Every year, thousands of mentally ill men and women languish in Texas’ county jails. Incapable of standing trial, they wait in line behind hundreds of other people — sometimes over a year — for a bed in a state hospital to get the help they need. Explore the investigation that launched this project and is now drawing renewed attention to this problem at the State Capitol.

By David Barer and Josh Hinkle

AUSTIN (KXAN) — It took Adan Castaneda four years, pinballing back and forth from a solitary jail cell to state mental hospitals — bouncing between mental stability and severe mental illness – before finally getting a shot at justice.

Castaneda, a veteran Marine scout sniper, mentally spiraled out of control after returning from the Iraq War. His downward slide culminated on May 27, 2011. Standing in the dark, alone at 4 a.m. in front of his mother and stepfather’s home, he lifted his .45 caliber Glock pistol and fired 23 times at the house.

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Every year, thousands of mentally ill men and women languish in Texas’ county jails. Incapable of standing trial, they wait in line behind hundreds of other people — sometimes over a year — for a bed in a state hospital to get the help they need. Explore the investigation that launched this project and is now drawing renewed attention to this problem at the State Capitol.

Nobody was hurt, but he was charged with multiple felonies, including attempted murder. Castaneda, now 35, faced up to life in prison but was found incompetent to stand trial. That meant his case couldn’t proceed until his mental illness was under control. Most often, people in jail are sent to state hospitals to regain their competency.

Adan was finally sent to a state hospital to stabilize, but when he improved and returned to Comal County jail, he deteriorated again. From 2011 to 2015, he cycled through the state hospital twice.

“You’re basically locked in limbo. It’s like purgatory. This is a loophole,” Castaneda said. “Eventually they just said I was insane — not guilty by reason of insanity — and just send me back to the psych ward.”

Castaneda spoke with KXAN in June from San Antonio State Hospital. He was freed, following the not guilty by reason of insanity verdict. As part of that verdict, Adan was placed under court supervision until 2031. He was later recommitted in 2019 after missing a dose of medication, he said.

While at the state hospital, Castaneda said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, schizoaffective disorder and Cluster-B personality traits, which are marked by impulsive, attention seeking and aggressive behaviors.

As Adan awaits his chance to leave the state hospital and rebuild his life on the outside, there are over 1,400 people languishing in county jails waiting a year or more for a state hospital bed, according to the state’s most recent records from April.

The number of people waiting for a state hospital bed has steadily risen for more than two years and reached a record level in December, cresting above 1,500. SOURCE: Texas Health and Human Services Commission

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The number of people waiting for a state hospital bed has steadily risen for more than two years and reached a record level in December, cresting above 1,500. SOURCE: Texas Health and Human Services Commission

State seeks waitlist solutions

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission oversees Texas’ state hospitals. In April, at a meeting of HHSC’s Joint Committee on Access & Forensic Services, which monitors the waitlist, officials expressed concern about the overall waitlist and the impact of coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re really still suffering from the effects of COVID-19 on our capacity and on the waitlist,” said Stephen Glazier, chairman of the committee and COO at UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center.

Wait times for state hospital beds have trended up for years and spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospital officials expect those durations to decline after beds taken offline during the pandemic are returned to use. SOURCE: Texas Health and Human Services Commission

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Wait times for state hospital beds have trended up for years and spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospital officials expect those durations to decline after beds taken offline during the pandemic are returned to use. SOURCE: Texas Health and Human Services Commission

State hospitals have a total of 2,263 funded forensic beds — those used for people in the criminal justice system. But, 309 were offline in April, including 18 maximum security beds and 291 non-maximum-security beds, according to Glazier and HHSC data.

HHSC officials discussed focusing on two groups that are spending long periods in state hospitals with no other place to go. People found not guilty by reason of insanity – like Castaneda – and people found incompetent to stand trial, but who will likely never be restored to competence, can occupy beds for years.

“We literally have people in the hospital on an [incompetent to stand trial] for 10 years,” said Mike Maples, a recently retired deputy executive commissioner at HHSC.

Adan Castaneda, a Marine scout sniper and veteran of the Iraq War, training during his military service. (Courtesy Maria Anna Esparza)
Adan Castaneda, a Marine scout sniper and veteran of the Iraq War, training during his military service. (Courtesy Maria Anna Esparza)

“What’s the long-term plan for this group that after 18 months we’ve determined aren’t going to restore, and certainly the ones that are with us five and 10 years, that we just keep getting a recommitment for attempting to restore?” Maples said. “We’ve got to continue to kind of turn our focus to that, as we get over this immediate kind of issue of getting our beds back up to full capacity.”

Glazier said the committee overseeing the waitlist should coordinate with the Texas Judicial Commission to discuss what is driving that problem and ways to improve it.

If a person isn’t going to be restored to competence, “to just keep them in the state hospital for months and years just doesn’t really make any sense at all,” Glazier said at the meeting.

Maples alluded to cases lasting a decade, but KXAN has found one that’s lasted far longer.

Extended competency wait times

In 1999, James McMeans was charged in Travis County with murder for the stabbing death of Clara Oda Torriente-Capote. He was found incompetent to stand trial shortly thereafter. He has remained in the state hospital for over two decades, recommitted year after year.

McMeans’ state hospital bed is one less spot available to any of the hundreds of people with mental illness who are struggling in jails across the state.

Many of those people waiting have little financial means or nobody advocating for them. The job of assisting them falls to organizations like the nonprofit Texas Jail Project.

Texas Jail Project provides resources and helps incarcerated people and their families. Diana Claitor, a co-founder and spokesperson for the nonprofit, said since the pandemic began, the entire criminal justice system experienced a slowdown that worsened local incarceration and mental health.

Claitor provided an example of how bleak life can be for a person on the waitlist.

She said Texas Jail Project found a woman with mental illness in the Smith County jail. The woman had been stuck there for nine months. She had no idea there was a pandemic.

“All she even understood was that family no longer visited, that she was alone in the world, and she really was in complete distress,” Claitor said. “We saw this young woman alone and languishing and completely disoriented and disconnected from reality.”

An advocate with Texas Jail Project helped get the woman moved to a mental health facility, but “there are countless people like that across Texas in county jails,” she said.

So, what’s being done? Not enough, Claitor said.

Many in the Texas Legislature believe the problem is being solved with additional funding for state hospital improvement, Claitor said. But, they are only adding about 350 more beds in new state hospital buildings. That won’t solve the problem, she added.

One effort that gained little traction in the last legislative session would have created an Office of Forensic Services in HHSC.  

Statewide forensic proposal

State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, filed that bill to help speed up the system and coordinate a more “holistic” approach to mental health care for people in jail.

It would “make sure individuals get speedy attention, so they’re not languishing in jail, sometimes for nearly a year, awaiting these sorts of services,” Eckhardt said. The legislation would “start to move that mental health care into a holistic model, rather than a, you know, one shot just to get them healthy enough to be able to meaningfully talk to their defense attorney.”

Rather than a churning system that often loops people like Castaneda back and forth, the forensic office would help ensure a continuum of mental health treatment.

The bill never got a hearing. Eckhardt said it is still critical, and she will continue to pursue it.

“I have had calls from family members as well as defendants after they’ve been in jail, talking about their experiences in a psychotic break in jail, in a rubber room, having been stripped of their clothing because of fear that they would hang themselves. Being cold and naked in a jail cell while awaiting appropriate mental health care,” Eckhardt said.

‘Moving forward’

Maria Anna Esparza holds a framed picture of her son, Adan Castaneda, taken during his service in the Marines. Esparza has advocated for her son during his battles with mental illness and helped him navigate the state's criminal and mental health systems.
Maria Anna Esparza holds a framed picture of her son, Adan Castaneda, taken during his service in the Marines. Esparza has advocated for her son during his battles with mental illness and helped him navigate the state’s criminal and mental health systems. (KXAN photo/Josh Hinkle)

Any improvements to the system, either through building more beds or through a new office in HHSC, would be a welcome change for Castaneda and others in similar situations.

When KXAN interviewed Castaneda, his mother, Maria Anna Esparza, participated on the video call. Esparza fought to get her son through his legal debacle. She stayed in close contact with him while he’s been in San Antonio State Hospital. She continually offered support, using her skills as a former schoolteacher to help proofread books he has written during stay. One of those books, “Chess Perception,” details Castaneda’s time in the military and struggles after returning from war.

Maria Anna Esparza holds a framed picture of her son, Adan Castaneda, taken during his service in the Marines. Esparza has advocated for her son during his battles with mental illness and helped him navigate the state's criminal and mental health systems.
Maria Anna Esparza holds a framed picture of her son, Adan Castaneda, taken during his service in the Marines. Esparza has advocated for her son during his battles with mental illness and helped him navigate the state’s criminal and mental health systems. (KXAN photo/Josh Hinkle)

She hopes her son will be released soon. Until then, their conversations — and goodbyes — will be mostly over the phone.

Esparza said when their conversations end, “We say ‘I love you. Be good.’ You know, be well and just keep moving forward. Try to keep perspective. Be hopeful, you know, the change is right around the corner.”

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KXAN Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Senior Investigative Producer David Barer, Creative Producer Eric Henrikson, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims, Digital Director Kate Winkle and Graphic Artist Rachel Garza contributed to this investigation, an update to our “Locked in Limbo” Catalyst project. Catalyst is a specialty unit within the KXAN investigative team focused on “digital-first” storytelling that aims to make a positive change in society. The group takes a multi-platform, innovative approach to each project, which have tackled complex topics like missing persons, mass violence, mental competency in jails and deaths in police custody. Please explore our projects and also subscribe and listen to our accompanying “KXAN Catalyst Podcast.”

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