Once a week, Sana Campbell makes a 3 1 /2 -hour drive from her Gainesville, Va., home to see her son in prison. She has been visiting him in one lockup or another for two decades, ever since he was arrested for a violent and random act: stabbing a woman in the back and stealing her car.
Christopher Sharikas was 17 years old at the time and had been recently diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Campbell does not deny her son’s actions. But she believes his illness led to his crimes and his harsh sentence, leaving him to deteriorate in prison to a low from which experts say he will never rebound.
Sharikas illustrates one of the biggest problems facing the criminal justice system: the large number of prisoners who are sane enough to be held accountable at a trial but struggle with severe mental illness behind bars. A majority of state and federal prisoners have either been diagnosed with a mental-health disorder or were currently in severe psychological distress, according to a 2017 Justice Department report based on data from 2011 and 2012.
"Our jails and prisons have become shadow mental-health facilities," said Dominic Sisti, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania who has advocated expanding hospitalization for the mentally ill. While mental-health treatment has been focused for several decades on community-based services, he said, "There's going to be a population of folks who just can't do it."
Campbell blames herself for not fighting harder from the outset. She encouraged her son to plead guilty, knowing that the guideline sentence for his crime was seven to 11 years. But the judge started by considering a 60-year sentence. When Sharikas smirked in court and denied stabbing the victim, the judge upped it to life.
Since then, Campbell has helped her son appeal the case as many times as possible and has written letters to her U.S. senators, her state senator and the U.S. attorney general. Her hope now is an unlikely one: a commutation from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). She said she is preparing to reach out to him with help from mental-health advocates.
Around age 15, growing up in Fauquier County, Sharikas quickly changed from what family members described as a sociable, ordinary teen to one who acted out, used drugs, sat alone in the dark, carried a baseball bat and fought with teachers. Campbell sent him to live with her mother in Wheaton, Md., thinking a different atmosphere might help. But Sharikas’s grandmother soon sent him back, saying she couldn’t handle him.
Mental illness runs in Sharikas’s family, and Campbell said Sharikas’s father resisted sending him to treatment. The teen was eventually hospitalized and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but after his release, he stopped taking his medication.
Sharikas, the middle child of three, had gotten into typical teenage trouble before, his older brother recalled, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, but he had never been impulsive or violent. Kevin Sharikas said his brother became “a totally different person.”
According to Arlington court records, Christopher Sharikas was twice convicted in juvenile court of carrying a concealed weapon, in each case a blade. Then, in April 1997, about a year after his diagnosis, Sharikas committed the crimes that would send him to prison. First he tried to rob a woman at knifepoint in Fairfax. A sheriff’s deputy came to his parents’ home in Warrenton, Va., the following day. Sharikas was questioned but not arrested. That afternoon, his mother went to work a late shift for United Airlines at Dulles International Airport. When she got off work, she learned her son had been arrested for a violent carjacking in Northern Virginia.
Sharikas stabbed Amy Greenwood, who was then working as an intern in the Arlington prosecutor’s office, in the back, puncturing her liver. According to court records, she staggered into a nearby medical facility and was hospitalized for several days. Greenwood could not be reached to comment for this story.
After his arrest, Sharikas was deemed "extremely psychotic" and had to be brought up to competency at a state hospital, according to court records. He then pleaded guilty. But after, with a smirk, the judge said, he blamed the victim. An irate Arlington Circuit Court judge in 1998 sentenced him not within the voluntary guidelines of seven to 11 years but to two life sentences plus 30 years.
“It’s a gamble to say that a child — he’s a child — could be cured, treated, made safe,” Judge Paul F. Sheridan said at the time.
Although Sharikas’s defense attorney emphasized his mental problems, he never pursued a defense of insanity or expert testimony for his sentencing. According to court records, he tried to persuade his client’s parents to hire more experienced criminal counsel. Not long after the plea, the attorney was caught embezzling money from a client and voluntarily admitted himself to rehab for alcoholism. His law license was later revoked.
Petitions for a new sentence failed. One attorney, Campbell said, told her he wouldn’t want to live next to her son.
Complicating his family’s efforts, Sharikas himself says his crime was committed out of greed, not delusion.
“I was thinking, ‘I need a new car,’ ” he said a recent interview from the Greensville Correctional Center near Jarratt, Va. “I couldn’t find my way to getting one.” He followed Greenwood into a parking lot because she cut him off in traffic, he said, and stabbed her because she wouldn’t give him her keys.
“He’s a very dangerous individual who caused a lot of havoc in the life of the victim,” said Theo Stamos, who prosecuted Sharikas and is now Arlington’s commonwealth’s attorney. “Individuals who have mental illness can also . . . make a deliberate and rational choice to hurt other people.”
But Sharikas also believes that he’s been shot 35 times and might be a new Messiah.
“I could be the next Jesus Christ,” he said with a grin. “He says when I die, he’ll end the world. When I’m with him, I don’t have nothing to worry about.”
He said he had gotten involved with gangs and at the time of the carjacking had already been arrested in Leesburg, Va. His mother says he was never involved in a gang and was not arrested in Leesburg but was sent to a mental-health facility there. He was never cut off in traffic by Greenwood, to her knowledge; he first encountered her in the parking lot.
He also claimed to have punched a guard once in prison, his mother said, until a video showed otherwise. She said he told her he lied to avoid looking like a “sissy.”
Sharikas has repeatedly hurt himself and others while incarcerated, according to a 2009 psychiatric evaluation, acting on delusions he then tries to hide. At one point, he thought he had cancer and drank a mix of mouthwash, contact lens cleaner, cough syrup and aspirin to "clean my body out." And he attacked a man in a wheelchair who he thought had killed his mother.
“Mr. Sharikas appeared motivated to convey that psychiatric symptoms did not influence his behavior, despite strong collateral evidence to the contrary,” Daniel Murrie, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote in the evaluation.
When Sharikas is heavily medicated, he becomes passive, according to the report, and is preyed on by other inmates. He's been raped, his mother says, and beaten for resisting. According to the report, when he doesn't take his medication, he becomes aggressive and picks fights. He has lost teeth, and his nose has been broken.
“It is very doubtful that the patient will ever return to the mental status baseline he achieved before going back to court,” a prison psychiatrist wrote in 2007.
Ron Honberg, senior policy adviser at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that while the medication available for schizophrenia in prison is comparable to what a patient would get outside, the treatment is hardly the same.
“Successfully treating someone with schizophrenia and rehabilitating them requires a whole lot more than medication,” Honberg said. “Psychiatric treatment in corrections . . . is basically designed to keep the person calm and sedate, and that’s often through very high doses of medication.”
While Sharikas has served time in a special prison for mentally ill men and is housed in a mental-health unit, he has often been placed in solitary confinement. That only exacerbates mental disorders, experts said.
When Sharikas talks, he mumbles and jiggles his legs and stares at the ground. His jumpsuit hangs off a thin frame. When he smiles, he reveals crooked, yellowed teeth.
“Sometimes I can’t even understand what he’s saying,” Kevin Sharikas said.
He no longer frequently visits his brother. Only their mother does.
“I go and see him, I cheer him up, but when I leave I’m crying,” she said. “It just breaks my heart.”
Sharikas has vague hopes of freedom, saying he would probably rely on his brother or a girlfriend for support. His mother’s only goal is to get him moved to a hospital. She said politicians in the state have promised to help her if he can stay out of trouble for three years; he’s now gone 2½ without an incident.
“Christopher doesn’t know anything about life out here. He thinks he’s going to see his friends,” she said. “I just want to give him a decent life, before I go back to my creator.”