Jardine: System of little help to Modesto man who died after jail incident

The notes Craig Prescott wrote were disturbing, so disturbing that his wife, Rachel, feared that he might kill her and their six children.

She had to protect the girls and herself. She had to protect Craig from himself.

So she and his mother, Marilyn Prescott, had him arrested for violating a restraining order, believing he would finally get the kind of mental help he so desperately needed.

He would have gone to court and been declared incompetent to stand trial. The judge would have sent him to Atascadero State Hospital, one of the state's few surviving mental hospitals.

After several months of treatment there -- assuming he responded to that treatment -- Prescott would have returned to Modesto to stand trial, which would have included felony charges of throwing urine at jail deputies. He might have done a few months in jail with credit for time served.

Instead, Rachel Prescott became a widow and her children fatherless. Prescott's mother lost a troubled but nonetheless beloved son.

The 38-year- old former Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy died in a hospital in April after jail deputies struggled to restrain him while trying to move him to a safety cell. The confrontation included the use of a Taser. The coroner's report said Prescott had a heart condition that led to his death, which the family disputes.

They plan to sue the Sheriff's Department and the deputies involved because they believe he was handled like a criminal, not someone who cried out for help. The system that was supposed to help Prescott, that required deputies to treat him like a criminal instead of allowing them to make decisions on his behalf, failed him.

Decades ago, authorities wielded far too much power over those they thought acted strangely. Police could take someone to a state-run facility for the mentally ill such as Santa Clara's Agnew State Hospital (once known as Agnew Asylum for the Insane), Modesto State Hospital or Stockton State Hospital. Patients could be medicated against their will and held until the psychiatric staff decided to release them.

Some of the more volatile patients were given lobotomies, a barbaric procedure in which doctors used needles to sever the connection between the thalamus, the brain's emotional center, and the frontal lobe, which controls personality, to prevent psychosis and make patients more passive.

Then state politicians did a 180 by passing the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, signed into law by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1967. It eliminated "the inappropriate, indefinite and involuntary commitment of mentally disordered persons ... " along with the ability to control the lives of developmentally disabled people and alcoholics. People with mental illnesses were able to refuse medication except in emergencies.

The law banned some awful abuses. But it also made getting a disturbed loved one into treatment more difficult for families like the Prescotts.

Reagan believed mental health services needed to be in the hands of the counties and other agencies, creating jobs locally. He pushed to close many of the state's mental institutions.

"The promise was that they'd infuse the local communities with money for well-resourced mental health centers where people could get treatment closer to their homes and their families," said Philip Trompetter, a Modesto psychologist who once worked in the county's mental health department and later became an expert in dealing with law enforcement officers and their on-the-job emotions.

But the more localized system Reagan envisioned never materialized. And in state government, the budget ax usually hits mental health services first.

"I feel so bad for families who rely on behavioral health," Trompetter said. "Every year, it's been cut."

So now, when someone has a psychotic or drug-induced episode, police can take him for emergency short-term treatment to a place like Doctors Behavioral Health Center at Briggsmore and Claus roads in Modesto. Otherwise, a patient must accept the help. Officers talked Prescott into going there in January. He was released six days later, his mother said, even though he'd ripped a bolted-down bed from the floor.

His mental condition continued to deteriorate, and he frequently launched into angry diatribes, to the point where his wife feared for their family.

When he violated the restraining order prohibiting him from contacting or being too near his family, they had him arrested. Sending him back to the behavioral center probably wasn't a viable option, Trompetter said. Assuming Prescott had a heart ailment, as given in the coroner's findings, what happened to Prescott at the jail probably would have happened in a mental facility as well, Trompetter said.

"They're not equipped to deal with a (256-pound) black-belt guy," Trompetter said, referring to Prescott's martial arts background. "If he'd been at DBHC, they'd have had to call in the police to handle him."

Sadly, although the state banned treating the mentally ill as criminals, doing so is only way many can get the help they need.

For Craig Prescott's family, their sadness is matched by the anger and frustration that they trusted the system.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at or 578-2383.

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star