MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – William Bradley Bankston’s first trip to Mobile County Metro Jail happened all the way back in 1981 when police arrested him on a public intoxication charge.
But it wasn’t the last time he would go to the jail. Not by a long shot.
Over the next three decades, Bankston returned again and again and again.
The charges have ranged from assault to harassment to disorderly conduct to driving under the influence of alcohol. And lots of arrests on public intoxication charges.
COMING WEDNESDAY: A POSSIBLE SOLUTION
In all, Bankston has been booked in to Metro 98 times, making him among the most-often jailed prisoners in the facility’s history. And that does not even count his many bookings in city jails elsewhere in Mobile County, or his arrests during a three-year period living in Texas.
“I never had no violent crimes, or no felonies,” he said. “It was always misdemeanors.”
Bankston, 57, might be an extreme case, but he is not the most extreme, nor is he unique. Jail records indicate the all-time record-holder has been booked a whopping 163 times dating to 1980 for offenses including disorderly conduct, loitering, criminal trespassing, burglary, panhandling and public intoxication.
Jail Sgt. Ira Kennington said inmates like Bankston who cycle back and forth between jail often are not violent and usually have long records of arrests on nuisance offenses.
“They’re not necessarily bad people,” he said. “They’ve just got that one problem, that one bad habit, that one demon they have to deal with.”
That demon could be drugs, or alcohol or problems with personal relationships.
For Tony Pye, who spoke with FOX10 News during his most recent stint in the jail – on a shoplifting charge – life has been a struggle on the outside in between frequent stretches behind bars. He said he has battled a years-long addiction to crack cocaine.
“The thing that keeps me in trouble is, like, being in the streets homeless, nowhere to live,” said Pye, who has been behind bars dozens of times between Mobile and his native Florida. “And then, you know, trying to get a job and work. You know what I’m saying? And then, there’s no job right then to work. So, in my mind, I try to survive. And that’s what brings me back to jail.”
Born in Tallahassee, Pye said he moved to Mobile in 2006 to be near his sister in hopes that it would help his break a cycle that sent him back and forth between home and jail or prison since he stole a bicycle at age 14.
The change of scenery did not help, though. Metro Jail records show he has been booked in to the facility 23 times. He said he has not spent a single Christmas or birthday in the free world since 1989.
When he is out, he said, he lives behind shopping centers.
Still, Pye, 49, expressed optimism.
“Most of the time, it’s just like, when I have no job, no place to live, that’s when it’s supposed to be with me,” he said. “Because, I ain’t got to do wrong. I can work, you know, help myself; do the right things.”
Pye has been free since Aug. 2.
Mental health challenges
Increasingly, according to jail administrators, mental illness has driven a spike in inmates with long arrest records coming to the lockup on St. Emanuel Street. Warden Trey Oliver said he has noticed an upswing since 2012, when the state closed Searcy Hospital, a mental health facility in Mount Vernon.
The idea behind that closure was that community-based group homes were a more humane way to treat people with mental illness and that the state could save money amid a budget crunch.
But law enforcement and health officials said many of those folks battling mental illness cannot make it in the group homes. Oliver ticked off the statistics: On a typical day this month, the jail had 34 inmates on suicide watch and almost 300 taking psychotropic medication. That’s about 18 percent of the prisoners.
Mobile County Health Officer Bert Eichold said there are too few options for people in need of mental health treatment.
“Unfortunately, the police don’t have a lot of choices,” he said.
Oliver said he sees a familiar pattern. People unable to function in society end up homeless, commit minor crimes and get arrested. Quickly released, they start the same cycle over.
“We’re not gonna arrest our way out of this problem, especially when those arrestees are mentally ill patients.”
The warden said one man came to his jail after getting arrested three times in a four-week period by the same officer at the same Dollar General.
“We’re not gonna arrest our way out of this problem, especially when those arrestees are mentally ill patients,” he said.
The result, Oliver said, is that the jail ends up being the mental health provider of last resort. And even though the facility has round-the-clock nursing and access to psychiatrists and mental health counseling, it was not designed for people with mental health problems.
“We’ve got people here now who don’t need to be here, in here,” he said. “They need to be in a mental hospital.”
At Metro Jail, inmates with mental health issues are divided into two blocks in a separate wing – one with inmates on medication and one with prisoners who refuse to take their meds. Those on suicide watch occupy the middle, while corrections officers on a raised platform have view of all three blocks.
‘It’s not fair. And it’s not the best way to deal with it’
Oliver said his staff does its best, but he adds that a small number of inmates consume a disproportionate amount of resources and attention. And sometimes things go very badly. In 2015, an inmate who had been kicked out of two mental health group homes ended up a Metro and refused to take his medication.
A standoff ensued, and Brandon Jeffries ran down a hallway, fell on a stairwell and became paralyzed. A lawsuit and subsequent settlement cost Mobile County taxpayers $800,000.
Kennington, who is the jail’s training coordinator, said the sheer number of troubled prisoners creates special challenges of corrections officers. He said it places unwarranted responsibility on the men and women tasked with guarding a total jail population of more than 1,600.
“It’s not fair. And it’s not the best way to deal with it. But that’s what we’ve got, and it’s what we have to work with.”
“It’s not fair. And it’s not the best way to deal with it,” he said. “But that’s what we’ve got, and it’s what we have to work with.”
Bankston, the former inmate with nearly 100 Metro bookings, said he battled alcohol problems much of his adult life and also received mental health counseling. He said he was a dependable worker when he wasn’t drinking, and even was trusted to work outside the jail during stints of incarceration.
He recalled one time when he was at the Saraland city jail.
“Well, really, what it was, I worked outside, and they had a cook that day. And a friend of mine came up there, and he had a bottle of whisky in the car, and he told me I could get it he and I, so I went out there and started drinking that whiskey,” he said. “Got intoxicated and I said I wanted to go inside in one of the clubs and have me a drink ’cause I ain’t been out in a long time. And that’s when all hell erupted.”
It has been eight years since Bankston last spent time at Metro Jail. Now living in a mobile home west of Mobile, he said he has had counseling and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and he added that a couple of strokes slowed him down.
Bankston said he is confident he has seen the last of a jail cell.
“I’m doing good now,” he said. “I got income coming in. I got credit cards. I got everything a man would want. Still wish for more, but you know how that is.”