Tyler Haire was locked up at 16. A Mississippi judge ordered that he undergo a mental exam. What happened next is a statewide scandal.
By Sarah Smith / 12.28.2017
Photos by Mike Belleme
ON NOV. 17, 2012, Tyler Haire was arrested in Vardaman, Mississippi, for attacking his father’s girlfriend with a knife. Tyler, 16, had called 911 himself, and when they arrived, the local police found him seated quietly on a tree stump outside the home on County Road 433. The boy alternately said he could remember nothing and that they had the wrong man.
Tyler was taken to the county jail in Pittsboro, 12 miles away, where the sheriff, worried that the awkward and overweight boy might hurt himself or be targeted by other inmates, placed him in a cell used for solitary confinement.
Tyler had turned 17 by the time, five months later, a grand jury indicted him for aggravated assault, and his case went before a judge.
Tyler’s defense lawyer, appointed by the court, informed the judge in a court filing that his attempts at speaking with the boy had made it apparent the 17-year-old did not have “sufficient mental capacity” to understand the charge he was facing. The lawyer wanted Tyler to undergo a psychiatric examination. He listed the many reasons why that was appropriate:
During his childhood, Tyler had been found to be suffering from seven different mental disorders, the first diagnosis coming when he was just four years old; he had threatened to bomb his school; he had chased his two siblings with a knife trying to stab them; his family suspected that he’d strangled a cat to death with his bare hands; he’d been hospitalized on several occasions and later placed in a home for troubled boys.
The local prosecutor joined the defense lawyer’s request for an evaluation, and Judge John A. Gregory immediately signed an order to have Tyler assessed at the state hospital in Whitfield to determine if Tyler had a factual and rational understanding of the legal proceeding against him, as well as whether, at the time of the non-fatal assault, he knew the “difference between right and wrong.”
“It is therefore ordered and adjudged,” Gregory wrote on April 23, 2013, “that the defendant Tyler Douglas Haire be given a mental evaluation at the earliest possible date.”
Tyler’s evaluation would not happen for three and a half years.
During the 1,266 days Tyler spent in the Calhoun County jail before he received his evaluation, he was never once visited by a psychiatrist. He went without any of the multiple drugs he had taken as a boy. He received no educational instruction. His father, who’d had his own brushes with the law, had friends of his in jail with Tyler give the boy a beating for the trouble he’d caused his family. His mother came to see him when she could afford the gas money. Once Tyler was found naked in the woods after he ran off during a stint on a work detail.
The sheriff and his deputies spent hours with Tyler, discussing television shows and listening to Tyler vent about the voices he heard. The officers took turns putting $25 a week in Tyler’s commissary account, and in return he’d color them pictures of dragons and aliens.
As Tyler celebrated his 18th, 19th and 20th birthdays in the jail, the sheriff, Greg Pollan, served as the young man’s only vigilant advocate. Every month, Pollan called the state hospital in Whitfield for an update on where Tyler stood on the waiting list for one of the 15 beds in the hospital’s forensic unit, which handled psychiatric evaluations in criminal cases. He taped a note to the corner of his office computer: “Call Whitfield.” Pollan was optimistic when told Tyler was No. 3 on the list, only to be told in his next call, without explanation, that Tyler was now No. 10.
On Jan. 13, 2014, the state hospital said it should be able to admit Tyler “in two weeks,” according to a note in Tyler’s case file. It would take another two and a half years.
The house on County Road 433 in Vardaman, Mississippi, where Tyler stabbed Shelia Hughes. She was found on the floor of the kitchen with the 10-inch knife in her back.
Tyler didn’t fall through any cracks. Mississippi didn’t lose track of him. A review of available records suggests that Mississippi may well have the worst record of any state for prolonged stays in jail for inmates awaiting the most basic psychiatric evaluation.
A copy of the state’s wait list shows that as of August 2017, 102 defendants — accused, but not yet convicted, of various crimes — were waiting in county jails for forensic evaluations. One had waited 1,249 days, another 1,173 days, still another 879.
The struggle to evaluate defendants who may be mentally ill isn’t just a Mississippi problem. In response to a 2014 survey by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, 31 of 40 states said wait times for forensic services for criminal defendants were worsening and 19 said they’d been threatened with legal action or found in contempt of court for long delays.
No other state, though, approaches Mississippi’s record for delays.
In other states, private psychiatrists are often hired to help reduce the backlog of prisoners awaiting beds at state facilities. But that happens in a limited number of counties in Mississippi, either because defense lawyers don’t know it’s an option or because counties say they can’t afford to pay. In a state that has repeatedly slashed its mental health care budgets, adding beds in an overwhelmed forensic unit for prisoners is not a priority.
In Pittsboro, Tyler was a puzzle and a pain for his jailers during his nearly four years as an inmate. He’d scream and throw tantrums, and then, exhausted, ask to be put into solitary — “in the hole,” as the inmates called the single cell. He’d sleep the entire time. At other times, he said he had visions of aliens and heard voices that told him to do things — what shows to watch on TV, or what time to get up in the morning.
But the men who ran the jail also were struck by Tyler’s fastidiousness. His cell was always tidy and he even cleaned up after other inmates. Tyler liked to pull his mattress from his bunk out into one of the jail’s common areas, so he could lay out and watch TV. He loved Tom and Jerry cartoons the best. The sheriff still smiles at the memory of watching one of the jail monitors one night, and briefly becoming alarmed when he saw Tyler looming behind his jail administrator, nicknamed Sarge. Turned out, Tyler was just massaging Sarge’s shoulders.
And then there were Tyler’s earnest questions, asked of the jail staff a handful of times a year. He’d ask when he was going to get out, or when he might go home.
And, mostly simply, “What’s going on with me?”
WANDA BLAYLOCK KNOWS it sounds strange, even ridiculous — that she could have looked at her six-month-old grandson and foreseen trouble. But she’d been helping raise kids since she was 11, and, well, it’s not like her misgivings about Tyler turned out to be wrong.
Wanda’s daughter, Bridgett, had given birth to Tyler on Nov. 27, 1995, in Amory, Mississippi. Bridgett had just turned 20, and Tyler was her second child. The infant was a screamer, Wanda said, and it wasn’t colic, that much she knew. Bridgett said she remembers Wanda turning to her with Tyler still in diapers and asking, “What are we going to do with him?”
Wanda and Bridgett, uncertain, scared and sometimes desperate, tried a lot over the next 15 years. Bridgett brought Tyler to the local mental health center in Tupelo when he was just two. Therapists worked with mother and child, but had to tell Bridgett that Tyler was too young to be treated, as she’d requested.
Things got more complicated when Bridgett, who had worked since she was 15, got a job.
“I could not leave him at home,” Bridgett said. “Nobody wanted to babysit him. The only reason he was left at a day care was cause my cousin ran the day care. She told me, ‘If you were not my kinfolk, he would not be here.’ He was that violent with other kids. He bit them. He pinched them. Screamed, cried, acted crazy all the time. Just wild, rambunctious, all over the place.”
By age 6, Tyler had been prescribed medication meant to stabilize his moods. But whatever the benefits of the drugs, they were also, along with the cutlery and screwdrivers, yet more things to keep out of Tyler’s reach.
Bridgett eventually came up with a system for keeping Tyler more or less safe at home. She bought two toolboxes and two padlocks. One set she used for Tyler’s medicine, the other for knives and scissors and screwdrivers. She put the keys to the padlocks on a wristband she wore 24 hours a day.
“That was our life,” Bridgett said, “and that was not normal.”
It was hardly foolproof or adequate, either. Tyler broke almost everything in the house, including an electronic entertainment center. He took a knife to a new mattress, which had been a gift from Wanda and her husband. Bridgett took the handles off the doors to his bedroom to limit his ability to slam them, but he destroyed the room’s furniture all the same. Bridgett had to back a truck up to the bedroom window so the splintered remains could be tossed into the back of it.
Tyler, Bridgett admits, was not the only source of turmoil for the family. Bridgett divorced Tyler’s father, Walter Haire, when the boy was a toddler. Bridgett then had a third child with another man. They lived, at different times, in various towns in Mississippi and later in Alabama. For a while, Bridgett had a live-in girlfriend, but that relationship came apart, too. Wanda helped when she could, but Bridgett was often in need of her own mental health care. She was briefly hospitalized after a breakdown when Tyler was a toddler.
For Tyler, each passing year brought its own new benchmarks of distress. A single homework sheet in kindergarten took him four hours to complete. Two years later, he threatened to blow up the elementary school and was taken home in a patrol car. In fifth grade, teachers tried to create an individualized education program after tests showed Tyler functioning at a first-grade level in almost every subject. Records show different clinicians offered different diagnoses: oppositional defiant disorder, impulse control disorder, major depression with homicidal ideations, major depressive disorder with psychotic tendencies, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder.
“I always used to say when I would take him to school, I felt like I’m throwing him to the wolves,” Bridgett said. “Because nobody knows how to tend to him and tolerate him the way I do.”
When Tyler was 12, even Bridgett’s tolerance had run out, and she tried to have Tyler committed. She had left him alone in their apartment with his older sister and younger brother, and Tyler wound up grabbing a knife and chasing them around the apartment. His sister and brother shut themselves in the bathroom. Tyler stabbed the knife into the bathroom door.
Bridgett wanted Tyler placed in a formal facility, a process that involved declaring he was mentally unstable and a threat to himself or others. Tyler was appointed a lawyer, and Bridgett and her son wound up before a judge in Itawamba County. The doctor who testified told the judge Tyler should not be committed, Bridgett recalled. The judge denied her request for commitment.
“So again, there was no help. Nothing,” Bridgett said. “I mean, I don’t know what else to do.”
Wanda asked Bridgett after the proceeding what the judge had said. “Until he did something, they couldn’t do anything,” Bridgett told Wanda.
There is no doubt some efforts were made to help Tyler and Bridgett. Counselors came to the family home for a while. Schools had him evaluated (a ninth-grade assessment noted Tyler spoke of communicating with “zombies and other non-human creatures”) and tried to fashion a specialized curriculum. A residential facility in Birmingham treated Tyler for 11 days after he threatened to kill a classmate.
But Tyler’s medical files suggest that efforts at help were episodic, driven by crisis. It’s clear information about his history was not effectively shared, and that efforts at help were not well enough coordinated or sustained.
Bridgett, distraught, wound up sending Tyler, then 13, off to a home for boys in Tennessee. In telling Tyler where he was headed, she did her best not to let on how long he might be gone.
“He knew, but he wasn’t comprehending,” Bridgett said. “It was breaking my heart.”
Tyler’s 2012 stay with his father, Walter Haire, above, was brief and violent.
Tyler enjoyed some success at the home, Youth Villages in Bartlett. Bridgett went every couple of weeks and took him to places like the Memphis Zoo. When Tyler was permitted his first home visit, he had a peaceful day watching TV with his brother. That earned him a second serving at Steak ’n Shake on the drive back to Youth Villages.
But when he returned home seven months later, it was as if he’d never been away. He was suspended from school his first day back.
“He cannot function in reality,” Bridgett recalled. “He functions in a fairy tale world. That’s where he lives. He doesn’t know what reality is. When he sees reality, he freaks out and gets mad. They said he had met all his goals. And he comes home and goes back to school and gets suspended the first day he goes back. So I mean, what goals did he really meet?”
Bridgett eventually gave up. She called Tyler’s father in the fall of 2012, and said she was bringing the boy to him. Maybe Walter Haire would have better luck. Tyler hadn’t seen his father since he was six.
“There are parents who have children that can’t go to the bathroom, that can’t even get out of the bed on their own, that are disabled or deaf or blind or whatever,” Bridgett said. “I was not built with that kind of mentality to take care of somebody that’s like that. I mentally and physically cannot do it. I know my limits and I can’t do it. I don’t have that in me, I just don’t. And I hate that I don’t.”
Tyler’s stay with his father and his father’s girlfriend, Shelia Hughes, was short and disastrous.
For a couple of days, Walter made small talk with his son, shooting the breeze about fishing and hunting. Shelia said Tyler never spoke much with her. Tyler did help Walter haul stuff to the local scrap yard, and work on a 1993 red-and-white Ford truck at their home. But Tyler, not yet enrolled in school in Calhoun County, spent most of his time with the video games he’d brought with him from his mother’s place.
Sometimes, Walter said, Tyler would get inexplicably angry. Walter described Tyler sitting on the chair in the living room and shaking his fist. “I’d ask him why,” Walter said, “and he didn’t say nothing.”
Tyler often wound up wandering the yard, going slowly in circles.
On the morning of Nov. 17, 2012, Walter said Shelia cooked Tyler a breakfast of eggs and biscuits. Later, Walter left to get a jack to pull the transmission on the ’93 Ford. When he came back, Tyler was at the end of the gravel driveway, on the phone with the police.
“I pulled in there asking what was going on,” Walter said. “He said he hurt Shelia. And I said, ‘What’d you do? Push her down or something?’ He didn’t say. He just said he hurt her.”
Calhoun County Sheriff Greg Pollan wasn’t sure what to make of the 16-year-old he processed into the jail on South Murphree Street in Pittsboro.
Sheriff Greg Pollan
Shelia Hughes had been found with a knife in her back and had to be taken by helicopter to a hospital in Tupelo. She survived, but had been gravely injured.
Tyler was listed in jail documents as 5 feet 4 and 240 pounds. He would misspell his own name in two different court documents. The sheriff said he suspected Tyler might have been born with Down Syndrome. Inside the jail, Tyler would light up at the offer of a soda, but stayed mostly silent.
“You’d ask him a question, and he wouldn’t say anything,” the sheriff recalled. “Every once in a while, he’d just say something like, ‘You got the wrong guy,’ and then clam up again.”
Tyler struck the sheriff, more than anything else, as a child, and so he and one of his jailers, Steve Poindexter, initially put Tyler in the cell used for solitary confinement.
“There’s always going to be a smart aleck and a bastard in the group that’s going to pick on the weak,” Poindexter said of the other inmates.
Some 15,000 people live in Calhoun County, spread out over 600 square miles. There’s not a single four-lane road in the county, and its side roads almost all eventually turn from pavement to gravel to red clay.
There’s some industry that remains — one town has a logging plant — but the economy survives on agriculture. Back in 1915, families from Tennessee settled in Vardaman — where Walter Haire lived and Tyler was arrested — and planted a crop of sweet potatoes. Today, Vardaman, “The Sweet Potato Capital of the World,” announces itself to those approaching it by car with a sign promising “a little taste of heaven.”
A sign outside Vardaman, “The Sweet Potato Capital of the World,” invites visitors to experience “a little taste of heaven.”
“We have no railroad, no major airport,” the sheriff said. “We’re a geographical oddity. We’re 60 miles from everywhere is what it seems like. If it wasn’t for the sweet potato industry, Calhoun County would be in one hell of mess.”
Pollan had been a police officer for 25 years before being elected sheriff. He took over the job of sheriff in 2012, and in doing so became the 36th man to hold the position. Alfed M. Wilson was the first, in 1852. Thomas Jefferson Douglas served from 1880 to 1881, James “Treetop” Morgan from 1976 to 1983, and George Leslie Pollan, Greg’s father, from 1988 to 1991.
The county, though sparsely populated, does have its share of trouble. Drugs, theft, the occasional killing.
“Some of the best people in the world you would ever want to meet are in Calhoun County,” Pollan said. “But just like every other place in America, we have some of the crazies. We have the druggies. We have the murderers. We have the pedophiles. We have everything that everyone else has. Just not to the grandest scale.”
Pollan keeps his cell phone number on the Calhoun County Sheriff’s website. People use it. County residents call the cell phone rather than dispatch, asking for him specifically: Someone’s son-in-law slapped her daughter, could the sheriff come out? He says he gets hundreds of texts and calls and emails every day.
“There’s 10,000-to-1 that you’re not the hero, you don’t get to be the good guy,” Pollan said of his daily travails. “You don’t get to save the life. It’s locking up the meth heads, and destroying families, and locking up burglars. Now, I will say this: I love my job. I’ve got the greatest job in America. If they call me today and say, ‘We want to appoint you President of the United States,’ I can’t. I got the best job.”
But there is one thing Pollan loathes about the job.
“I hate the jail,” he said. “I hate dealing with the jail. And if you go speak to the other 79 sheriffs in the state, they’ll tell you the same.”
There’s perhaps nothing the sheriffs hate more about their jails than the fact they’ve become psychiatric wards. Of course, it’s a cliché that the country’s jails and prisons have become filled with the mentally ill.
But Mississippi’s jails are populated not just with the mentally ill who have been convicted or, like Tyler, accused of crimes. The state’s lack of mental health options has meant that when a judge deems a person a danger to themselves or others, they are often sent to wait in the local jail until a bed opens up at a hospital.
“I’ve had as many as six of them in here at one time,” Pollan said.
Steve Rushing, sheriff in Lincoln County, said, “I’ll say it because I’m the sheriff and I have no problem saying it: jail is not where the mentally ill need to be. They need to be in a facility getting treatment.”
Randy Tolar, the Prentiss County sheriff, agreed. “We’re just a small rural county that’s really not equipped to deal with and accommodate folks with mental health issues,” Tolar said. “We’re in limbo because we’re at the mercy of the courts.”
Of the people who wind up in his jail simply for want of a hospital bed, he said, “We’re maybe in the dark ages here, and we need some other alternative.”
At the Calhoun County jail in Pittsboro, Pollan has no medical staff. When a medical crisis arises, jail personnel typically transport inmates to the local hospital. Sometimes, in a pinch, Pollan turns to his wife — a nurse —or to a good friend who is a local doctor. He said he requires the chancery court commitments—those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution and are held in jail until a bed becomes available — to come in with their medicines.
Pollan and his staff said they were at a loss for what to do for Tyler as weeks turned into months. They all felt he needed treatment. And they all knew they could not offer it, and were in over their heads.
“I’m not set up for this,” the sheriff said. “This is not a mental hospital. This is not a mental ward. We don’t provide health care in that form and fashion.”
The sheriff and his deputies refilled some of Tyler’s drug prescriptions at the start, but that modest solution didn’t last. Pollan said they also worried about over-medicating him.
“We had to make sure that he was lucid at all times,” Pollan said, “in case a proceeding came up.”
Such a proceeding, the fading hope was, might lead to Tyler being sent to Whitfield.
There are only 15 designated beds for pretrial evaluations of criminal defendants at the state’s psychiatric hospital in Whitfield, Mississippi.
Mississippi’s first lunatic asylum, as it was then called, officially opened in 1855. Eighty years later, the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield replaced it, opening on a 350-acre site 15 miles outside of Jackson, the state capital.
The facility was considered state-of-the-art for its time and constructed to give the patients a sense of community. The buildings are red brick with white trim and columns, like a college campus. In the early years, there were acres of farmland to grow produce and keep livestock. The hospital’s staff lived on the campus, with many going to Jackson only once a month — on payday. The hospital hosted Halloween dances for the patients and their families.
Walk or drive around Whitfield today, and its age shows. There’s peeling paint everywhere. Entire buildings have been closed off. While there are fireworks shows and an annual art show featuring work by patients, there’s much more that has disappeared: beds, programs, doctors.
The erosion of money and services at Whitfield had implications for the unit Tyler was supposed to be evaluated in. Building 43 at Whitfield — which houses the forensic unit — had since the 1980s been certified to hold a maximum of just 35 patients. Of those 35 beds, 15 are reserved for defendants awaiting trial.
Reb McMichael has run the forensic unit at Whitfield since 1990. A native son, McMichael has been at the hospital since 1985. He has degrees from Yale, Harvard and the University of Mississippi, and is well thought of in the state.
His qualifications, though, mean little when set against his circumstances — 15 beds and scores of troubled inmates in jails across the state awaiting psychiatric evaluations. Records show the unit takes on two to three new defendants a month.
At a panel discussion at Mississippi College School of Law several years ago, McMichael spoke bluntly about the obstacles he faces to reducing the backlog.
Obtaining the requisite medical records took way too long, he said. And so, he said, a daily exercise in futility ensues: Whitfield gets asked when it is going to admit an inmate, and it responds by asking defense lawyers when the hospital is going to get the relevant medical records.
“It’s endless,” McMichael said.
Of the circumstances at Building 43, McMichael said: “There are too many rows and not enough mules.”
Walter Haire’s current home. He never visited Tyler after his arrest, but he says he did have friends of his give the boy a beating in the jail.
MICKY RODGERS HAS LED the Calhoun County jail’s “paper chase crew” for over a decade. Rodgers — a friend of the sheriff since they were kids, possessed of only one leg after a farming accident 20 years ago — takes a half-dozen inmates out to one county road or another, and has them pick up trash.
The crew — up and out before dawn — is usually made up of non-violent offenders, men in jail for failing to pay a fine or something similar. But in the spring of 2014, the jail staff thought Tyler would be a good candidate for paper chase duty. They were curious to see how he’d function outside the jail’s walls.
Tyler’s membership in the crew ended after one of his very first shifts outside. On April 15, 2014, with the temperature in the low 40s, the crew was working a state highway in Calhoun City, a few miles away from the jail. Micky Rodgers suddenly realized he was an inmate short — Tyler. All that was left was a pile of his clothes, including his underwear.
It didn’t take long to find Tyler naked in the nearby woods. He was likely pretty cold. He was definitely furious, according to Steve Poindexter, one of the jail staff. When Poindexter asked what, exactly, Tyler had planned to do, Tyler said he was going to live off the land eating berries.
“He’d watched one too many TV shows,” Poindexter said.
Tyler had been in the Calhoun County jail for 17 months. He had turned 18. His lawyer saw him only occasionally. Television occupied and calmed him. Occasionally, Tyler would tell the jailers that voices had spoken to him, telling him what to watch, such as reruns of “Mr. Ed,” the old comedy with the talking horse. The jail staff once briefly grew concerned when Tyler acted out moves he’d just seen on a professional wrestling show. Staff checked to make sure he wasn’t suicidal and trying to harm himself.
Raudreikus Penson was locked up with Tyler in Pittsboro. He was barely a year older than Tyler and spent time with Tyler in the jail’s lockdown zone every once in a while. Tyler would sit in front of the television, holding his feet and rocking back and forth, Penson said.
No one had any real idea when Tyler might be evaluated. Tyler’s case would appear on the court calendar every couple of months, but then be adjourned again. In January 2014, officials at the state hospital in Whitfield sent word it would be just a matter of weeks before a bed opened up. No bed ever did.
Bridgett came to see Tyler when she could, at least for a while. The jail in Pittsboro was a roughly two-hour drive from her place in Fayette, Alabama. The $35 or so for gas was serious money for Bridgett. But she was worried for her son, and during the drives she could replay the occasional good times they’d had.
Sometimes Tyler had wanted to treat his mother to something. Once, at 15, he’d found a plastic purple diamond at a thrift store the size of his palm. He presented it to Bridgett, acting like he’d given her the world. If he was in a good mood, he’d emerge from his room and cook the 99-cent Hamburger Helper box Bridgett picked up at Wal-Mart and the five-slice, $1 loaf of garlic bread from the Dollar Tree. Free Willy was his favorite movie.
But the drives were long enough that Bridgett would also be haunted by the knowledge of the flip side of life with him at home. Bridgett, Tyler and Tyler’s two siblings had never been able to sustain their efforts at something simple like “family game night.” They tried, but Tyler always ended up throwing the pieces and the board across the room and storming off. Some days he’d just scream, “I hate you.” Other days getting Tyler to shower was a fight. He’d once set fire to a toy he’d been given, aimed at taunting his younger brother, who had complained about not getting one as well. Everyone stopped celebrating Tyler’s birthday after he turned 10. Tyler had slashed the tires and seat of a bicycle he’d been given.
Bridgett was at Tyler’s arraignment on April 15, 2013, just looking to give her son a hug, which she did. Tyler in recent years had eaten badly and almost non-stop — Cool Ranch Doritos and Cheetos and Cookies ’n’ Creme Hershey’s bars. He ate Ramen noodles—any flavor—and pizza, cheese or meat lovers, everything but anchovies. After just five months in jail, Bridgett was startled at how much weight he’d lost.
“He’s gonna dry up and blow away,” she wrote on Facebook the night of his arraignment. “He looks really bony and hump back.” When Tyler was weighed upon his readmission to the jail after his failed escape, he was even slighter — 150 pounds, down 90.
At the jail, visits involved talking to Tyler through a plexiglass barrier. They could not touch. The visits could be emotionally hard to endure for Bridgett. Tyler talked through clenched teeth. He cursed. When Bridgett tried to ask him what he wanted or needed, he said, “I’m not picky. I don’t care.”
On one of her early visits, Tyler talked to Bridgett about what had happened that day with Shelia.
“He said, ‘I always wondered what it would be like to stab somebody, and then he cried and he said, ‘I didn’t like it,’” she said. “But he also says that he don’t remember what happened, that he remembers being outside the house, and thinking something was wrong with Shelia, and he went back in and sees her on the floor bleeding and convulsing, and so he calls 911. “
“So I don’t know if he knows what he did — if he knew what he was doing, or if he did black out. I don’t know. I don’t know and will never know. There’s no way to know.”
“Some of the best people in the world you would ever want to meet are in Calhoun County,” said Sheriff Greg Pollan. “But just like every other place in America, we have some of the crazies.”
TYLER WAS NEVER ALLOWED out on a work detail after his failed escape. The sheriff and his staff kept him housed among minor offenders in what was known as the jail’s Zone 13.
A logging plant in Bruce, Mississippi — one of the rare remaining examples of industry in Calhoun County.
In all, the jail has 60 beds, and on average, there are roughly 50 inmates in the jail at any given moment. There’s one concrete cell by itself with a window for the jailer to watch through all the time. As often as not, it functions as a drunk tank. But inmates can be put there when they need to be isolated or there is fear they might harm themselves. That’s why the inmates nicknamed it “The Hole.”
In his first months, Tyler had been moved from cell to cell in the jail before everyone agreed Zone 13 was where he needed to be. Zone 13 is a dormitory setup, with 10 beds on one floor and 10 more a floor above. It has two showers, a bathroom, a microwave, a telephone and a TV. The lights go out at 10 p.m. and are back on at 5 a.m.
“Being young, and I don’t know how you say it, looking the way he looks, other inmates would pick on him a lot,” the sheriff said. “And then there were some inmates back there that took up for him. He was kind of like their pet.”
When Tyler’s mother could no longer put money in his commissary account, the jail staff took turns making $25 installments. Tyler would buy candy bars, Fritos, macaroni and cheese, soda. It was sweet relief from the daily breakfast of undercooked grits and tofu sausage. But because his bunkmates were out most days on work detail, Tyler spent from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. by himself.
He turned to the staff for company. Steve Poindexter was usually happy to spend 10 minutes with him. Tyler wanted to know what Poindexter had done the night before, or he’d want to break down a favorite Saturday Night Live episode. But Tyler had a special fondness for Pollan. Whenever the sheriff would head from his adjoining office to the jail itself, Tyler would give him a huge hug. Tyler, who had struggled with basic reading over the years, would ask the sheriff to loan him some comic books.
The waiting got to the both of them. Tyler, in his low moments, would ask to be put in “The Hole.” He’d sleep for a day or two, and then head back to Zone 13. There was never any information, no movement, no nothing.
Pollan wanted Tyler out of Calhoun County jail, for both their sakes. He saw his staff baby Tyler, while also watching him vigilantly. No matter how good Tyler could be, he’d stuck a 10-inch knife in his father’s girlfriend’s back. He was an unknown.
Pollan, though, said he didn’t just want to be rid of Tyler. Pollan wanted Tyler in a state facility —a mental health center where he could get treatment, because the need for that “was evident to anyone.”
County court was in session six to eight times a year in Pittsboro. Tyler’s case always appeared on the docket. And virtually every court term, Pollan met with Tyler’s lawyer, the local prosecutor and Judge Andy Howorth, the senior judge in the county. The three met in a conference room off the judge’s chambers.
“What are we going to do about Tyler?” they asked.
Then, as often as not, they’d look at each other, depart, and hope for the best.
Pollan said he would call Whitfield and be told Tyler was still on the wait list. Other times, he was kicked to voicemail, where he left messages that were never returned. Pollan said he didn’t understand how the wait list worked, and the calls only added to the confusion. Tyler was third on the list in December of 2015, and then 10th five months later. Pollan guessed it was possible the list was prioritized by the severity of the inmate’s mental health issues.
“I never figured that out,” Pollan said. “I don’t know how anyone could move him down the list, when they don’t know what his problem was, what his disease was, what his reaction was, what he was doing in the jail, all these monsters and aliens that he was seeing, all these mood swings that he was having. I never understood how they could make that assessment without knowing the true facts.”
For Tyler and the sheriff, everything remained stuck in neutral as month after month passed without the evaluation being done.
“You can’t go forward,” Pollan said. “You can’t go around it. You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You just have to wait. And then the wait got to be too long.”
Mississippi law requires that a criminal defendant be brought to trial within 270 days of arraignment unless a “good cause” excuse is shown. Over and over again, judges accepted forensic evaluation delays as a “good cause” for not meeting the 270-day requirement.
In December 2015, three years into Tyler’s incarceration, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled on the case of a man convicted of aggravated assault whose pretrial delay was 1,099 days. In that case, Rowsey v. Mississippi, the court found much of the delay was a result of “the substantial amount of time it took to schedule a mental evaluation,” and accepted that as a “good cause” for why the trial didn’t happen sooner.
Tyler’s lawyer was the local public defender, Kevin Howe. Howe grew up in Calhoun County, leaving only to attend college and law school at The University of Mississippi. He started in the public defender’s office as soon as he entered private practice, and he’s been in the top job for more than a decade. Howe’s office in Calhoun City has an irreverent shingle: “Kevin L. Howe, Counselor at Law, Sufficiently Educated and Licensed.”
Tyler’s lawyer was the local public defender, Kevin Howe. He said he did what he could for Tyler during his nearly 48 months in jail. Bridgett Haire called Howe “the biggest joke I’ve ever seen.”
Howe said it was not hard pulling together Tyler’s medical records, and that he sent off copies of them more than once to officials at Whitfield. He said he had no control over Tyler’s care while in jail. At one point, more than three years into Tyler’s stay in jail in Pittsboro, Howe subpoenaed Philip Gaines, an administrator at Whitfield who deals with the wait list, to appear in court in Pittsboro. Gaines never appeared.
Bridgett said Howe had impressed her as a nice man at first, but that she had grown frustrated with his inability to get Tyler evaluated. She said Howe wound up telling her to stop bothering him and to quit telling him how to “do my goddamn job.”
“Kevin Howe was the biggest joke I’ve ever seen,” Bridgett said recently. “He cussed me out one night because I told him he wasn’t doing his job. I mean, literally cussed me out.”
Howe denied ever swearing at Bridgett, but conceded he told her he “was not going to continue to listen to her blaming me.” He also told her she could call Whitfield herself if she wanted.
Phone calls and emails come in to Building 43 at Whitfield all the time. From lawyers, sheriffs, family members of inmates. They all ask the same thing, with varying degrees of frustration and desperation: When’s a bed opening up?
Occasionally, judges handling the cases of inmates awaiting forensic evaluations get involved. Some even fax court orders demanding progress. The administrator, records show, responds courteously, but rarely with great optimism. The number of beds is limited. There is little more to be done but wait.
Officials at Whitfield even developed a form letter saying as much.
“We regret to inform the Court that, despite our strong desire and efforts to promptly comply with the orders of this and all the Circuit Courts for the admission of patients without delay, Mississippi’s limited resources make such virtually impossible.”
BY EARLY SPRING OF 2016, Tyler had been in the Pittsboro jail for more than 1,200 days. His contemporaries had graduated from high school and either gone on to jobs or college. His mother Bridgett had undergone two surgeries and moved out of the house the family had once lived in. His older sister had had her second child. The television show The Walking Dead, a favorite, had aired three more seasons. The short list of people who had come to visit him — his older sister and little brother — had shrunk to zero.
Building 43, the forensic unit at the state hospital. “We should be ashamed as a society for what happens at the forensic unit,” said Jay Hughes, a state representative.
Bridgett had had one sweet visit when Tyler marked his third birthday behind bars. She’d forsaken Thanksgiving with her other children to drive to see Tyler on Nov. 27, 2014. Steve Poindexter had broken with protocol and opened the jail door so mother and son could interact. Bridgett threw her arms around Tyler.
But with money ever tighter and her son’s stay in jail enduring, Bridgett eventually quit coming. She feared she bored her son. She knew he harbored suspicions she was somehow behind his long jailing. And she was unnerved by what seemed to be his deteriorating condition.
During one of her final visits, Tyler had mostly spoken gibberish, insisting to her that he was in fact speaking fluent Russian. Wanda, Bridgett’s mother, said Bridgett was visibly shaken when she arrived at Wanda’s home 90 minutes later.
Pollan and his staff understood all along that jail was a miserable place for a teen to be.
“I mean, he grew up in here,” Poindexter said of Tyler. “Those years he needed to be out on the street learning stuff.”
In the spring of 2016, there was at last some movement on Tyler’s case. A local mental health official had learned of his long wait, and word then made it to the most senior ranks of the state Department of Mental Health. An idea was floated to pay for a private evaluator to do a first assessment of Tyler.
The discussions then gained momentum when, on April 11, 2016, the Clarion-Ledger newspaper published a story about Tyler’s case. The article prompted the state attorney general to call officials at Whitfield for an explanation.
Over the next six months Tyler would be given a preliminary exam at Whitfield, a private exam and a full evaluation back at Whitfield during a month-long stay in September of 2016.
Forensic evaluations in Mississippi are broken into two parts — exams meant to determine sanity and competency.
The question of sanity involves a person’s state of mind at the time of the alleged crime. If the defendant didn’t understand right from wrong at the time of the crime or if they were delusional enough to think they were acting in self-defense or perhaps thought that instead of shooting a family member with a gun, they were shooting an alien with laser, they would not be considered sane at the time of the crime.
The issue of competency deals with whether a defendant can comprehend what’s going on in the present moment. Do they understand the charges they are facing? Do they know the role of the judge, the defense lawyer, the prosecutor? Can they help their attorney? If a defendant is found incompetent, they are sent off to the state hospital for what is known as competency restoration. Such “restoration” can involve medication, therapy or education. Severe mental illness, developmental disability or a low IQ can affect one’s competency. If the restoration doesn’t work, then a defendant is deemed non-restorable and subsequently committed back to a hospital.
If there is a bed, of course. Otherwise, they remain in jail.
David Lee Willis waited in jail for an evaluation from February 2013 to June 2014 before being declared legally incompetent. A judge ordered him committed to a state institution, but, because there wasn’t a bed available, he went back to the Prentiss County Jail — for another 1,238 days.
Louis Masur III, a private clinical psychologist, saw Tyler on Aug. 16, 2016. Christopher Holland, one of the jail staff, drove Tyler to the examination. Holland had befriended Tyler over the months. He’d watched him pace the jail at 2 a.m., and while he suspected Tyler could barely read, he had given him a bible after Tyler had asked for one.
“He would tell me it calmed him,” Holland said.
Tyler had told Holland the jailer lifted his spirits, and he’d given Holland a nickname, “Sunshine.”
On the drive to see Masur at his office outside Tupelo, Holland said Tyler confessed to being afraid. Holland said he reassured him, and promised a stop at McDonald’s on the way back to jail. An hour into the exam, Tyler emerged from the office, saying he needed to see Holland. Tyler, Holland said, was sweating profusely.
“What have you done?” Holland asked him.
Tyler told him he’d been asked during the exam to add two plus one, and was unable to. His frustration left him in tears.
“I said, ‘Tyler, just do what you can,’” Holland recalled.
Masur’s eventual report notes that Tyler was cooperative throughout the exam. Asked about the worry among jail staff that he could appear suicidal, Tyler brushed it off as a misunderstanding. He said he occasionally acted out moves he’d seen on TV wrestling shows — diving off his jail bunk, for instance. Tyler denied experiencing hallucinations. He said if he had heard voices, he’d ignored them because they amounted to “negative energy.” He said his accounts to jail staff of seeing “green people” had been invented to get people to leave him alone. Tyler told Masur jail had been “therapeutic for me.”
Shelia Hughes was taken to a hospital in Tupelo, Mississippi, by helicopter after she was stabbed. She lost part of her colon and suffered a mental breakdown in the aftermath.
Masur found Tyler’s history consistent with ADHD, which includes difficulty controlling impulsive behavior. Masur also said Tyler suffered from autism spectrum disorder level 2, a condition marked by restricted communication skills and requiring substantial support.
“I do not believe that Mr. Haire has insight into his problems,” Masur wrote. “I doubt that he believes he has any problems.”
Masur ultimately found Tyler competent and concluded that he had been sane at the time of the attack on Shelia Hughes. But his report cautioned that Tyler’s difficulties “would have substantial impact in all matters before the court.”
”Mr. Haire’s alleged criminal activities are not the inevitable result of his psychological problems, but they are completely consistent with those problems,” Masur wrote about Tyler.
“At the time of the alleged crime, consistent with his history, he probably had a diminished capacity to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law just as he has never had the skills to live adaptively without support. His youth at the time of the alleged crime should, in my opinion, be considered as [a] mitigating factor. This young man has spent a substantial proportion of his life in jail awaiting trial.”
“In fact, the psychological evidence acquired suggests that he has become quite dependent upon institutional care, and his ‘institutionalization’ also impacts the judicial process,” Masur wrote.
Masur recommended a group home or involuntary civil commitment if Tyler were not imprisoned.
A month later, Tyler was taken to Whitfield, where officials say he was evaluated over 32 days in Building 43 and where he received lessons on the workings of the court.
The inmates in Building 43 live inside metal-barred cells on either side of a fluorescent-lit hallway. The cell doors are locked with room to slide food underneath. Each cell is secured by an individual padlock. Photos taken by staff show paint peeling throughout the building, mold on the windows in the visitor’s lobby and water damage to a cafeteria ceiling. The building for years has outraged legislators and advocates.
“We should be ashamed as a society for what happens at the forensic unit,” said Jay Hughes, a state representative. “First and foremost you’re locking them in cells that are 100 years old, no fire protection system, no sprinkler system, walls of stone and floors of stone, and a no centralized locking. It is a gauntlet. Little rooms probably six by nine. The only opening into the room is the door which is your classic iron jail door. Steel bars. Then they have hatches you just put a padlock through. That’s it. It’s archaic and pitiful.”
Reynolds Walker, who spent four months in one of the unit’s cells, said those in Building 43 often stayed inside for days on end because there was not enough staff to supervise their occasional walks in an asphalt courtyard.
“Some days we were in our cells for two days in a row, staring at the wall,” he said. “You literally stare at the wall and twiddle your thumbs.”
Tyler’s grandparents were the only people to visit him at Building 43. Wanda, his grandmother, said he seemed fine for the first 30 minutes, but then started talking incoherently. He stared out a window saying he could see fireworks going off hundreds of miles away.
On Oct. 10, 2016, officials at Whitfield issued a three-page report on Tyler. The report said staff at Building 43 had met with Tyler on a weekly basis. He had attended “group competence restoration sessions.” He underwent 90 minutes of testing, and was spoken to by staff for 45 minutes more on the day the report was issued.
The report declared both that Tyler had been sane at the time of the stabbing four years earlier and that he was competent to stand trial. The report acknowledged Tyler’s long history of psychiatric diagnoses and treatment, but found that he had a rational as well as “factual” understanding of the proceedings against him. He could describe the basics of a plea bargain. He understood the concept of guilt or innocence. It noted he had been prescribed a variety of psychotropic medications during his childhood, but said none had ever been effective.
The report also noted Tyler’s account of the stabbing. Tyler said he had stabbed Shelia in self-defense. She had become angry at him over his request for Kool-Aid, he said, and threatened him with a knife. He took it from her and stabbed her accidentally. He’d told Masur the same thing. The report does not include an opinion of the account’s truthfulness.
“Mr. Haire will be returned to the custody of the Sheriff of Calhoun County to await further legal proceedings,” the report said in closing. “If we may be of any further assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to call upon us.”
Christopher Holland, the jail guard Tyler liked to call Sunshine, was floored when word came back that Tyler had been found competent.
“No, they missed it,” Holland remembers saying to himself. “They missed it.”
Reb McMichael, head of the forensic unit at the state hospital in Whitfield, said his unit is understaffed. “Too many rows, and not enough mules,” he said.
IT HAD TAKEN MISSISSIPPI AUTHORITIES nearly 48 months to give Tyler a mental health evaluation. It took mere hours for the authorities to gain his conviction.
Kevin Howe, Tyler’s lawyer, said he lacked the expertise to challenge the state’s finding that Tyler was competent to stand trial.
Three days after Whitfield officials filed their report, Tyler was in court before a judge. But the judge was not Andy Howorth, the senior judge who had been in all those meetings with Pollan, the prosecutor and Tyler’s lawyer.
Judge Kelly Luther would decide what to do about Tyler. Luther had never touched Tyler’s case, and conceded he knew nothing about him. But he’d caught the case that day, and his job was to conduct what the law required: a hearing on the state’s determination that Tyler was competent. It went quickly, if not without some confusion.
Kevin Howe, Tyler’s lawyer, accepted without challenge the state’s conclusion not only that Tyler was competent to understand the proceedings against him, but that he had been sane when he had stuck a knife in his father’s girlfriend’s back. There was no expert testimony or witnesses. Masur was not called. His misgivings about the role Tyler’s mental health might have played in the crime were not discussed, nor was his suggestion that a civil commitment might be in order instead of prison. Howe did not mention Tyler’s repeated claim during his evaluations that he had acted in self-defense.
Tyler and his lawyer had decided to have him plead guilty to a crime that, by statute, carried a maximum of 20 years in state prison. Prosecutors had agreed to cut the sentence to seven years, crediting Tyler with the years he’d spent in jail. Papers had been prepared. Tyler had signed his by printing his name.
Luther asked Tyler if he understood the charges against him.
“Yes, sir,” Tyler said.
He was asked if he had committed the crime.
“No, sir,” Tyler said.
“You didn’t stab her with a butcher knife?” the judge asked.
“Not willingly, self-defense,” Tyler said.
Kevin Howe jumped in. This self-defense argument was new, he said.
“I just want the shortest way out of jail,” Tyler told the judge. “That sounds like the best way.”
After a brief adjournment, the hearing resumed. He would not admit guilt, but take a plea deal because he was aware he could well be convicted at trial. The deal was a version of what is known as an Alford plea, under which the defendant pleads guilty while professing innocence.
The judge took care to tell Tyler he knew nothing about the case against him. He didn’t know if it was a strong case or a weak case. He said he was relying on the defense lawyer and prosecutor to work out what was best.
Tyler acknowledged he understood all that. He said, “Yes,” when asked if he realized that his guilty plea could have serious implications if he got in trouble again.
“Do you have any questions about anything?” the judge asked Tyler.
“No, sir,” Tyler said.
“I promise I won’t be offended at all,” the judge said. “You can ask me anything you want to.”
“I ain’t got no questions,” Tyler said.
With that, he was led away.
In a statement, Kevin Howe said he was surprised by the state’s finding that Tyler was competent.
Asked why he had not sought to challenge the state’s findings, Howe said, “I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, so I am not qualified to dispute the conclusions they reached.”
Pollan was in the courtroom for Tyler’s hearing and sentencing. He’d spent four years with Tyler. To the end, Pollan said, Tyler struck him as a child, a sick child. Pollan said he knew Tyler would not get any kind of meaningful care in the state prison system.
Pollan exchanged looks with Tyler one last time that day in 2016. He gave him a pat on the back. Tyler had never seemed happier, Pollan said.
It fell to Christopher Holland to transport Tyler the two hours to the state facility in Rankin County. Holland said it was clear to him that Tyler didn’t really know what was going on. Tyler, he said, was under the impression he’d be getting out in two or three weeks.
Tyler got out of the jail van with a manila envelope that contained his deodorant. Tyler asked for a hug.
“Tyler, I can’t hug you, man, you’re not at Calhoun anymore,” Holland told him. “You’re state property.”
Tyler told him he’d come see him when he got out. “We’ll eat some banana pudding,” he told Holland.
Holland did his best to level with Tyler. He told him the state system would not care if he was mentally ill. They only cared about maintaining order. He told him to follow orders. As state guards approached, Holland told the shackled Tyler to face the nearby wall.
“It seemed like when I said that, I can’t describe the look in his eyes,” Holland recalled. “It was a distinct, distant black. It was a darkness. He put his head on the wall the way I instructed him, and he never looked back up.”
Today Tyler continues to serve his sentence in the Jefferson-Franklin County Correctional Facility, a regional jail that houses state inmates. A state corrections official said such facilities do not provide substantial mental health care. Tyler’s release date is not fixed, but could be as soon as late 2018.
In emails and phone calls from prison, Tyler answered questions with occasional introspection. At times, he could ramble and be hard to follow. He acknowledged he has anger issues, but attributes this to how he says he was treated as a kid: abandoned or pushed around, the least loved of his siblings, exploited by his mother for his disability checks. He said he has been hearing voices in his head since he was a child, voices that get worse with anger and that used to drive him to suicidal thoughts. Now, he says he’s better at ignoring them.
“I don’t tell no one about it,” he said. “I’d lie straight to a psychiatrist’s face because I don’t trust any of the medical practices. Never will. Never have.”
Tyler said to this day he doesn’t truly understand the details of his case. He did not recognize the term “Alford plea.” His rationale for taking the deal, he said, was “it was seven years, and seven’s less than 20.”
Of the instruction on the workings of the court he received during his stay at Whitfield, he said, “All I could understand from it all was: judge smacks the gavel, and that means the little thing is either over or not over.”
Upon his release, Tyler said, he wants to get out of Mississippi and strike out for either Ohio or Idaho (he likes the way the names sound) and catch up on his video games.
Tyler’s mother Bridgett said that she has nightmares about what will happen when Tyler is released.
“He’s growing up in jail,” she said. “I don’t want to sound helpless but I am. I mean, he has no — he’s going to have no life. No quality of life. He will live in a homeless shelter, I’m sure. And that’s all there is to it.”
“I’m terrified of him.”
Tyler’s father, Walter Haire, never visited his son in jail. He acknowledged sending word to friends of his in the jail to give his son a beating. Tyler had assaulted a woman, his woman. He needed to be taught a lesson.
“That’s just the way we are around here, you know,” Walter Haire said. “We’re redneck. We don’t like beating and knocking on women.”
Today, he said he has no relationship with his son and wants none.
Shelia Hughes still lives in Vardaman. She endured multiple surgeries and a mental breakdown after the attack. Her daughter-in-law does her bills and ferries her to and from her appointments. She can’t remember much about Nov. 17, 2012. She still hates people coming up behind her. She has not forgiven Tyler, and maybe never will. But she said she knows he is in need of genuine mental health care.
Tyler, shown here in 2014 at the Calhoun County jail, could be released from state custody as early as next fall.
Louis Masur, the psychologist who had evaluated Tyler, said he couldn’t discuss the specifics of Tyler’s case. But he once more made clear the problems at play as Mississippi struggles to deal with its long list of prisoners awaiting evaluations. The long lapses in time complicate determining whether someone was sane at the time of a crime. And while he can offer the court some information about a prisoner, he said he’s really in no position to offer definitive determinations.
“It’s almost impossible to do,” he said.
Judge Andy Howorth, the senior judge in Calhoun County, said cases like Tyler’s haunt him. What happens to someone who’s competent but mentally ill? What happens to someone who’s incompetent but dangerous and handed to an underfunded system for the mentally ill? Mostly, they wind up behind bars.
“Of course,” Howorth said, “I worry that this is what I’m participating in — the warehousing of the mentally ill.”
ProPublica made the first of repeated requests to interview officials at Whitfield last summer. That and each subsequent request were rejected. Instead, Whitfield provided a statement through a public relations official declining to comment on Tyler’s case due to privacy restrictions. The statement acknowledged evaluation delays due to issues getting case information and the lack of bed space but pointed to initiatives the hospital has taken to improve its situation, such as new jail-based competency restoration program in one of the regional mental health centers.
When he retires, Calhoun County Sheriff Greg Pollan said, he aims to sit down and write his autobiography. Tyler will be a full chapter. No psychologist or psychiatrist in the country, he said, will ever convince him Tyler doesn’t have profound mental problems. The sheriff wishes Tyler had been committed to Whitfield for treatment for at least some time. He doesn’t think things will end well once Tyler is walking the streets again.
“I just felt like everybody in the world let him down somewhere,” Pollan said. “Mom, dad, grandfather, grandmother, the school system, Alabama, Mississippi let him down. And, I guess, me, to a certain degree.
“Or I would have figured out a way quicker to get him out of here than four years. I wish I’d have been smarter and could have figured out a way sooner to help.”