Incarcerated and Mentally Ill: Larry Neal’s Story

Larry Neal might have been just another chronically mentally ill man living in Shelby County, Tennessee, perhaps not living very well, because he didn’t take his meds so he was often disruptive and committed petty crimes like loitering and panhandling and even “theft” — if you call pilfering supermarket grapes in plain sight of the clerks “theft.” He had been in the hospital, he had been in the hospital a looong time, from the age of 9 through age 28 or more because of mumps-induced case of schizophrenia, which is to say, known brain damage. But we all know what happened to the large state mental hospitals in the 60s and 70s: they dumped most of their patients onto the streets, unprepared  to deal with the world, and the world quite unprepared to deal with them. For many it made for a more than merely difficult situation and for some it was literally the beginning of the end of their lives.

This was the case for Larry, though of course no one close to him knew it at the time. When it happened, and indeed precisely what happened to him, no one in his family or his circle of relatives and friends knows today. All they know is that in 2003 he was picked up by the police for another of his petty infractions and instead of being dropped off at home, he was taken to the local jail where he was held, unbeknownst to anyone, and despite their many inquiries about his whereabouts, for 18 days. Despite the family’s putting out Missing Persons alerts, no one told them that he was in police custody, not until the 18th day, when the police admitted that Larry had died while detained — because deprived of his heart meds, his psych meds, bad treatment, abuse?  No one would say.

The very fact that no one would tell them anything forms a big part of this story and why it continues to haunt Larry’s family today. There seemed to be a cover-up and a potent conspiracy against their knowing anything about what happened from the very first.

I could tell you the rest of this very disturbing story, but I think it is much better told by Larry’s sister, Mary Neal, who knows all the details and relates it with better accuracy than I ever could. That said, I am going to refer you to her website and encourage you to read the entire thing, lengthy though it is. Mary is and was Larry’s champion and she continues to advocate for all the mentally who are incarcerated and against the practice of incarcerating those with psychiatric disabilities at all. Her website is truly worth reading, even though it is upsetting because of the profound injustices perpetrated on both Larry as well as his survivors.

I hope as many of you as possible will also want to sign Mary’s petition and write your congressional representatives about getting better treatment for incarcerated psychiatric patients.

Finally, last but far from least, here is a powerful poem Mary shared with me in the comments section in this blog recently. Alas, it is buried so far back that you might not see it. Because of this I asked if I might post it here. I think it is terribly a propos of this story but also of just how poorly those with a chronic psychiatric condition are treated compared to, say, Michael VIcks’ dogs… This is not to say that the dogs should not be rescued and treated well, only that Larry Neal and people with mental illness ought to be given at a minimum equal compassion.


by Mary Neal

Too bad you weren’t a dog, my Brother
In my heart, I cried
Many more people would care about you
And wonder why you died

You had no spots or floppy ears
You never fetched a ball
Instead, you were a human being
But poor, black, and flawed

You died in jail for mental illness
I know down in my heart
Your death would be investigated
If only you could bark

Dog deaths get swift justice
Their abusers are sent to jail
Poor Mama would have closure now
If you’d had a wagging tail

But you were made in God’s image
And some day, I have no doubt
The mentally ill and American dogs
Will have at least equal clout

(All rights reserved.)  Mary Neal

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