Mississippi, last year and talking angrily to the television, Sandy said, she knew two things: Her daughter Sydney needed help, and Sandy didn’t want her to be held in jail again to get it.

A year and a half earlier, during Sydney Jones’ first psychotic episode, her mother filed paperwork to have her involuntarily committed, a legal process in which a judge can order someone to receive mental health treatment. After DeSoto County sheriff’s deputies showed up at Sydney’s home and explained that they were detaining her for a mental evaluation, Sydney panicked and ran inside. Following a struggle, deputies cuffed and shackled her and drove her to the county jail, where people going through the commitment process are usually held as they await mental health treatment elsewhere.

Over nine days in jail, Sydney Jones said, she believed her tattoos were portals for spiritual forces and felt like she had been abandoned by her family. In an interview, she said that the experience was so traumatic that she became anxious when she drove, afraid she could be arrested at any moment.

The second time Sydney Jones experienced delusions, in 2023, a family member contacted the local community mental health center for help. Police officers with mental health training came and called an ambulance to take Jones to Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto, part of a large, religiously affiliated nonprofit hospital system. But because the hospital doesn’t have a psychiatric unit, after a few days it sent her to the jail to wait for eventual treatment in a publicly funded facility. Like the first time, she hadn’t been charged with a crime.

Roughly 200 people in DeSoto County were jailed annually during the civil commitment process, most without criminal charges, between 2021 and 2023. About

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