Lisa Alexander, holds a picture of her son, Reginald "Neli" Latson, a convicted, autistic teenager that she says needs legal help with her son's case in Woodbridge, VA on March 11, 2011. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Deputy editorial page editor

Neli Latson has a music player. Also, he can order snacks from the canteen and leave his cell for several hours a day.

This is good news, or what passes for it, in the life of Reginald Latson, a 23-year-old with autism and an IQ of 69 who goes by the nickname of Neli. It is good news because, for more than a year, he has been held in solitary confinement in a Virginia prison.

Except: Latson should not be in prison at all.

That’s not to say Latson should be free. He is, by the accounts of those who know him best, a sweet young man who nonetheless can become aggressive when agitated. Winchester, Va., jail superintendent James Whitley, who took the extraordinary step of testifying on Latson’s behalf at two sentencing hearings, described him as “like a child wanting to please us.”

Latson should be in a secure residential treatment facility, and Virginia’s mental health officials support this outcome even as its corrections system incarcerates him .

His journey through Virginia’s criminal justice system began four years ago, when he assaulted and badly injured a police officer who had demanded to know why Latson was sitting outside the public library. (Answer: Waiting for it to open. Hint: He was a young black man wearing a hoodie.)

That launched a self-defeating, seemingly perpetual cycle of imprisonment, release to a group home, and re-incarceration after police were summoned to the home to deal with an agitated Latson.

Next month, he is to stand trial on the most ridiculous charge of all: that he assaulted a correctional officer when, after being taken off his medications and threatening suicide, he was being transferred from a solitary confinement cell to a “crisis cell” with no mattress and with a hole in the floor for a toilet.

This scuffle warrants, at most, internal prison discipline, not additional prosecution by Stafford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen (R), who describes Latson as a cop-hating, racist thug pretending to be “mentally retarded” rather than a young man with a disability in need of treatment.

Given Olsen’s intransigence, the best outcome — for Latson and for the citizens of Virginia — would be for him to plead guilty and for Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to swiftly grant a conditional pardon that would allow Latson to be transferred to a secure treatment facility in Florida, a facility that has already agreed to take him and for which the state has secured federal funding.

Tragically, Latson’s situation is not unique. Rather, it reflects the criminal justice system’s difficulty in dealing with people who have mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Indeed, Virginia reached an out-of-court settlement with the Justice Department after being threatened with a lawsuit for failing to make adequate provisions to keep people with intellectual and developmental disabilities from being institutionalized.

The independent monitor overseeing the settlement asked the Justice Department last month to review cases like Latson’s, in which individuals with disabilities have been incarcerated, to determine whether the state was living up to the changes to its promises.

“Neli is important because he exemplifies one of the systemic problems that the settlement agreement addresses,” said Alison Barkoff, a former Justice Department lawyer now with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

“When services are not readily available in the community, behavioral health crises are often treated as a crime,” Barkoff said. “It is counterproductive, costly and inhumane to punish people for their disabilities instead of getting them help.”

This isn’t just a Virginia problem. Criminal justice systems across the country are finding themselves swamped with prisoners who have mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

These individuals need services and treatment; they have the hardest time complying with prison life. So they often wind up in solitary, punishment that serves only to exacerbate their underlying conditions.

This year, the Justice Department told Pennsylvania that its corrections system was violating civil rights law and the constitutional rights of prisoners with mental illness and intellectual disabilities by keeping hundreds in solitary for months and sometimes years.

Prisoners “are routinely confined to their cells for 23 hours a day; denied adequate mental health care; and subjected to punitive behavior modification plans, forced idleness and loneliness, unsettling noise and stench, harassment by correctional officers, and the excessive use of full-body restraints,” Justice found.

I am hopeful that, in 2015, Neli Latson will receive the treatment he deserves. I wish I could be more optimistic about thousands of other Neli Latsons languishing in prisons nationwide.

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