Sue and Eldon were childhood sweethearts. Growing up, they held hands at the roller rink and ditched school dances together. They almost got married at 17, but instead drifted apart after high school.
Then, 37 years later, he found her again on Facebook - and they thought they would start their happily-ever-after.
But then there was the meth addiction. The hurricane. The fight. The fire. The arrest.
And by April, Eldon Jackson wound up in the Harris County jail facing a 30-year sentence for arson. He’d lit their house on fire, then slit his own throat.
He came into jail with burns on his body and bloody lacerations on his neck, a visible reminder of his internal crisis. But, apparently, he didn’t get the help he needed.
“I don’t want to die, but being in jail is too much for me,” the 61-year-old wrote in a letter to the Chronicle.
His mental state vacillated over the three months he penned the jailhouse missive, sometimes professing his love for Sue, sometimes lashing out at her. But then early one morning in July - a day after jailers put him in solitary confinement to prevent repeated calls to Sue - he killed himself, fashioning a hand-made noose from the gauze used to treat his burns. His death was the first of two jail suicides in barely three weeks, at a facility that’s struggled to treat the influx of mentally ill patients coming through its doors.
A Navy veteran who’d long battled addiction, Jackson’s case highlights cracks in the system - cracks advocates hoped to fill with the 2017 passage of the Sandra Bland Act.
Named for the Illinois woman who died by suicide in the Waller County jail three years ago, the legislation did much to draw attention to the needs of mentally ill populations in the days immediately after their arrest, and to diverting them from jail in the first place. But it did less to highlight the ongoing suicide risk weeks or months into a jail stay and failed to spark discussion about the problems of putting inmates having a mental health crisis in solitary confinement, a common practice advocates warn is dangerous.
“We didn’t consider in a real way what happened here,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. “It’s just the truth of the matter - but we will. We will work to amend the law on this because we have to.”
‘You don’t turn your back’
At first, life together was great. But a couple years after Sue and Eldon reconnected, he started keeping odd hours, making Walmart runs at midnight and foregoing sleep. She knew he’d been addicted to drugs once before, but it was only in retrospect that it seemed indicative of a larger problem.
“It’s not that he was acting crazy,”she said, “it was just the hours.”
Together, they bought a house in 2013 - in the same neighborhood where they’d grown up. Yet, around that time, Sue started suspecting he’d started using drugs again. At first, it was pills. But then, he switched to speed.
“The next thing I know, I’m preferring the meth daily and everything is a giant train wreck just waiting happen,” he wrote in a letter to the Chronicle.
But, to Sue that wasn’t clear until Eldon got arrested on a minor possession charge, one that ultimately got tossed for lack of evidence. Just a few months later, his son - not a biological son, but one he’d raised nearly from birth - died of an opioid overdose in Florida.
Eldon fell apart. He stayed out for days, hung with shady characters, and started selling drugs. The following year, he got arrested again - and this time he went to drug treatment.
At first, Sue said, it seemed like he’d be OK when he got out. But afterwards, familiar faces started showing up at the door, and Eldon started disappearing again. He suspected she was cheating; she suspected he was cheating. At one point, she ended up - briefly - filing for divorce.
“It just didn’t seem like things were going to change, and I was trying to get his attention,” the 60-year-old said. “But you don’t turn your back on somebody like that. You just don’t do it. If he was willing to get himself right I was willing to walk him through that.”
So they hung in there. Things didn’t get better - but they didn’t get worse.
Then Harvey hit.
A ‘crisis’ in the jail
The Harris County jail is often considered a progressive example of an urban jail attentive to mental health needs. Their suicide rate over the past decade - just over 16 per 100,000 inmates - is well below the national 15-year rate of around 42 per 100,000, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data.
“More than 120,000 inmates are booked into Texas’ largest jail each year,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement. “While our inmate suicide rate is below the national average, our goal is a suicide rate of zero.”
To that end, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez created the Bureau of Mental Health and Jail Diversion. The jail launched two programs to help mentally ill inmates stay out of isolation and cut in half their us of solitary confinement over the past five years..
Still, the jail is ill-prepared to be the state’s largest mental health care provider. A quarter of county inmates are on psychiatric medication, according to Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Spencer. There have been 15 suicides at the county lock-up since 2009, and staff intervene in an average of about 10 suicide attempts per month, according to jail data.
“It’s no secret that we have an abundance of inmates who are in serious need of mental health care that we’re not equipped to give as a jail,” Spencer said. “We’ve been very transparent about that.”
Sometimes people still fall through the cracks. In 2014, the jail saw a string of three suicides. That same year, news broke of a mentally ill inmate who’d been left wallowing in a solitary cell full of bugs and feces, a supervision failure that sparked outrage and dealt a harsh blow to then-Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s campaign to become Houston’s mayor.
In 2015, a mentally ill death row inmate back in county for court killed himself in solitary confinement, using shoelaces to form a noose. Then in 2017, the jail announced procedural changes after the highly publicized suicide of a 32-year-old whose family alleged he did not kill himself.
And, just three weeks after Eldon’s death, another Harris County inmate died by suicide. On Tuesday, Debora Lyons - who’d been jailed on $1,500 bail for a felony theft charge - hanged herself in a common area of the 1200 Baker Street jail just before 7 p.m. It’s not clear whether there were other inmates or guards in the area or why no one stopped her. The jail hasn’t offered clarification, citing an ongoing investigation.
Once officers found her, the 58-year-old was taken to the hospital, where she died Wednesday - the same day she was granted a personal release bond to get out of jail.
“We have a mental health crisis in the county jail,” Spencer said, “one that the state’s aware of but has not addressed.”
‘Not the person I fell in love with’
When Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, it flooded the Jacksons’ home with 5 inches of water, leaving them with a daunting task familiar to countless Houstonians: rebuilding their lives without flood insurance.
“It was just overwhelming,” Sue said.
Eldon, always a fix-it man, decided to do the repairs himself. But with all the work in front of him, the drug problem just got worse. He stayed up for days at time, sawing and hammering at all hours of the night.
And Sue’s chronic lung illness got worse while living in the half-finished, flooded-out single-story home. So she and her granddaughter moved out.
“It gave him free reign to do whatever he wanted to do,” she said. By the time things were ready for Sue to move back in last December, Eldon was a changed man.
“That was not the person I fell in love with,” she said. “Drugs took over his body and his mind completely.”
After a fight with Sue, he was arrested on a misdemeanor family assault charge in March, then released with a protective order in place barring contact.
Despite that, they kept talking, and stayed in touch. Eventually, he asked her to drop the charge.
“I told him I’m not doing that, I’ve done it too many times,” she said. “You need to figure it out that what you do is not OK.”
Then, he showed up at the house one day in April, “completely crazed” and threatening to burn the place down.
When police arrived, Eldon ran to the back of the house and holed up in the still-unfinished master bathroom, shouting suicide threats. He slit his throat during the stand-off, but later claimed the fire that erupted was an accident, sparked when he dropped a cigarette. As the back part of their house went up in flames, Eldon slipped outside, leaving behind a trail of blood.
He passed out nearby and was arrested later, when - hoping to have him taken into custody before he bled to death - Sue lured him back home with a texted promise of a pack of smokes.
Findings the gaps
The Sandra Bland Act reformed the way jails handle mental health, but only at certain points of the process. In July 2015, the 28-year-old’s death sparked national outrage, leading to a $1.9 million lawsuit settlement, a broader conversation about mental health in county jails, and state legislation. The measures passed - watered down considerably from what was initially filed - were guided closely by the specifics of Bland’s death.
“We focused on diversion, we focused on people not being in jail if the reason they were there was because of their mental illness,” said Coleman, who authored the House version of the bill.
The measures also focused on suicide prevention at the front end, making sure inmates were screened better and courts were notified more promptly of mental health crises. But while it drew attention to the initial intake, the bill didn’t address ongoing treatment during incarceration, and did little to make sure jails are still attentive to burgeoning mental health needs in the weeks and months after initial intake.
“It didn’t deal with treatment or aftercare - and that’s a huge problem,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who authored the senate version of the legislation. The act also didn’t address the use of solitary confinement with mentally ill populations or those having a mental health crisis.
“I’m really kicking myself,” Coleman said. “Had we been solving all of these problems when I did that bill, we would have covered this.”
No help, no phone
After his arrest, Eldon was taken to the hospital and later released to the jail, where staff did a risk assessment and decided to keep him in the infirmary on suicide watch, officials said. But because he denied being suicidal he was released to general population two days later.
That was in April. He did not get additional mental health help until July 18, when he saw a nurse for medication monitoring, officials said. Again, he denied having suicidal intentions.
All the while, he called his wife repeatedly, harassing her sometimes up to 20 times a day. So prosecutors went to court and asked that he be barred from using the phone. Judge Marc Carter agreed.
None of them had any idea the jail would enforce that order by placing Eldon in solitary confinement where, one day later, he would kill himself.
“I loved my husband and I still love my husband,” Sue said. “They put him into solitary confinement in the state of mind that he was in, and gave him the tools the kill himself.”
‘I worry about other institutions’
Advocates flagged a number of possible problems in the events leading up to Eldon’s death. For one, some questioned the decision to deem him no longer a suicide risk so soon after his last attempt.
“If someone presents at the jail as suicidal or having suicidal tendencies, that person should be considered as an individual with mental health needs throughout their time at the jail,” said Annalee Gulley, policy director for Mental Health America of Greater Houston. “You cannot say someone is suicidal three days ago and received treatment and is no longer at risk.”
Experts also called questioned putting him in isolation, a potentially triggering event for those already in mental crisis.
“It exacerbates people’s existing mental health conditions,” said Greg Hansch, public policy director for the National Alliance of Mental Illness. “If a person is experiencing delusions or hallucinations being alone in a room by themselves is proven to often result in an exacerbation of those symptoms. And for a person who is depressed, it may increase hopelessness and despair.”
Like the first days behind bars, the first days in solitary confinement can be particularly high-risk moments, experts said. And, even though Eldon died at the Harris County jail, some saw his suicide as a reminder of larger systemic problems.
“I know how deeply committed the leadership at the Harris County jail is to mental health,” Gulley said. “If a breakdown can happen at a facility that is taking such measures to protect the mental of its inmates, then I worry about other institutions.”