Overlooked inmate out again
March 5, 2007
By John Byrne Post-Tribune staff writer
CROWN POINT -- Edward Perez is once again at the mercy of a mental health system that failed him once before.
Perez was discharged from the Southlake Mental Health Center in Merrillville last week, three weeks after Lake County Jail officials took him there upon discovering he had been an inmate in the jail for at least a year longer than he should have.
Now Perez -- who apparently stole a Pepsi in 2005 because he wanted to be sent to jail -- could find his way to the street again.
And questions remain about how Perez, a man with a documented history of mental illness, got overlooked for so long within the Lake County Jail after officials there wrongly reported he was released in early 2006.
More than a year since he was "misplaced" in the jail at a cost to taxpayers of roughly $72,000 -- and a cost to his well-being much more difficult to calculate -- Perez was discharged from Southlake on Wednesday or Thursday.
Staff could find no compelling reason to keep Perez at the 16-bed facility, according to Southlake President Lee Strawhun.
"Once we believe a patient has received the maximum benefit from staying here and no longer requires hospitalization, we discharge that patient," Strawhun said.
Typically, if a patient has no family in the area willing to help him, Southlake staff try to place the person with one of the many halfway houses, assisted living facilities or homeless shelters operating in northern Indiana.
The state psychiatric hospital in Logansport is listed as Perez's home address on his 2005 arrest report.
While privacy laws prevent Strawhun from saying where Perez went from Southlake, he confirmed the man has a roof over his head.
"I can tell you he is not homeless now," Strawhun said Friday. "But he could walk out of the place he is now and be on the street again tonight. Nobody can force him to stay."
Homelessness may have contributed to Perez's decision on July 2, 2005, to tell Schererville police he was going to steal the Pepsi so they would take him back to jail.
Strawhun said stories like Perez's are sadly common at the jail, where Southlake has the contract to provide medical and psychiatric services to inmates.
While struggling to explain how Perez, 30, was overlooked for so long in the jail's medical wing, officials pointed to the porousness of the state's mental health safety net as a main contributor to the rising number of mentally ill inmates in area jails.
"Here's a guy who wanted to be in the jail because at least he was getting square meals and a bed," Sheriff Roy Dominguez said. "He wasn't in the jail complaining that he shouldn't be there."
Strawhun said on average, about 13 percent of the Lake County Jail population suffers from "major mental illnesses" at any given time.
"Around the country, these inmates serve 11ΓΆΒ