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Home » Hacking News » D.C. Wrongly Jailed Deaf Man 2 Years

D.C. Wrongly Jailed Deaf Man 2 Years

by ivy on September 1st, 2001 Staff Failed to Realize Charge Against Detainee Had Been Dismissed, Corrections Chief Says

A deaf man who is unable to speak and suffers from mental illness was mistakenly incarcerated at the D.C. jail for nearly two years, lost in a bureaucracy that relied on inaccurate computer records, mishandled his files and failed to realize the misdemeanor charge against him had been dismissed.

Joseph S. Heard, 42, was released from the jail Aug. 13 and sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital after corrections officials retrieved his case file from storage in Suitland and discovered the error. The file had been archived about a year ago after jail workers erroneously classified it as inactive.

Corrections officials said the problem began Oct. 13, 1999, when U.S. marshals at D.C. Superior Court delivered Heard to the city's main detention facility without any paperwork. A records examiner at the jail was informed by a court official during a telephone conversation that Heard's unlawful-entry case had just been dismissed and that he was ordered to be set free. The files authorizing his release, however, never arrived, and no one at the jail checked to see whether the discrepancy had been resolved.

"We knew from Day One that his case had been dismissed," said D.C. Department of Corrections Director Odie Washington, who has ordered an investigation that is nearing completion. "The responsibility for this erroneous detention rests solely on the Department of Corrections. . . . There was a failure to follow up, and the case got lost after that."

The series of errors, in effect, condemned Heard to an open-ended sentence, which he served inside a solitary cell in the jail's mental health unit. Heard, a paranoid schizophrenic with a string of arrests in his past, became a model prisoner in the facility's South Wing, roused in the mornings for 669 days by guards who would tap his foot or head so he could take his medicine.

Corrections officials said jail records show that Heard did not receive any visits from family members, friends or lawyers during the nearly two-year period. Washington said Heard used a telephone for the hearing impaired in the jail in an attempt to contact someone, but he had no further details.

Heard was unable to communicate with virtually anyone in the jail, which usually operates at capacity and has a court-ordered limit of 1,674 inmates. He apparently never complained about being behind bars, corrections officials said.

"It appears he just accepted his incarceration. He made no complaints that we know about," Washington said.

When he was informed this month to pack up his belongings because he would soon be leaving, Heard smiled broadly, according to a corrections officer who was there at the time. Heard voluntarily agreed to be admitted to St. Elizabeths for treatment and observation after corrections officials found a place for him at the mental health hospital.

Reached last night at St. Elizabeths, Heard was unsure of the length of his incarceration, saying he thought it lasted four years. He said that he knew all along that he did not belong there and that he communicated such to people.

"I do not know why I stayed in jail," Heard said in the interview, conducted with the aid of an interpreter at St. Elizabeths and a TTY operator. "I was not happy in jail."

Court documents paint a picture of a drifter-like existence for Heard over the past decade, during which he stayed at shelters for the homeless. He arrived in the Washington area about 1995, on welfare and with no job. The court files list his marriage status as "separated" and mention no family in this area or anywhere else.

Court records show a list of run-ins with the law in the District, Maryland and Florida. He has listed addresses in Orlando, Indianapolis and Greenbelt, and charges against him have included second-degree assault and fourth-degree sex offenses in Maryland and trespassing offenses in Florida.

Heard was last arrested in the District on Nov. 15, 1998, on a charge of unlawful entry at George Washington University. On March 15, 1999, Judge John M. Campbell ordered a month-long mental competency exam to determine Heard's fitness to stand trial. But on April 15, mental health services psychiatrist Roy M. Coleman said in a letter that he needed at least 45 days to complete such examinations.

The court ordered a second such exam on April 23, 1999. A report on the exam, filed June 3, 1999, concluded that Heard was mentally unable to stand trial. Coleman's second report said Heard's medical records showed he received antidepressant and antipsychotic medication.

Psychiatric evaluations described Heard as "a small, fit, African-American man with a full, bushy beard and mustache." At various times during court-ordered evaluations, psychiatrists note that Heard claimed, in writing and through interpreters, that he was related to President John F. Kennedy and heard voices from God.

On June 3, 1999, the judge, following Coleman's recommendation, ordered Heard committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital. A month later, he was further diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. His status remained that way through September 1999, when doctors found him incompetent "by virtue of not having a factual and rational understanding of the proceedings pending against him."

The D.C. Superior Court case file had a box checked on Sept. 13 stating that Heard should be returned to St. Elizabeths. One month later, an order to the superintendent at St. Elizabeths from the court stated that Heard should be released from custody. But a handwritten note on the order said "IN THIS CASE ONLY!"

Washington said that corrections workers at D.C. Superior Court who processed Heard after the misdemeanor charge of unlawful entry was dropped in October 1999 noticed that computer records showed an outstanding 1996 misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property.

In reality -- and unbeknown to the corrections workers -- the information in the computer was inaccurate: That charge had previously been dropped.

Nonetheless, corrections personnel notified U.S. marshals, who transported Heard to the D.C. jail. Washington said marshals told the intake staff that the paperwork on Heard was on the way -- a practice that is common when someone is delivered to the jail.

But when the documents did not show up, Washington said, jail officials called the court, where a worker said the paperwork would be sent over. The worker stipulated that Heard had, in fact, been ordered released at a hearing that day, Washington said.

A corrections employee reviewing records that night at the jail made a note of the discrepancy in Heard's file and wrote down that paperwork authorizing his release was expected, Washington said. The worker also wrote a note about the situation to her supervisor so he could follow up on the case the next day, something he was supposed to do, according to Washington.

"This is where the black hole begins," Washington said.

The paperwork never arrived, and apparently neither the supervisor nor anyone else checked on Heard's case. The supervisor is still employed at the jail.

Washington said that because of a lack of a specific jail sentence in the case file, Heard's status was never reviewed by jail officials. Such reviews are supposed to occur regularly so officials can determine when inmates are eligible for release.

"In this case, there was no calculation to be made," Washington said. "There was nothing to clue the staff that this guy was staying too long or should not have been there at all."

In the meantime, Heard was behind bars in the jail's mental health unit. But those tending to him were reviewing his medical records and not his actual case management file.

Heard's dilemma was further compounded about a year after he was incarcerated when his case file was labeled inactive and transferred to the Suitland storage facility. Jail officials recently reviewing case files of inmates in the mental health unit -- part of planned transfers of prisoners to the federal system -- could not find Heard's records. It was then that they discovered a possible problem, which was confirmed when the files were retrieved from storage.

"It was kind of unbelievable to me that we could hold a guy for nearly two years who should not have been here," Washington said. "I had never heard of something like that before for that extended a period of time."

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