A homeless man who’d been arrested 29 times last year was found dead in his jail cell March 10. Tommy Joe McMahan, 53, topped a recently compiled list of the 25 most-arrested people in Asheville in 2007 (see sidebar, “An Arresting List”).
At press time, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office was still investigating the death, but a March 10 statement asserted that McMahan was alone in his cell, and a subsequent autopsy found that he died of natural causes.
In 2007, McMahan was arrested 29 times, on 28 intoxicated-and-disruptive charges, 16 charges of second-degree trespassing and a slew of other charges including simple assault, littering and marijuana possession.
The day before his death, McMahan had refused to leave Mission Hospitals, where he’d been taken after falling ill at the AHOPE shelter on March 7, and was reportedly blocking the entrance to the emergency bay. Arrested for second-degree trespassing, he was taken to the county jail. During a shift change the next morning, McMahan was found dead.
According to Detention Center records, McMahan seemed fine at 4:30 a.m. and was seen in his cell at 5:30 a.m., a half-hour before he was found dead, said Lt. Ross Dillingham, the public-information officer and head of criminal investigations for the sheriff’s office.
AHOPE Assistant Director Amanda Thomas said the shelter had dealt with McMahan frequently and that he’d been sick throughout the week.
“He was so ill-looking. He wasn’t intoxicated; he was obviously very sick—he thought he had the flu,” she told Xpress, adding that McMahan had had a history of lung and heart problems. “There’s been some really bad illnesses going around the shelters lately.”
Thomas described McMahan as well-liked and polite. “Tommy had a lot of friends in the community here,” she said. “He would always say ‘Thank you,’ even when we couldn’t let him in. He will be missed by the staff and everyone here.”
Dillingham called McMahan’s death “very unfortunate.” Detectives are investigating the case, he said, and an autopsy has confirmed that he died of natural causes, though the exact results won’t be known for several weeks, pending toxicology tests. According to the sheriff’s office statement, McMahan “had no physical altercation with any Detention [Center] staff and no physical contact with other inmates during this time period.”
Dillingham said that jail staff medically screen incoming inmates, including asking them if they have any illnesses or need ongoing treatment—and that the jail has a nurse on staff to provide that. He also said that if an inmate doesn’t give any information, the nurse checks on them again in their first 24 hours anyway.
McMahan’s arrest record highlights a common problem, noted Dillingham. “What you have are homeless or indigent people hanging around downtown. They spend what little money they get—from begging, for example—on alcohol,” he said. “Then they get disruptive [and] they’re taken to jail. They plead guilty, get time served taken off, and they’re back out on the street.”
Many of the others on the APD’s most-arrested list have similar records: a lot of intoxicated-and-disruptive charges, plus others that are often related to drunkenness or substance abuse. The list has been assembled annually for the past few years, said Officer Steve Riddle, who requested the most recent one.
“We started assembling them when I worked as a community-resource officer for downtown, so we could use that list to keep track of some of the homeless issues, like the recidivism rate,” Riddle told Xpress. He said the lists have also provided useful information for initiatives such as the city’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness.
Dillingham said he’s seen such people come through “three to four times a week. Bottom line: It’s a problem, but that’s the way the system is set up.”
Sheriff Van Duncan, added Dillingham, is taking steps to increase substance-abuse programs and rehabilitation efforts at the jail, including finding treatment, housing and jobs for offenders after they leave, “so we won’t see so many of them coming back again and again.”
Not a moral issue
Val Westlund, the director of inmate programs at the jail, said the facility has just hired a substance-abuse manager, Steve Allison, in an effort to help tackle the problem. A state-mandated reduction in mental-health facilities and support, especially for the indigent, often leaves jails facing the brunt of a larger social problem, noted Westlund.
“We’re left facing the lack of education and health resources elsewhere—because they end up in jail,” she said.
Allison said he hopes to provide information and streamline the system to help people with mental illness or substance-abuse problems get treatment.
“Someone who’s facing these brain disorders is not going to be thinking the way you or I are, much less be able to go through seven layers of bureaucracy to get the assistance they need,” he explained. “We’re trying to simplify it, to give them a step-by-step path to better health.”
But both Allison and Westlund emphasized that a variety of factors make their job more difficult, including a general lack of affordable housing, a dense state bureaucracy, and the failure of many repeat offenders to recognize that they need help.
“Take, for example, a local facility where you have a certain number of beds, and a certain number of those beds are reserved for the indigent,” said Allison. “You’ve got a waiting list for those beds, while others in the same facility are empty. And sometimes, people don’t want to change. They have to take that first step: That’s freedom.”
Statewide mental-health reform, which has been privatizing parts of the system since 2000, is “not working,” said Westlund. “There’s still all the state guidelines, and they still control the funding, but there’s a lot less access.”
A lack of appropriate housing, she said, only makes matters worse.
“Steve and I can do everything we can, but if someone gets out of here and they don’t have safe housing to go to—if people are using hard drugs in the room beside them—how are they going to make it?” asked Westlund. “There’s this stigma attached to substance abuse and mental illness. People see them as moral issues, that there needs to be a new law against it. Like heart disease or diabetes, there’s voluntary behaviors that can contribute, but these are brain disorders.”
The sheriff, notes Westlund, has been very attentive to the need for such programs. “If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing now,” she says, adding that he’s enthusiastically backing the new programs, including an upcoming recidivism study.
“We have to work within the system we have,” she said. “It’s hard to know sometimes if it has an effect, but miracles do happen.”