A mother’s fight for justice for the mentally ill

Reporter: Corey Lazar Writer: Nicholas Karsen
Photographer: Erik Randlov
Published: Updated:

Cindee Murphy traveled to Tallahassee to deliver a message to lawmakers:

  • Keep those who are mentally ill out of prison
  • Get help for inmates already in custody

Murphy shared her son’s story before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice in January.

mental health

“He suffered from schizophrenia, and was on medication and doing well for a while and then his condition deteriorated,” explained the heartbroken mother. “In December, 2019, he went to the Charlotte County Jail in his pickup truck, and rolled his pickup truck into the pond.”

Tristin would ultimately be convicted and sentenced to prison time. He was transferred to the Florida Department of Corrections and placed on work duty.

We are treating people who are mentally ill like criminals. Cindee Murphy, Mom

“There were about 30 inmates there were asked by the prison guard, ‘does anybody know how to start a chainsaw?’ and Tristin did know how to do that,” Cindee told lawmakers, “because he had been trying to develop a tree trimming company before all this started. He volunteered and immediately put the chainsaw to his neck and severed his neck, went over and sat on the bench and bled out.”

Cindee’s plea to lawmakers

Make changes. Cindee recommended new, injectable medications for schizophrenia that last longer and eliminate lapses in medication. She also noted the need for a better, electronic records system which would eliminate the need for passing around paper documents. And, she’d like to see changes to the Baker Act.

mental health

“We are treating people who are mentally ill like criminals. That has to be number one. The change. Then, how do we focus on helping these people?” she said. “Incarcerating them? You know that this is not working. It’s not getting them help so that when they can get back in the community, they can function better.”

State Senator Jonathan Martin agreed.

While he is firm on punishment for crimes, he added, “They can learn from their mistakes and contribute to society. The mental health component is very important to address because a lot of people are in prison, a lot more in jails around the state of Florida. Day in and day out, (there are) repeat offenders because of mental health issues.”

From the beginning, that has been a major concern for Cindee Murphy. She said she felt Tristin with her as she fought his battle in Tallahassee.

“I think he would have been proud of me for fighting for him and for fighting for change,” added Cindee, “I think looking down on this, he’d be like, ‘Go, mom.'”

Senator Martin backed a bill moving through committees that makes changes to who can petition a court to put someone in involuntary care and would create more oversight of the treatment plan for someone who is mentally ill.

How far would that half a billion dollars go, if we directed
it towards mental health and rehab in the prison system? Sen. Jonathan Martin, (R) Fort Myers

Cindee told WINK News Anchor Corey Lazar she did not know how her trip to Tallahassee would go, but what she found is lawmakers who want change the system for inmates with mental illness.

“I went up there with low expectations because I had been warned that mental health issues aren’t jazzy, particularly if they’re linked to criminal justice issues. I really went up there thinking all I would do is hand out some cards to people. But when I got up there, I found just the opposite. I found lots of people who are very, very interested in these issues,” she shared, “Of course, I got to speak before the Appropriations Committee for criminal civil justice. It was in the same room with the Department of Corrections and some of the people that had been involved in Tristin’s journey and got to say, my piece or share my thoughts, which was therapeutic.”

mental health
Cindee tristin murphy

Senator Johnathan Martin mentioned a report from KPMG, a global audit firm, which audited the state prison system. According to the KPMG report, the state would need to pay anywhere between $6 billion and nearly $12 billion to fix prison infrastructure and address staffing.

“In the presentation to the Appropriations and Criminal Justice Committee in the Senate, a lot of their discussion was focused on facilities and moving forward with increasing the quality of facilities, which needs to take place. But there’s also a very large increase that they recommended to air condition our prison facilities,” said Martin.

“So, there’s a discussion about should we spend about half a billion dollars with air conditioning facilities. How far would that half a billion dollars go, if we directed it towards mental health and rehab in the prison system? Because we spend a lot less money than that every single year on those important things,” continued Martin.

“My priority is less on air conditioning and prisons and more on rehabilitation and mental health treatment. There is a component that you can clearly upgrade the facilities and make sure that they’re serving to protect the community, but also, they’re cost effective. They’re designed to be cost effective. As far as heating and cooling and ventilation,” added Martin.

Some of that money, Senator Martin said, can also help with mental health staffing levels in the Florida prison system.

“Yeah, there’s definitely a shortage of providers and a criminal justice system with the mental health background in training and education,” he added.

“So, making sure that we’re doing what we can to make sure that we have mental health providers that are there from the very beginning. The county level, in the court system all the way through the sentencing phase,” added the lawmaker. “If they committed a felony, and they need to have state probation or state prison.”

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