Aaron Richardson Sr. cringed as bailiffs pushed his son into a Broward County courtroom.
Clad in jailhouse scrubs, Junior hung his head. He seemed thin and frail.
“What’s the matter with him?” Circuit Judge Marc Gold asked. It was March 7, 2014.
Assistant Public Defender Gabe Ermine explained that Junior, 25, was schizophrenic. He had deteriorated in jail and state mental hospitals the past three years after an arrest for carjacking. Somehow Junior became deaf at Florida State Hospital and then blind in the Broward County jail.
Now he was no longer eating. It was as if he was trying to fade away.
“He’s lost his hearing, he’s lost his sight?” the judge asked, incredulously. “This is not even believable.”
The judge looked at Junior, who stared downward with large, dark eyes. He seemed unaware of his surroundings and fiddled with a hearing amplifier that didn’t help.
“You’re telling me he was healthy a year ago?” Judge Gold asked.
“Yes,” Ermine replied.
Deputies at the jail, Ermine said, had told him Junior refused his eye drops.
“This is stunning,” the judge said. “He’s not getting his eye drops, so he’s going blind? I mean what I’m hearing, it’s like a horrible fairy tale.”
Aaron felt helpless. Throughout Junior’s incarceration, he had sent at least five letters to the court about his son’s declining health. “I know my son has been charged with a crime, but he is still a human being,” he had written.
He wanted someone to be held accountable. He wanted answers. But what he really wanted was for the judge to let Junior out of jail so they could take him to a hospital.
More than three years later, Aaron, a bail bondsman and insurance agent from St. Petersburg, has yet to hear from Broward County or the state of Florida about how his son went deaf and blind in custody.
Junior, now 29, needs round-the-clock care, and his family struggles to make ends meet. His traumatic journey through Florida’s criminal justice system is documented in records that expose the neglect and ineptitude of the Broward County jail and Florida State Hospital when it comes to treating the mentally ill.
In 1,060 days of custody, Junior was repeatedly shuffled around, going before at least five judges and five assistant public defenders. He was attacked physically at least seven times. He attended or was the subject of 37 court hearings. He was shipped to mental hospitals three times, and back to jail three times. He was taken off and put back on powerful antipsychotics at least six times, including Invega, Risperdal and Zyprexa. His competency was evaluated by five different court-appointed psychologists a combined nine times.
In a place where medical professionals interacted with Junior regularly, his mental health care was inconsistent and his physical health languished. As symptoms piled up, not one person acknowledged that Junior was losing his hearing and his sight and that perhaps he needed to go to a hospital — until it was too late.
After his release on bail, Junior spent several months at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Fla. They dosed him with intravenous steroids, which improved his eyesight. But the long-term damage had been done. Junior went completely blind.
He moved in with his mother in Davie, but she had a difficult time managing his full-time care with her job as a flight attendant, Aaron said.
So last year, Aaron, 52, picked up Junior and brought him to downtown St. Petersburg where he runs his business. They built communication from scratch, Aaron guiding Junior’s index finger, letter by letter, on his hand. Eventually it got to where all he had to do was write one or two letters and Junior understood.
Q was for quiet.
Aaron answered his phone at 5:45 a.m. one day this summer. An inmate at the Pinellas County Jail wanted him to post bail.
He yawned. Junior had kept him awake most of the night talking to imaginary friends, cops and rivals. Now Junior snored loudly on a mattress in a room in the back of Aaron’s bail bond office, which was where he and Junior were, at the moment, living.
Aaron let the inmate on the phone talk a little, then tried to nail down how he’d get his $290 fee. He hung up and now there was an urgency to his step. Aaron shook Junior’s shoulder and tried to pull him up. He needed the money maybe more than the other guy needed to bond out of jail.
Junior was already shaking his head, no.
“Does it have to be right now?” Junior complained, his face crumpling into resentment. “Can you give me five minutes?” He held up five fingers. Dad shook Junior’s shoulder again, more firmly. Junior fought him. “Can I tell you what’s wrong with that?” Junior said. “Can I get five minutes to think about how bad my legs hurt?”
Aaron smiled at the protest and let Junior close his eyes. He gave him five extra minutes and ironed Junior’s jeans, the way his mother taught him. He loved catching glimpses of the son he once knew, the lazy Junior who hated getting out of bed in the morning, the feisty Junior who always fought for what he wanted.
Aaron wanted to understand where that Junior had gone. But he was so busy trying to support them that he had little time to investigate. Aaron had started to pull all of Junior’s medical records together, hoping to make sense of what happened. He had sent requests to Florida State Hospital and the Broward jail. Junior’s future, undeniably bleak, depended on it.
Aaron grabbed Junior’s hand and, with his index finger, wrote five lowercase letters into his own palm.
“Leaving,” Junior said, indicating he understood.
Aaron tossed him a sweatshirt and Junior’s face assumed purpose as he put his legs through the arm holes. Aaron pulled it off and helped his son get the red hoodie over his head. Then Aaron grabbed his dark red, alligator briefcase, put Junior’s right hand on his left shoulder and, together, they headed out the door.
As a child, Junior was shy. He experienced bouts with rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors prescribed steroid shots and warned of side effects, including depression and mental illness.
Those types of problems seemed so far away back then. Aaron taught him to play the drums. He learned the saxophone in school. He played the drums on stage at church. When his grandma died, he stood up in front of hundreds of people and read a poem he had written, saying how much he wanted to make her proud.
Aaron, the son of a bail bondsman, wrestled and played football as a child in Fort Pierce, and he got Junior involved in both. By age 12, Junior led his youth football team during a game as most valuable player, scoring two touchdowns.
A few years later, his parents split up. Junior was diagnosed with schizophrenia and prescribed Lithium and Haldol. He dropped out of school and got into trouble. Arrests for cocaine possession and stealing were dismissed. He was convicted of robbery without a weapon and received two years of probation.
Aaron moved to Lakeland and eventually St. Petersburg to work as a bondsman. He didn’t see much of his son. Junior got his GED and lived with his mother in Broward County. He worked at a car wash making $110 a week. He loved to build computers from parts, something he had learned by watching videos on the Internet.
One time, he asked his father to move back. Aaron thinks about that now. What if he had?
In April 2011, Aaron received a call from his family saying Junior was experiencing a breakdown. Aaron drove across the state and found Junior walking along a sidewalk threatening to kill himself. Aaron called him over. A disoriented Junior refused. He said over and over he was going to heaven.
The next day, Junior, then 22, pulled a girl out of her grandmother’s BMW in the parking lot of an apartment complex and sped off with her phone and purse. She was not physically injured.
He was arrested and charged with carjacking without a weapon. Earlier, he had called his mother and told her someone was chasing him.
Streaks of yellow light broke through the clouds as Aaron drove his black Hyundai north on Interstate 275 toward the Pinellas County Jail and his new client. Junior sat in the front seat, curled over a backpack in his lap, the bag from his McDonald’s breakfast sandwich crumpled at his feet.
It began to rain, small droplets at first that grew more urgent. Aaron absently switched on his windshield wipers, his mind racing. He had to fax a judge for a girl from Bradenton who had no ride to court in Orlando; meet a guy named Andre who was paying $145 of his buddy’s bond fee; track down someone who missed his appointment with his probation officer; and he wanted to get Junior to the YMCA for the whirlpool and a workout.
“What if I tell you I’m King Solomon?” Junior spoke suddenly, tilting his head back to face the roof of the car. “I’m King Solomon. I’m an old man. I’m a Florida boy. Put your clothes on. Go to school. I went to school to be a 10.”
Sometimes Aaron couldn’t think. Junior toggled between a world his brain had created and the present. He wasn’t on antipsychotics for schizophrenia. Aaron believed the medications were harmful.
Junior pulled back and grew silent, his face now placid and unrevealing.
They reached the jail. Aaron jumped out and walked inside. Junior stayed in the front seat.
“I’m a black cop. I’m the man, Scarface,” Junior said in a sharp whisper. “That’s right.”
“In the name of Jesus Lord, in Jesus’ name we pray,” he said, shifting in his seat.
“Put his teeth back in,” Junior hissed. He giggled.
Junior held conversations all day and night, his eyes glowering at something over his head as if he were looking up at a tall building. Often he became someone else, his face and voice altering to reflect a toothless old lady yelling at someone or a street thug defending his turf.
Aaron once heard him tell people to get out of his cell. When he asked about that, Junior told him guards would sometimes let people in to fight.
To Aaron, it seemed like Junior was reliving moments from his past. It was, in some ways, all he had. The voices kept Junior occupied. It was as if they distracted him from facing the reality of his debilitating situation. But then, when Aaron wasn’t expecting it, sorrow enveloped his son’s face and tears rolled down his cheeks. In that moment, he figured, Junior knew.
Outside the car, the rain had stopped.
“Wind and war,” said Junior in the passenger seat.
He blew at something, cracked himself up.
“I play that straight to the White House.
“Okay, showtime! Ba-ra-ra!
“They say they are going to beat me up. Go to jail alone. I’m in captivity right now. I’m in captivity.”
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office, which runs Broward’s jails, handles up to 3,800 inmates at any given moment and more than 37,000 a year. It is the same agency that continued to employ a detention deputy after he dragged a mentally ill woman, who was screaming “you’re hurting me,” about 300 feet by her leg shackles when she refused to move. Broward County paid the woman a $30,000 settlement earlier this year; the officer kept his job.
Last year, the family of a 23-year-old mentally ill man who fasted himself to death in the jail sued Sheriff Scott Israel and the jail’s health care provider, Armor Correctional Health Services, alleging that “five other men had died slow, horrible, preventable deaths in the same jail,” including another man who “urinated blood for weeks” and lost 120 pounds in 155 days.
Junior arrived there after his arrest on April 19, 2011. He was booked into the main jail in downtown Fort Lauderdale. He was segregated on suicide watch, and later moved to the North Broward Bureau, a 1,200-bed jail in Pompano Beach where the county holds inmates who are mentally ill, disabled or have medical needs.
Four different psychologists met with Junior between May 6 and June 3, 2011. One said Junior was extremely “uncooperative” and “seemed to be” feigning his mental illness. The other three said he was too mentally ill to proceed. Two diagnosed schizophrenia.
All of them observed that Junior sprinkled his responses with religious imagery. The role of the prosecutor was to “put the nail in my hands and my feet.” The public defender was supposed “to massage my back.” Pleading guilty was defined as “being washed by the blood of the lamb.”
The court found Junior incompetent to proceed and shipped him to Florida State Hospital, the state’s largest mental health facility, in Chattahoochee, near the Georgia border. Each year, about 1,800 people come through the hospital, which first opened in 1876. About 40 percent are “civil commitment” patients under Florida’s Baker Act, people who are not charged with a crime but have been deemed a danger to themselves or others. The rest come from the justice system, men and women who have been charged with crimes but are too mentally ill to proceed with their criminal cases. They take medication and sit in classes on courtroom procedure.
In 2011, the Department of Children and Families, which oversees Florida’s mental hospitals, was embarking on budget cuts that would eventually eliminate $100 million from the mental hospitals. Staff was in the process of being cut by a third.
The Tampa Bay Times and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigated Florida’s mental hospitals in 2014 and 2015 and found that the cuts led to rising violence and medical neglect. Across the state, at least three people died because employees hesitated to call 911, fearful of the costs, which the mental hospitals bore.
The year Junior arrived at Florida State Hospital, patients and employees were involved in 17 violent incidents, many involving serious injuries and broken bones. By 2012, there were 59.
That first visit, he complained of daily auditory hallucinations. His legs hurt from his arthritis. But he could see and he could hear.
Aaron pulled his Sonata into the parking lot of the YMCA. Junior was in his own world again, talking to an imaginary girl.
“I want to be faithful to you, baby,” Junior was saying, with a smile. “I promise you. I swear to God I’m going to make you cry. I’m going to be beautiful to you, baby.”
Aaron parked and opened the door for Junior. Everyone watched as they walked slowly along the sidewalk and into the crowded YMCA foyer, Aaron, followed by his son, who rocked back and forth on stiff legs with his hand on his father’s shoulder.
Personal trainer Natasha Walker approached them.
Aaron told her that his son was blind and deaf. “I think I’d go crazy in dark and silence,” she said.
They put him on the treadmill for 10 minutes, and Junior tried diligently to keep up even though it was difficult. On the leg extension machine, Junior’s fell short.
“My son is kind of lazy,” Aaron told the trainer. “He’s blind and deaf, but he can do it.”
“He’s got to work it,” Walker said.
“Right, he’s got to work it,” repeated Aaron.
Aaron wrote on Junior’s hand, h-i-g-h.
“I can’t go any higher than that,” Junior said.
Later, Junior’s mood lightened once he descended into the frothy water of the whirlpool. He sat there quietly for awhile, content.
Aaron was on the phone nearby, watching Junior, and now he had to run back to the Pinellas County Jail for another bond. Aaron tapped Junior, who stood up, revealing a stack of tattoos that descended down his chest: Respect, Family, God and Love.
His shoulder said In Memory of Grandma. The words This Way and Steel Pipe, with a downward arrow between Steel and Pipe, disappeared into the drawstring of his pants.
Junior felt his way along the edge of the whirlpool, and two elderly women asked his father about him. When they learned he was blind and deaf, the women wanted to pray. They gathered in a circle in the bubbly water and held hands.
Junior, sensing a moment, stood there and leaned over as he held both their hands, his face expressionless.
“In the name of Jesus,” one of the women was saying, her head bowed, “flow through him. In Jesus’ name, we pray.”
Aaron set his briefcase down on his desk at the bail bond office.
Records of Junior’s stay at Florida State Hospital had arrived. He added them to a stack he had gotten from Armor Correctional and Memorial Regional Hospital, where Junior went after he was released in 2014.
Junior stretched out in the back room on his mattress. Aaron opened his computer and slipped in a disc from Florida State Hospital.
Buried in thousands of pages of medical records was Junior’s story. It made him angry and sick to his stomach. But he kept reading.
On June 27, 2011, his first day at the mental hospital in North Florida, the 5-foot-6 Junior weighed just 124 pounds — down 25 pounds in two months at the Broward County jail. He told a nurse practitioner he heard voices daily, about 20 of them. “They talk junk, stupid stuff, laughing at me all day, trying to make me feel bad, bothering me when I try to sleep.” He said he was “the son of God.”
The next day, he reported that three staff members cornered him and slammed his head into a wall and kicked him in the ribs. He complained of pain in his head, ringing in his ears, blood in his eyes. He had abrasions on his chest and his ribs hurt. Nothing was broken.
On July 2 and July 5, 2011, a fellow patient attacked Junior. It happened again on July 14 and July 25. He received seven stitches for a horizontal gash beneath his right eye. He said his left ear hurt. He started putting tissues in his ears to block voices. In all, he was attacked five times that first month.
“I’m ok, but these deamons (sic) are attacking me. You gonna’ let them keep attacking me?” he asked one employee, according to his medical records.
Junior spent most of his time in his room. He missed court education classes. He fasted and lost seven pounds. He said he heard laughter, felt people touching him, saw floating white and black clouds.
“Staff doesn’t do enough to protect me,” he said to another employee. “I’ll stay in my room because I don’t want to get hit.”
In September, he started taking Invega, an antipsychotic for schizophrenia.
On Oct. 10, a behavioral analyst wrote: “Mr. Richardson has not progressed and has reported difficulty attending competency class due to auditory hallucinations.”
A week later, a Florida State Hospital psychology graduate trainee met with Junior and reported he was possibly “malingering,” or lying, about his mental illness. Hospital employees are leery of criminals who try to hide in mental hospitals to avoid lengthy prison sentences. But sometimes mentally ill patients are mislabeled.
In this case, the hospital stopped giving Junior his schizophrenia medicine and shipped him back to the Broward jail.
At the jail, he was immediately prescribed another antipsychotic, Risperdal, which he sometimes took and often refused.
A month later, two psychologists examined him and diagnosed schizophrenia. He was sent to a nearby state mental hospital, the South Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center in Homestead.
Back and forth, he ping-ponged from the jail to mental hospitals, three times in all, three years passing without any resolution on his criminal case. The cost just to maintain him for that duration: $356,918. That didn’t even include charges for the bevy of psychologists or the attorneys or everyone’s salary in the courtroom during 37 hearings.
On his third trip to a mental hospital, Junior was once again at Florida State Hospital, an eight-hour drive for his family. His initial health screening on Jan. 14, 2013, said he had some hearing loss as a child in his left ear but now he could barely hear out of that ear and he needed glasses. A nurse wondered if he’d had a stroke. A doctor recommended a hearing screening.
Two days later, Junior saw an ear, nose and throat doctor at Florida State Hospital, who documented “a history of recurrent infections” in his left ear. Within weeks, Junior said he couldn’t hear out of his right ear either so they gave him a pocket amplifier.
He asked for a hearing aid. They made him an appointment almost two months later with Audiology Associates of North Florida, where an audiogram showed he was deaf in his left ear and had about 50 percent loss in his right.
By June, he still didn’t have a hearing aid, even though it had been recommended by a doctor. On July 2, Junior asked for a hearing aid again but did not get one. At the end of July, the hospital again said he was likely faking his schizophrenia. Junior moved back to the Broward County jail.
To Aaron, the records painted a picture of a system that was woefully underfunded and poorly managed, of dueling psychologists and rotating public defenders and substandard medical care.
“When men stop caring, this is what you get,” Aaron said, shaking his head. “So bottom line, people just don’t care.”
At his office in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Assistant Public Defender Gabe Ermine slipped a DVD into his computer and sat back. On his screen, a video popped up showing Junior right after his 2011 arrest, dressed in jeans and a striped polo shirt with leg shackles. Detective Jason Wood was questioning Junior.
“What kind of car were you driving?” the detective asked.
“What kind of car was I driving?” Junior replied. “You tell me.”
“No, you tell me,” Wood said.
“No, you tell me,” Junior said.
“No, you tell me,” Wood said.
“No, you tell me,” Junior said.
“Cause you telling me in my head that it’s a Benz,” Junior said. “You talking straight into my spirit right now and I appreciate if you stop doing that.”
The questioning continued its circular pace until the detective started to get frustrated.
“Just because you’re talking to yourself doesn’t mean you are going to beat this,” Wood said. “Listen, your crazy act isn’t working.”
“My crazy act isn’t working? I’m not crazy.”
“You’re an a--hole then, cause you’re either crazy or an a--hole,” the detective responded.
Wood left for an hour and Junior stood, wrapping his arms around himself. He said at least three times that he had to go to the bathroom.
“They trying to curse me,” he yelled. “Looking through the eye. I got the eye.”
Ermine shook his head. “Very clearly, this guy has got serious mental health issues going on,” he said.
Ermine first noticed that Junior couldn’t hear when he went to visit him at the jail in September 2013. Ermine wrote with pencil on a piece of paper because Junior could still see.
Hi! I’m Gabe Ermine with the Public Defender’s Office. I was appointed (yesterday). … Great to meet you! Are you completely deaf?
Do you have hearing aids?
Junior shook his head. No.
Somebody told me I should go to a disable prison, Junior wrote on the paper.
If you go to prison, I will research that issue, Ermine replied. Honestly I don’t know that answer right now. But I will find out for you.
Trial can be risky, Ermine wrote.
A few weeks later, Ermine saw Junior again.
you are SO much better now, Ermine wrote. And Junior was. He was taking Zyprexa, another antipsychotic, and he was stable. Ermine told Junior he would try to get him home. He wrote that if Junior pleaded guilty, he might be able to get three years, which would allow him to get out of jail because he already had served that time waiting for his case.
But then, Ermine said, Junior started to lose his sight. Records from Armor Correctional Health Services, the medical provider at the Broward jail, showed the first time Junior complained about his eyes was on Sept. 2, 2013. “I have lots of pain in my body and my eye is red like pink eye and it hurts really bad,” he wrote.
Junior told jail staff his eye hurt again on Sept. 3 and 9. He said the Zyprexa wasn’t helping him in October. He rejected his medications and stopped eating in November.
On Nov. 9, he made a sick call request: “I am in pain in my body and I need some help.” He had lost 26 pounds in three months. They gave him Ibuprofen.
By Dec. 12, when Ermine saw him in court, Junior was “exhibiting odd behavior,” he typed into his notes. “Wanted a motion to change his name to ALL LOVE. He was dancing in his seat.”
A week later, another psychologist interviewed Junior. He wrote that Junior was probably lying about his mental illness. As an example, he said that when Junior was asked what 2 plus 3 is, Junior said “5,” then “I mean 7.” Junior also seemed concerned about his fate and talked about pleading not guilty by reason of insanity.
Junior was stuck in a cycle that had no end. Because he pivoted between being coherent one minute and delusional the next, some psychologists thought he was lying. But his inconsistent treatment meant those caring for him could not keep him stable.
Michael Simonds, a psychologist who has done more than 1,000 competency evaluations and examined Junior three times between 2011 and 2014, said that “very clearly, there was never any evidence” that Junior was exaggerating his symptoms. “Given the outcome, any assertion that he was is insulting.”
But he has come across inmates being returned from the state hospital before they are ready. “I believe they (the mental hospitals) have incentives,” he said, “that encourage them to return the patient quickly.”
On Feb. 27, 2014, Junior received an order for steroid eye drops for 10 days. He refused the drops the next day, and a nurse noted: “continued infection process in eyes.”
Ermine said Junior never told him his eyes hurt during their conversations. He believes the reason Junior rejected his eye drops at the jail was because he couldn’t hear when deputies called him for them. “I don’t think he knowingly refused his medication,” Ermine said.
Shane Gunderson, director of client services for the Broward County Public Defender’s Office, said the jail used to employ “program specialists,” social workers who notified him of a problem. Budget cuts eliminated those positions, he said, and the Broward Sheriff's Office would not allow attorneys to visit with mentally ill inmates outside their cells.
“There’s a shroud of secrecy going on at the jail,” Gunderson said. “All we want is for them to give us access to our clients. ... They’ve had deaths here and the Sheriff’s Office has not done anything. The public defender is the only advocate if we can get in to see them.”
On March 5, 2014, a nurse wrote that Junior had another eye infection and his vision was impaired. She “cultured” his eye with a negative result. Junior continued to refuse his eye drops. In phone calls, Gunderson and Ermine urged the jail to give Junior his eye medicine.
On March 6, he received an optometry consult for glasses. He was in a wheelchair and he couldn’t see the big E. On March 12, he told a counselor: “I can’t see.”
No one took him to a hospital.
A day later, Judge Gold held a hearing and asked officials from the jail to explain Junior’s condition.
“I’m just trying to find out what people know,” the judge said.
“Yeah judge, he’s being treated,” said Terrence Lynch, senior assistant general counsel for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.
“Your honor, he’s being treated for his eyes,” said a woman identified in the court transcript as Nina Heron, director of mental health services.
“What’s wrong with his eyes?” the judge asked.
“An eye infection,” Heron replied. “Mr. Richardson has been occasionally not complying with his eye drops.”
“It may not be simply the eyes, it may not be simply the hearing ... neurologically there may be something going on that has to be addressed,” said Judge Gold.
“Sure, judge,” said Lynch. “All these issues need to be addressed.”
With some prompting by Ermine, Junior spoke.
“I don’t know what happened to me, sir,” he said. “I’ve been locked up for three years and when I first got locked up I wasn’t blind and I wasn’t deaf. And I’m not trying to play no games because I’ve been locked up already three years. I’m trying to get this settled because I can’t hear nobody and I can’t see nobody. And I think they just switched my jail last night. And I think where I am is unsafe for me because they’re putting me in a cell with regular people.I need a cell by myself because I can’t hear nobody and I can’t see nobody. It’s dangerous for me right now. So I’ve been floating around in a wheelchair guessing where I’m at because I can’t see anything.”
After the hearing, Junior was released from jail on bail and his family took him to Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, where it was noted “patient is basically deaf and blind.” The hospital conducted MRIs, X-rays and a lumbar puncture to see if Junior had multiple sclerosis.
A neurologist diagnosed optic neuritis, an infection that is treatable with high-dose steroids. Coupled with the hearing loss, doctors speculated Junior had an autoimmune disorder in which his own antibodies were attacking his optic and auditory nerves. The medications helped initially, records show, but it was too late.
The eye drops provided by the Broward jail for Junior’s inflamed eyes would have done nothing for the dying nerve behind the eye, said Dr. Lisa Flaherty, a St. Petersburg neurologist who studied Junior’s medical records for the Tampa Bay Times. “It was like spitting in the wind.”
Flaherty looked at MRIs performed soon after Junior got out of jail that showed Junior’s optic nerves had atrophied, which means his eyesight won’t ever return. A daily regimen of 1 gram of intravenous steroids might have halted the attack, she said. With optic neuritis, the body attacks the coating on the optic nerve intermittently. It will often rebuild but sometimes there are so many attacks over time that the person goes blind.
Doctors call this, ironically, a black hole.
“It’s like a car crash afterward,” Flaherty said. “You can see the two cars, but you don’t know what happened to them. At some point, we would hope someone would put one plus one together and say, 'Okay, this guy has got something going on with two of his cranial nerves coming from his brain. The chances of that being unrelated and not one disease are pretty slim.’ And I think given some steroids, we might have been able to stop progression.”
A spokesman for the Department of Children and Families would not comment on Junior’s experience in the state mental hospitals. “DCF remains steadfastly committed to providing the highest and most appropriate level of care for individuals with behavioral health needs and maintaining an effective and efficient system of care,” wrote DCF spokesman David Frady in an email.
Yeleny Suarez, a spokeswoman for Armor, said she could not talk about Junior’s case at the jail because of privacy.
“Like the finest hospitals in the United States, despite best efforts there are unintended outcomes,” she wrote in an email. “Under such circumstances, we do everything we can to appropriately address those outcomes. Jails strive to provide medical, mental health and substance addiction services to those who often find themselves with little family or community support. We deliver comprehensive care to persons who have gone without it.”
Armor Correctional has contracts to provide medical care with 19 Florida sheriffs. In 2014, Hillsborough County dropped Armor, two years after paying part of a $1 million settlement to the family of a 51-year-old inmate who died after a nurse misdiagnosed his stroke. Pinellas County also ended its contract with Armor in 2014, choosing to provide its own medical care.
Israel, the Broward sheriff, declined to be interviewed. His spokeswoman said state privacy laws prohibited him from discussing Junior’s medical records.
Amid all of the empty statements, Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein is blunt.
“The Broward County jail is one of the most dangerous places for a mentally or physically ill person to be, where well people get sick and sick people get sicker and sometimes die,” he said. Armor has no incentive to treat the mentally ill or anyone else for that matter, he said.
“Every dollar of treatment that they render is one less dollar of profit,” he said. “The push-pull is you don’t want them to die on your watch, but you also don’t want to spend any money to keep them alive.”
Aaron pulled Junior’s hand to his and wrote h-u-n…
“Hungry,” said Junior, before Aaron could finish the word.
Junior nodded. He wanted something to eat.
“Can I use the bathroom real quick?” he asked.
He stood up, his legs stiff. He shuffled his way to the back door, felt for the knob, pulled it open and turned right into the small bathroom.
Aaron prepared some leftovers for him, a slice of pizza and an egg roll. He set it down on a TV tray. When Junior emerged, Aaron led him to a chair, pushed the TV tray in and showed Junior the food with his hand.
“My name’s Nino Brown. I’m hearing voices,” Junior said, after he had taken a bite of pizza.
“I’m trying to keep my eyes open ’cause she’ll hurt you with a knife. Be careful. Watch this.”
He blew a raspberry into his arm. Giggled.
“Which football you throw?”
“Drew, go get that snake.”
Aaron found it harder and harder to reach Junior. People who lose their sight and hearing are sensory-deprived. Their brains fill the void. It’s like the guy who loses his arm but can still feel pain where the arm used to be, says Flaherty, the neurologist.
“Imagine black silent mode all the time,” she said. “If you are not seeing or hearing anything, your brain is going to make it up for you, and that’s worse than schizophrenia. That’s schizophrenia and your brain playing extra mind tricks on you.”
Aaron’s communication with his son is gentle nudges and sharp tugs, an index finger to the palm, an affectionate head or shoulder rub. Junior can talk but it is as if his mental problems have swallowed him whole. His ability to focus on what his father is writing into his hand is short, sometimes just a word or two.
“As the days and months and years go by, he’s less inclined to talk to me and hold conversations that are coherent,” Aaron said. “He chooses when to even try. He goes into another zone. It’s almost like he’s given up. It’s hard to explain.”
Junior took a bite of his egg roll. Aaron brought Junior a napkin.
“I’m China Man. Go to school and eat Chinese. I know for a fact I’m nicknamed Chinese man,” Junior was saying.
Aaron nudged him and his face became neutral. Sometimes when Aaron had had a long day, the constant chatter annoyed him.
Then, 30 seconds later, Junior began again. “You ain’t no professor. Someone, if he ain’t clean, like God, what he is? You’re going to be dead by 30 years old if you don’t believe in God.”
After cleaning up Junior’s plate, Aaron plugged in his bass to the Peavey speaker and started to sing. He wasn’t sure how he was going to keep Junior and him going. He was still reviewing the records and looking for a lawyer to take Junior’s case. One attorney had turned them down, noting Junior had sometimes refused his medications. But Aaron, like Ermine, believed Junior may have been unable to hear when nurses called him.
Junior, now 29, needs cochlear implants, but Aaron can’t afford them. Aaron had heard of some new glasses that could rekindle sight, but they were expensive, too.
Right now, he just wanted to relax after another long day.
He sang a song he had written for Junior.
Hello son, can I talk to you if it’s okay?
I apologize for the times I wasn’t there
Please forgive me for the troubles I didn’t share.
Junior moved on his own over to his bed and stretched. He rubbed his knee and got under the sheet, flat on his back. He held his arms up in front of him, like he was holding a steering wheel. Then it looked like he was holding a fishing rod. He put both hands over his ears.
“You think, man he’s young and is this like going to be every day?” said his father. “I wish I could have known what was going on. I didn’t see this stuff coming. I could have been there.”
He said his goal was for Junior to one day see and hear again, to meet someone and start a family. “Doctors have told me he’ll never see again, every one of them,” he said. “But they don’t have the last say. God does.”
Aaron pulled the sheet up and wrote with Junior’s index finger on his hand: g-o
Junior said: “Goodnight.”
Times photographer John Pendygraft and senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
About a year ago, Tampa Bay Times photographer John Pendygraft ran into Aaron Richardson Sr. and his son, Junior, at the Sunshine Center in St. Petersburg. Aaron was helping elderly people fill out forms for an internship he was doing through St. Petersburg College. Junior quietly sat nearby.
John soon realized the father and son had a story to share. Starting in December, staff writer Leonora LaPeter Anton and John spent eight months observing and talking with Aaron and Junior.
This story is based on thousands of pages of records that detail Junior’s three-year stay in Broward County jails and Florida mental hospitals. Most of the records were obtained by Aaron Richardson Sr., who ordered them from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, Armor Correctional Health Services, Florida State Hospital and Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood. Aaron, who has power of attorney over Junior, signed a letter allowing the Tampa Bay Times to review his son’s file at the Broward public defender’s office and to talk to his lawyers.
Other records came from the court file. The opening section of the story is based on a transcript of the court hearing obtained from a court reporter and recollections of those at the hearing, including Junior’s public defender, the prosecutor and Aaron.
The data for violent incidents at the mental hospital came from Department of Children and Families’ critical incident reports and police reports.
Junior’s mother declined to talk to the Times. All scenes with father and son in St. Petersburg were witnessed by the reporter and photographer.
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