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Family speaks out about jail system failures after mentally ill woman locked up in Gila County

Woman jailed in Gila County
Posted at 11:34 AM, Mar 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-04 21:01:45-05

GLOBE, AZ — A Gila County woman in a mental health crisis was taken to jail and forced to stay there for 74 days even though a judge ordered her release so she could get mental health treatment.

Considered seriously mentally ill, due to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Memory Burns had dozens of run-ins with the police in and around Globe, 90 miles east of the Valley.

In a separate incident, she was tasered by Globe officers in her own home last September even though she committed no crime.

In December 2019, Globe police had arrested her on suspicion of trespassing, because a nurse said she refused treatment in the emergency room and refused to leave. That was the beginning of a 74-day ordeal.

“I just want to feel better,” Memory Burns told ABC15.

Her initial jail classification questionnaire was left blank, with no information about her mental health needs. A handwritten note said she was “unable to go through w/ classification interview.”

On Christmas Eve, three days after her arrest, a judge ordered Burns to be released to either of the two mental health providers in town for crisis intervention and possible transfer to a psychiatric facility. The jail did not release her for 71 more days.

Court records and relatives say jail staff told them that Burns refused to leave her cell, and they planned to leave her in there.

“This isn't a hotel, where you get to choose to stay,” said Robert J. Campos, Burns’s lawyer. “The jail has the duty to release them.”

“Just the craziest oddball excuses you've ever heard in your life,” said Terince Williams, Burns’s brother. “If you can make one up, it probably came out of their mouth.”

Jail logs show Memory’s family tried to visit her, but they were denied for nearly two months.

Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd refused to be interviewed for this story. A lawyer, representing Gila County, issued this statement:

“Sheriff Shepherd is mindful of his legal obligations to preserve an individual’s private medical information and state laws limiting the disclosure of inmate records, as well as not commenting on matters that are currently in litigation or may result in litigation.”

Sheriff Shepherd last spoke to ABC15 in January 2020 when he admitted another mentally ill woman, Tamara Barnicoat, suffered cruel and usual punishment in his jail. Barnicoat was held for 27 days without charges. She was deprived of water in her cell for days.

Back then, Sheriff Shepherd explained other inmates had also been jailed beyond their court-ordered release dates. He admitted failing to release inmates on time was also a possible civil rights violation.

“If you ask me if we don’t ever make mistakes, people make mistakes,” Shepherd said during the 2020 interview.

When asked what he did to correct the issue, Shepherd said, “Number 1, if there are any questions whatsoever with the court paperwork, they [jail employees] are to contact the court directly.”

“It would hard to take him at face value,” Campos said.

Burns’s family said she deteriorated in jail, and they claim she was not eating or showering regularly.

“She's in a mental health crisis – full-blown psychosis in a cell,” said Lewis Williams, Memory’s dad.

Citing medical privacy rights, the sheriff’s office denied a request to release records showing whether Burns received any mental health evaluations, counseling, or prescriptions in jail.

“You won't find a treatment guideline in this country that says the treatment of choice for someone with a serious mental illness is to lock them up in a cell,” said Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, an expert in correctional psychiatry at the University of Denver.

“When you receive inadequate treatment, you remain psychotic; it worsens your long-term prognosis,” Dr. Metzner said.

While Dr. Metzner said he never saw a case quite like this one, he said, ideally, jail or mental health staff would work to build trust to have the inmate willing to leave the cell. If that doesn’t work, there are other options.

"It's called a cell extraction,” Dr. Metzner said. “That is, it's a controlled use of force.”

After Burns was in jail for a month, her public defender asked the judge to order deputies to take her to a psychiatric exam in the Valley to determine if she was mentally competent to stand trial.

After the exam, she was put back into a cell for another three weeks.

“It's like locking somebody in, in a room, throwing away the key and saying when we’re ready, we’ll bring you out,” Terince Williams said.

On March 4, 2020, a judge ordered Memory to be released on her own recognizance, and the jail let her out that night.

The sheriff’s office said it never conducted an internal affairs investigation in regard to Memory’s detention.

ABC15 also contacted the major mental health providers in Globe, Community Bridges, and Horizon Health and Wellness, but they both declined to interview about Burns or their relationship with the Gila County Jail.

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