Editor’s note: This article contains graphic imagery.
Andre Thomas will be executed on April 5, 2023, in Texas, after the United States Supreme Court rejected a request to review his case.
Called “one of the most mentally ill prisoners in Texas history,” his long journey is a troubling tale of how Texas deals with the severely mentally ill who commit heinous crimes.
I first met Andre in October 2008, following my hiring in August as the new mental health manager at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit’s maximum-security prison for men, which housed death row inmates.
Andre was sentenced to death for the murder of his ex-wife, along with their son and her daughter. He planned to kill himself with the knife he used to kill the others. His self-inflicted wounds were not fatal, and he was later tried and convicted for his crimes.
I was called to death row that October, specifically because security was concerned that Andre was acting erratically. I found my way to Andre’s cell, but my attempt to establish a conversation was insufficient, as he was not making any sense.
I believed an abundance of caution was called for, so security brought him down to one of the unit’s psychological observation cells. In preparing him for the cell, as security stripped him out, I became aware that he had only one eye. It is not unusual for offenders to enter the prison system with all kinds of wounds. So, the fact that, at some point in Andre’s past, he had lost an eye was not unusual.
It is also important to know that the medical records in our system do not go into detail about what brought the offender to prison or death row. Those records are in an archaic “DOS” operating system. Typically, mental health service providers do not need to access those records, and we are too busy to search through the incarceration records of our clients.
With Andre safely locked away in the psychological observation cell, I went to lunch with the rest of the mental health staff. Upon our return, we were greeted with a nurse running down the hall shouting, “He gouged out his eye and ate it.”
When I and several of the clinicians got to the cell, blood was everywhere, and Andre was standing close to the door. Though we were unable to confirm he ingested his eye, it obviously wasn’t where it was supposed to be, and he was now blind.
Ultimately, Andre was treated for his injuries in two different hospitals, including a mental health hospital within the prison system. He is currently in a psychiatric facility in Richmond, Texas, that is part of the criminal justice system.
Andre Thomas is the poster child for the most severely mentally ill incarcerated in the Texas prison system and on death row.
Having run the mental health department while Andre was there and until 2014, there are some things I know about how the Texas Department of Criminal Justice works with the severely mentally ill. In brief, they do as little as is legally possible, with as few mental health clinicians and case workers as possible – and what these providers can do is limited due to the various regulations.
In the nearly six years I was at the Polunsky Unit, I discovered many of our mentally ill offenders could have been better served outside the prison setting in communities at much less cost to the state and with greater dignity provided to the offender.
At the time, a single offender cost the state $40,000 a year. An offender whose primary crimes related to their mental illness could be treated in their communities for far less. However, the state legislature continues to underfund local mental health services in the same way they underfund the prison system.
Many severely mentally ill offenders find their way to prison because they have a psychotic break, a schizophrenic episode or a paranoid episode. Police are called, and the person is eventually subdued, but often not without a fight. So, charges are filed for an “assault on a peace officer,” which sends them to prison.
Texas has almost no interest in the good care of the mentally ill. The people who have direct contact with the mentally ill are most often law enforcement and jailers.
Most severe mental illness are not driven by the person’s choices. However, the ramifications of severe mental illness are draining and destroying.
Andre started hearing voices at age nine, but in his community mental health services were not easily understood or available. When he arrived at death row in 2005, he was being treated for paranoid schizophrenia, but his disorder was not well controlled.
Thomas will not be the first or the last severely mentally ill offender executed in Texas. Tragically, no one will intervene, and no one will care – and that should shame us all.