HATTIESBURG – If Corey Maurice McCarty Hughes stopped taking his medication, his family knew what to do. When he started to become paranoid or barricaded himself in a room, a family member would go down to the Forrest County chancery clerk’s office and file an affidavit stating that Hughes needed to be hospitalized. Then, sheriff’s deputies would pick him up and take him to get treatment.
The series of events had unfolded about 16 times before, and there was little reason to think it would be different when it happened again in mid-July of this year.
When family members sought to have him committed, they expected he would spend a few weeks or months at the state hospital in Purvis and then come home to Palmers Crossing in Hattiesburg, where he lived in a trailer a few hundred feet from his parents’ house.
On July 14, Forrest County deputies arrived at Hughes’ sister’s house to take him to the hospital. They killed him instead.
According to the incident report released to Mississippi Today by the sheriff’s office, Hughes struck a deputy with a “blunt object” before the deputy shot him in the torso.
Exactly what happened is still unclear: The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation is investigating, as it does every time law enforcement officers kill someone in the state. The Bureau refused to turn over records except for an incident report until the investigation is over.
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The four deputies at the scene were not wearing body cameras; their department had begun buying the cameras only in June after receiving a federal grant. Forrest County Sheriff’s Office officials said they would not provide further information until MBI’s investigation is closed.
But to Hughes’ loved ones, the case is already a clear indictment of the state’s mental health and criminal justice systems, which are uniquely intertwined in a process called civil, or involuntary, commitment.
Every year, thousands of Mississippians and hundreds of thousands of Americans go through the civil commitment process. For some Mississippi families navigating a patchwork system of mental health services and care, having relatives forced into treatment is not just the option of last resort, but the only option.
Some Mississippians, like Hughes, go through the process more than a dozen times, cycling in and out of state hospitals without connecting to effective long-term treatment back home.
“Civil commitment is forcing someone to get mental health treatment,” said Sitaniel Wimbley, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Mississippi. “Had that individual had someone to talk to … or they had been in a treatment plan, civil commitment may not be something that they ever have to see, because they would be aware of their mental health and what’s going on in the process to be able to get help for themselves.”
The state is the subject of a years-running federal lawsuit over its failure to provide adequate mental health services in communities, historically forcing people to spend years institutionalized in mental hospitals.
As in many states, Mississippi law specifically requires sheriff’s deputies to transport the person being committed, effectively forcing law enforcement to get involved in the care of people suffering from serious mental illness. The justification for this is that only law enforcement is equipped to physically force someone to get treatment against his or her will. But mental health advocates say the mere presence of a police officer – especially if they are not trained in helping people in a mental health crisis – can increase a person’s distress and agitation.
Hughes’ father, James Hughes, doesn’t understand why medical professionals were not on the scene – at the least to talk with his son before police pulled out a weapon. On other occasions when he didn’t want to go to the hospital, officers sometimes used their taser, but never a gun, he said.
“I’m under the impression, well, I’ll be going to Purvis to visit my son,” he said. “And then I have to bury him.”
‘That was my son’
When his son was at the hospital in Purvis, James and his wife visited every chance they could. He usually stayed there for a few months, once close to a year. The family would pick up food – Hughes loved chicken and pork chops – and eat together at a park before taking him back to the hospital.
“That was my son,” James said. “If we don’t support him, who is?”
Hughes, born Corey Maurice Hughes, spent his childhood fishing and hunting. The youngest boy in a family of seven siblings and half-siblings, he was a joker who liked to make people laugh.
When he was a kid, his dad bought him toy dump trucks, tractors, and Tonka trucks. After high school, he got a job driving 18-wheelers for a local trucking company. He drove as far as California and New York.
James said his son’s health problems began in the late 1990s, when he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“He had desires to go back to school, and he wanted to get back into trucking, but with his health issues, that wasn’t fixing to happen,” James said.
After he got sick, Hughes spent most of his time around his family. He lived independently in a white trailer just steps away from the house where he spent most of his childhood. From a chair on the concrete porch, he could see when someone stopped by his parents’ home, which happened often because James is a notary public. Hughes would walk over to check up on them.
“He was sick, but he wasn’t just crazy, crazy,” James said. “He was sick. Paranoid schizophrenia is a sickness.”
Hughes would tell his father about the voices he heard: usually women, sometimes cursing him out. He had insurance thanks to disability Medicaid and got treatment at Pine Belt Mental Health Services in Hattiesburg and from other doctors, but his father doesn’t think the medication did him much good.
That’s part of why he sometimes stopped taking it, James said. When he was killed, it had been about three months since he had taken the medication.
Civil commitment, a controversial process, expanding around the country
Among mental health experts and providers, involuntary commitment is controversial. The legal process takes away someone’s freedoms of movement and bodily autonomy without ever charging them with a crime.
Because of patient privacy concerns, inconsistent recordkeeping and different processes across jurisdictions, the number of people who are forced into mental health treatment against their will every year in the United States is unclear.
Research suggests the rates vary widely across states, and that the number of involuntary commitments each year is on the rise. One study found that from 2011 to 2018, the rate of involuntary commitments grew three times faster than population growth across 25 states. (Mississippi was not included in the study.)
In Mississippi, chancery clerks handle the paperwork around civil commitment, and chancery judges determine whether someone will be forced into treatment. But the process historically has varied from county to county. Wimbley said some counties have charged different amounts of money for initiating the commitment process. Some judges are known for committing people based on limited medical evidence, said Melody Worsham, a long-time advocate for Mississippians with mental illness and a certified peer support specialist at the Mental Health Association of South Mississippi.
“Some judges will commit somebody just based on the word of a distant relative that says, ‘Hey, this guy is nuts. You need to lock up my relative,’” she said. “Then others are like, ‘No, you better present some serious evidence that this person needs to have his life taken from him.’”
As part of the federal lawsuit against the state, Mississippi is under pressure to reduce civil commitments. The Department of Mental Health is aiming to divert people from the state hospitals by trying to connect family members to resources so they don’t see commitment as the only option.
The lawsuit settlement agreement requires the state to bring consistency to the civil commitment process by establishing uniform guidelines and training chancery staff.
Roughly 5,000 Mississippians were committed in Fiscal Year 2021, according to data collected by the Office of the Coordinator of Mental Health Accessibility – a position created by the Legislature to oversee mental health programs in the state.
The number of commitments per capita varied widely around the state, from one per 290 people in Region 1 – Coahoma, Quitman, Tunica and Tallahatchie Counties – to one per 1,011 in Region 15 – Warren and Yazoo Counties.
Region 14, which includes 13 counties in south Mississippi, sits in the middle, at one per 554. In Forrest County, the rate was one per 422, with 177 commitments and 86 admissions to the state hospital.
Forrest County Chancery Clerk Lance Reid said families are often reluctant to turn to commitment. But sometimes, commitment is the only option they have.
He tells them: “You’re faced with putting your loved one in a facility, but the way you have to look at it is, that’s the best that we can offer in this state right now to try to get them some help, to try to get them some medications that can get them better, get them some treatment.”
The state hospitals are supposed to improve discharge planning, so that when someone’s civil commitment ends, the patient is immediately connected to resources and care in the community. But the first report produced by the special monitor charged with evaluating how well the state is complying with the federal settlement agreement found that that wasn’t happening at every state hospital.
That could be contributing to the high number of readmissions for people who are civilly committed – like Hughes.
“There’s a pretty big revolving door, for lack of a better word,” Reid said. “Yes, we see a lot of return patients … The fact of the matter is, they get out, even if they follow up with their local community mental health provider, they have that tendency to get back off their medicine and come back through the system again.”
James said he had no problems with the hospital at Purvis, where the staff were always respectful and professional. But his son wound up having to go back more years than not after his diagnosis.
In 2014, Hughes legally changed his name from Corey Maurice Hughes to Maurice McCarty Hughes. Sometimes he had to remind his parents to call him Maurice, not Corey. The most recent time he stopped taking his medication, he told his father it was because an employee at his doctor’s office in Poplarville had called him the wrong name.
“But you know, I don’t know if they have to have an excuse,” he said. “You don’t know what nobody’s mind is telling them.”
Unclear how many Mississippians have been killed by law enforcement during civil commitment
Sheriff’s deputies have killed at least two other Mississippians during a civil commitment in the last 12 years, according to records Mississippi Today requested from MBI.
But the true figure of people who have been killed when law enforcement was supposed to take them to mental health evaluation and treatment is not known: MBI’s records cover only those cases the agency investigated. Prior to last year, law enforcement agencies in Mississippi were not required to bring in MBI to conduct an independent investigation when their officers killed someone. That means any records of such events could be spread across the state’s 82 counties.
Jesse Jones, a 53-year-old Black man, was killed by deputies on April 27, 2010, when they arrived at his home in Carthage “to serve a lunacy warrant.”
“Victim pulled a weapon on deputies and was shot in yard by 1 deputy,” the sparse MBI report says. “Subject taken to Leake Memorial Hospital by ambulance and pronounced dead.”
The report contains no other details about Jones’ life or death.
At around 10 p.m. on May 14, 2020, Choctaw County deputies arrived at the home of John Beam, a 65-year-old white man, to serve both an arrest warrant for simple assault, stalking and trespassing and a writ to take custody for a mental health examination. Beam had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and, according to the MBI report, “complained about his medication not working and stopped taking said medication.” His daughter had begun the involuntary commitment process by filing an affidavit that he could harm himself or others.
Around midnight, Beam pointed a pistol at the deputies and then began firing. The deputies fired back. Four hours later, they entered the house and found him lying dead on the floor.
Law enforcement often steps into the mental health services gap because they’re the only service people can or know how to call. So Mississippi has expanded crisis intervention team (CIT) training across the state, designed to teach officers how to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis and connect them to treatment instead of taking them to jail.
The training requires 40 hours, a substantial commitment of time and resources for a law enforcement agency. Mississippi officers learn about mental illness and local resources and laws. They practice verbal de-escalation strategies and learn the procedures for connecting people to nearby mental health facilities. They speak with people who have firsthand experience with mental illness, and they spend hours role-playing with their classmates and trainers.
Nearly 700 law enforcement officers in Mississippi have participated in the training since mid-2018, according to the Department of Mental Health.
The Pine Belt region has been a leader in the training, thanks to a federal grant to the local community mental health center. Thirty-two Forrest County deputies have completed the training since 2017.
Mississippi law enforcement, mental health leaders and advocates agree the training is a powerful tool.
Wade Johnson, a retired police captain who has spent about a decade expanding CIT training around the state and now serves as the East Mississippi Training Coordinator, said sheriffs and police chiefs recognize the need to change the way law enforcement interacts with people in mental health crises.
“They don’t want their department to be front page news on how they had to deal with this particularly mentally ill subject that led to something very unfortunate,” he said. “They want their officers and deputies to get that training, that they can do a proper response to the mentally ill and get them help, keep them out of the jails, if that’s not the place for them.”
But nationally, there are questions about how effective the training is at reducing use of force against people experiencing mental health crises.
One 2016 analysis of studies on the program found that none of them found CIT significantly reduced the chances that an officer used force against a mentally ill person. One study found that it was actually associated with a significant increase in use of force.
The Forrest County Sheriff’s Office said all four officers who responded to Hughes’ home had gone through the training.
“That makes me sick to think about,” Worsham said.
Of their 25 current patrol personnel, 17 had completed the training as of late July, and the remaining will do so when there are classroom seats available, the department said.
Johnson said that nothing in the training teaches officers to disregard their departments’ use of force policies, which generally permit officers to use deadly force against someone they believe could kill or seriously injure the officer or another person.
“You go to a scene involving a mental health issue,” he said. “You get there, it explodes all over you. I don’t have time to deploy CIT. You gotta take care of the business as it’s unfolding in front of you.”
‘Nobody can love me how you did’
Mississippi Today obtained incident reports from MBI and the sheriff’s office. The agencies said they will withhold all other documents – including witness and officer interviews, forensic analysis, and photos – during the investigation.
When MBI finishes its investigation, it will turn over the files to the attorney general’s office, who will present the evidence to the grand jury thanks to a law that took effect two weeks before Hughes was killed. It could take months for this process to play out.
According to the Forrest County incident report, deputies got to Hughes’ sister’s house just after 6 p.m.
“Shortly after deputies arrived at the residence a male subject approached one of the deputies and an altercation ensued,” the summary says. “The deputy received an injury to the head from a blunt object and the subject received a gunshot wound to the torso.”
The deputy was taken to the hospital.
James said his son was carrying a hammer, a screwdriver and a pellet gun with no pellets. He doesn’t understand why the officers – who knew they were picking up a mentally ill person to force him to go to the hospital – got so close to his son that he could hit one of them with a hammer.
Hughes’ 14-year-old daughter was in the house when he was killed. She had come from Louisiana to be with her dad and his family for the summer. They had gone on a trip to Disney World and spent time cooking together. Now, her dad lay dead in front of his sister’s home.
James said his son’s body was left outside for nearly five hours after the shooting.
He believes a staff member from Pine Belt or another person with expertise in mental health should go on commitment calls, with deputies present for backup. A person with different training and tools could have handled the situation differently, he feels.
“If you ain’t got no gun, you can’t use no gun,” he said.
Hughes was buried on July 23. His funeral program included a note from his daughter, who remembered him teaching her how to cook eggs in the kitchen of his trailer.
“Nobody can love me how you did,” she wrote. “Just wish you were with me now chilling and listening to music as the days go by.”
Now, James remembers his son during quiet moments at home, cooking or folding laundry.
“I just think, if he’d have been here, he would be folding my clothes for me,” James said. “And I just think, gee, so many things he did to help me. And you know, I used to think, well, Corey will miss us when we’re gone. Then I’m missing him.”
Before he died, Hughes was working on fixing up two cars: a Ford Fairmont and a Chevrolet S-10. He wanted to turn them into race cars, his dad said. He’d ordered parts from a local mechanic but never got to use them. Soon, James will go by the shop to pick up the parts.
The cars, sagging a bit on their wheels, ready for a fresh coat of paint, still sit in the driveway outside the trailer where his son lived.
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