INDIANAPOLIS — George Lewis was drinking a lot of gin. He was trying to numb the pain, to kill the dark thoughts.
Friends and family were distancing themselves. He couldn’t keep a job. He was on the verge of homelessness.
Lewis, 59, was out of control, raging. He didn’t know at the time that he was suffering from bipolar disorder, which had been causing his extreme emotional highs and lows.
He didn’t know he was sick. What he thought, he said, was people were out to get him. Cops took him to Eskenazi Hospital in October 2019. There, he hit a deputy working hospital security.
Lewis was charged with felony battery on a public safety official. He spent a few nights in jail before ending up in court.
That criminal case, Lewis said, opened his eyes, fixed his mind and changed his life.
“I’d probably be dead, or I would probably be homeless,” Lewis said. “If I hadn't gotten into mental health court and the judge and everybody believing in me and telling me ‘You're doing a good job, George. You're a great person, continue doing what you're doing.’”
Lewis is a graduate of Marion County’s Mental Health Alternative Court, a problem-solving court that helps defendants take control of the behavioral issues at the root of their criminal behavior.
This isn’t a regular courtroom, Marion Superior Court Judge Amy Jones said. Prosecutors and public defenders are on the same side rooting for the participants. They cheer for those who go week after week without testing positive for illegal drugs or alcohol.
Hearings, before the pandemic limited the number of people who could attend court sessions, were at times loud celebrations punctuated with applause.
At the end, folks who had been on their way to prison will wrap arms around the judge and smile for graduation pictures.
Support to succeed
“We give them a lot more resources to help them stay successful,” Jones said. “They need some added help in the community than what they might be getting with having just a probation officer or community corrections case manager.”
Participants volunteer to be in this program. They are linked to counseling services and coaches who help them visit with doctors, get prescriptions filled and even sign up for health insurance.
They are placed under more direct supervision and held to higher standards than they’d see in a regular courtroom. Each participant appears for weekly hearings before the judge. They take drug tests twice a week.
“Most of them will come in, I don't even need to test them,” Jones said. “They will come in and they will tell me ‘You know, I have I relapsed. I need help.’”
Addiction is common for the folks in this court. Many didn’t know that they were mentally ill before their arrest, Jones said. Those who knew often had not received treatment in a long time. Many turned to drugs or booze to self-medicate.
In other courts, hearings are spaced months apart. The judge typically speaks to the defendant at the initial hearing and rarely again until the case is resolved.
Mental health court is more intimate and friendly, participants say.
“More and more I was coming in there and she knew me as George instead of Mr. Lewis,” Lewis said. “And that, that gave me an insight that I believed that she really cared about me.”
Lewis followed the rules and did well for the most part, but he said he relapsed once and drank heavily.
Lewis said he was afraid to go back to court, afraid the judge would lay into him.
Instead, he said Jones spoke to him like an adult.
Jones, Lewis said, reminded him of all his recent successes. She motivated him to stay clean and keep going.
“This is going to continue to help you because you are doing the work,” Lewis recalled the judge saying. “Believe in yourself, because you can do it.”
And that's what he did.
“The judge and the prosecutor, the public defender, the mental health officer. Every time I seen them, they gave me hope,” Lewis said. “And once when I fell off and I came back it seemed like my life just took off, spiritually and religion-wise, recovery-wise… it was just a big change in my life, man. That is what mental health court taught me, that I have a life I can live.”
Problem-solving courts like this one have been proven to save money over time by turning would-be prisoners into productive citizens.
About 1.2 million Hoosiers suffer from mental illness, including more than 165,000 in Marion County, according to a 2010 study by the Indiana University Center for Health Policy.
About one out of three inmates detained in all of Marion County’s jails suffer from a mental illness, according to a 2016 report by the Indianapolis Criminal Justice Reform Task Force.
Security, medication and doctor visits for severely mentally ill jail inmates cost taxpayers about $8 million per year, the task force found.
A study on the mental health court found that defendants spent about 90 fewer days in jail during the year after being placed in the mental health court compared to the year prior. This saved taxpayers about $8,300 for each participant, the study found.
Candy bars over cocaine
Jones presides over two programs in her mental health court. One is for folks like Lewis, who were charged with a crime and come to her court before they go on trial. Those who succeed will have the charges dismissed.
Another program is for defendants with long criminal histories. Some may have committed violent acts, but they all make it through a difficult screening process and a probationary "opt-in" period. If they graduate, they get to avoid prison.
"I've been incarcerated many, numerous times," Shawna Bruce said. "I am a multiple convicted felon. But I don't let the labels of society limit me, because I don't see myself that way at all."
Bruce, 43, was first convicted of theft in 1998. She said she was addicted to crack cocaine and had been stealing to support her drug habit. Her crimes all were related to her need for money to buy drugs, she said.
She was arrested and charged with possessing methamphetamine in Hamilton County in October 2017.
At the time, Bruce was already on home detention for selling drugs in Marion County. She violated a plea agreement. This new arrest meant she’d automatically spend the next several years in prison.
Instead, her case went to the mental health court. There, Bruce said she found help, support and encouragement.
“I thrived off of them clapping for me each week,” Bruce said. “They tell you 'Good job,' and I know it sounds so childish, but they give you a candy bar, and that, that, that helped me thrive.”
Staying clean was hard, but Bruce is proud to say she never failed a drug test in the about three years she was in the program. She graduated in 2019.
“I didn't believe that is within me that I could,” Bruce said, voice cracking and tears dampening her cheeks. “I didn't ever think I would ever stop smoking crack. I just knew that that was my life.”
Bruce said she has battled post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder and other problems since she was a child and survived abuse. Mental health court helped her find treatment and gave her the strength to stay clean.
“I don't think that there are ever words that could describe the difficult climb that one has to go through when they come out of addiction. It's almost like coming back from the dead,” Bruce said. “My addiction paralyzed me… I was a monster. I was not who I am today.”
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at email@example.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.
To learn more about getting into the mental health court, you can click here and talk with your lawyer.
If you or someone you know is dealing with a substance use-related emergency, call 911.
For more information on a recovery organization near you, you can visit the Indiana Recovery Network website.
You can call 211 for help 24/7 in Indiana.
You can call the Indiana Addiction Hotline at 1-800-622-HELP (4357).
To find where you can get Naloxone near you, click here.
To view more resources from NextLevel Recovery Indiana, click here to visit its website.
Click here to learn more about substance use disorders.
Substance use disorder-related data from the state.