Ebony Wilkerson‘s (pictured) mental health and well-being of her unborn child continue to be issues of concern for her defense attorneys and psychiatrist who treated her based on testimony during her bond hearing Monday.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, state authorities took Wilkerson to a psychiatric ward when she was seen “beating her stomach with her fists,” after she was arrested for driving her children in to the Atlantic Ocean March 4th. She was charged with three counts of attempted murder and three counts of child abuse. Currently, Wilkerson is being held on $1.2 million bail.
She left her home in South Carolina with her three children March 2 and headed to sister Jessica Harrell‘s home in Daytona Beach, because Wilkerson claimed her husband, Lutful Ronjon, had been abusing her for 14 years. Last week, the judge ruled that Ronjon stay away from Harrell.
Ronjon denies the allegations of abuse, and the couple’s children are in the custody of the state.
Wilkerson, 32, who is seven months pregnant, is currently in isolation at the Halifax Health Medical Center and not able to interact with other inmates. Doctors testified during her bond hearing that because her pregnancy has complications and her mental state is unstable, such an environment is not healthy for her well-being.
“I believe that Mrs. Wilkerson can be helped,” Dr. James Moore, a psychiatrist who treated her, said during the bond hearing. Moore added that Wilkerson’s detention is so restrictive that it will complicate her mental health treatment. “She’s limited in her ability even for such things as getting fresh air,” he said.
James Purdy, the Public Defender of the 7th Judicial Circuit handling Wilkerson’s case, told NewsOne that he is trying to move her out of isolation and to a less secure part of the mental health facility where she is being held; he also wants Wilkerson moved in to the general population. Ideally, he would like to have Wilkerson released under pre-trial release services under the condition that she is released in to a mental health facility, where her care would be better handled than the jail.
“We want to keep her safe and we want to keep her baby safe,” Purdy said.
Wilkerson is now being watched by two correction officers at the Halifax Health Medical Center, where she has been held for a week, according to Purdy. He also says she has no access to other inmates or reading materials. Consequently, Purdy describes Wilkerson’s living arrangements as similar to solitary confinement. A Volusia County Jail representative declined to describe her exact living arrangements when NewsOne called for comment.
State Attorney R.J. Larizza argued against moving Wilkerson out of isolation because it would not be in the best interest of Wilkerson’s unborn baby, according to The Daytona Beach News-Journal.
Watch Wilkerson’s bond hearing here:
“We are extremely concerned about the welfare of the unborn child,” Larizza said. “I mean, this child doesn’t have the option of being in foster care. She’s carrying this child in the womb and there were issues that brought her back over to the hospital involving the pregnancy and her allegedly striking herself in the belly. We can’t ignore the facts. … I mean you look at the circumstances surrounding the vehicle driving in the surf, the way the mother acted during that.”
Larizza was not immediately available for comment when NewsOne called his office.
Circuit Judge Leah Case ordered that Wilkerson be held in jail custody for another week and ordered that defense attorneys prepare case law supporting grounds for her release to the hospital. NewsOne legal analyst Eric Guster said that the judge’s ruling was the appropriate one, given the circumstances.
“Because they don’t have a diagnosis yet, the judge has to make sure to balance the health of the child versus keeping her in custody,” Guster said. “The purpose of custody is to protect her and others from her. And balancing that with the health of the child, her health, and her safety — it’s a very difficult balancing act.”
Guster added that moving Wilkerson out of jail custody without a diagnosis and knowing exactly what her mental health issues are would be a safety risk for other inmates in general population.
“It’s extremely important that you protect other inmates from her as well because if she will harm her own child, she may harm another inmate,” he said. “With her beating her own stomach, she’d definitely hit someone else, so they have to be very careful with putting her with other inmates. And the statement in reference to her needing to talk to other people to help her mental state — if I were the judge, I would not necessarily take that into consideration with her actions because I would have to protect those other [inmates] as well.”
Dr. Sarah Vinson, who serves as the Medical Director at the Fulton County Jail Competency Restoration Program in Atlanta, told NewsOne that transferring an inmate from a jail to a hospital is not simply a matter of someone having a mental illness or needing medical care.
“Jails are full of people who have schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and most are not transferred in to a hospital,” Vinson said. “Just because somebody has schizophrenia that doesn’t mean they will be transferred to the hospital and often times they don’t.”
In her experience of dealing with inmates with mental health needs, Dr. Vinson said that even medication needs may not get a person moved to the hospital.
“In Fulton County, in Atlanta, if somebody needs a long-acting injectable medication or if somebody has to be medicated against there will, we have to transfer them to the hospital for that,” she said. “But if it’s somebody who will take medicine (pills) by mouth, which is what a lot of people do, as long as they take them, then they don’t necessarily need to go to the hospital.”
It is not uncommon for jails to serve as mental health facilities. The Treatment Advocacy Center, in Arlington, Va., reports that jails and prisons across the country house 10 times as many people with severe mental illness than do psychiatric hospitals. The three largest mental health providers in the nation today are jails: Cook County in Illinois, Los Angeles County, and Rikers Island in New York.
The continuation of Wilkerson’s bond hearing is scheduled to resume March 25th.