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Recovery from illness' highs, lows -- and jail

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 24, 2002


The smell of disinfectant and the constant dull clang of the barred doors that lead from corridor to corridor of the Pinellas County Jail are a creepy, inescapable combination. Kathleen Mahoney has been here since the spring.

She was so desperate that she wrote a letter to the judge handling her latest charge, for the possession and sale of cocaine. Mahoney, 38, wanted help.

She's a big woman with brown eyes and curly brown hair. When she talks about something important to her, her palms sweat and she begins to rub them methodically on the tops of her thighs. She rubs her thighs a lot.

She has reason to be nervous. After spending the last 20 years in and out of prison for prostitution or drugs, she has just been handed an enormous second chance.

The judge sentenced her to a year in Tampa Crossroads, a program in St. Petersburg that treats ex-cons not just for addiction but also for mental illness. Kathleen has long had a coke problem. She is also bipolar. She suffers from the dizzying highs of mania and the bleak lows of rock-bottom depression. She used drugs, she believes, to dull her illness.

Scores of people in the Pinellas jail are like Kathleen Mahoney. They committed crimes because they are mentally ill, or their legal troubles, often with drugs, are manifestations of their illness.

As many as one-third of the jail population is like this. It makes the jail the biggest mental health institution in the county, according to the Public Defender's Office.

This column is the first in an occasional series about the problem of the mentally ill in our jails. I went to Pinellas because its Public Defender's Office has an entire unit dedicated to working with these inmates.

Still, many of the mentally ill in jail are invisible, disdained, overlooked. They need help more than punishment. Help is hard to find.

Kathleen Mahoney knows it. She waited a year to get into Crossroads, which can only house 15 people at a time.

"I'm lucky. I'm blessed," she said. "Me and God, we've got an understanding."

This time last year she was in the jail finishing a drug treatment course called Project Success. Once she left jail she was supposed to keep up with the program as an out-patient. She didn't. She relapsed and ended up in jail again.

That, she swears, was the end of the line. "I got old," she said. "I can't be out on 34th Street any longer."

Sometimes, her eyes film over with tears. She had a girlfriend who did just what she did after finishing Project Success. The woman went back to the street. She was murdered.

Her friend's death led Kathleen to reach for life in the form of Crossroads. "They're going to help me with my emotional problems -- the crap I just don't talk about it."

She was sexually abused by an uncle and a brother when she was a teenager and ran away. She ran and ran and ran, leaving in her wake a criminal record in three states, including Florida.

Crossroads will also put Mahoney on the medication she needs to control her bipolar disorder, medication she has been denied in jail. "People here told me that because I relapsed, I didn't deserve my medication."

But getting the illness' highs and lows under control will give her a chance to begin to manage the rest of her life. She has dreams of going to junior college and getting a degree that will set her on the road to becoming a counselor.

Kathleen Mahoney will go to Crossroads some time in December. She has a record of 37 arrests in this state, but it would be wrong to classify her as the cliched hardened criminal. Fear, fear of the ordinary world, drives her.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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