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Saturday, October 31, 1998

Jail just like home for mentally ill

Assault suspect provokes fear, frustration

The Commercial Appeal, October 31, 1998
By Shirley Downing

When she's not in jail, Gloria Rodgers sleeps on the steps of the Criminal Justice Center or in a rat-infested, abandoned building.

This week Rodgers was arrested for the 259th time, accused in Saturday's attack on county administrator Nancy Lawhead.

A judge has ordered a mental evaluation for Rodgers and set her next court appearance for Nov. 12.

Acting General Sessions Judge John Getz also appointed an assistant public defender to represent Rodgers, but the Public Defender's Office later said it would have to withdraw.

Shelby County Public Defender A C Wharton has been working with Lawhead on a committee looking at the problems of the mentally ill in jail. He said a private attorney should be appointed.

Like Rodgers, many homeless and mentally ill people rotate through the jail frequently, causing problems not only for authorities but for other inmates. Jail officials have said 20 to 35 percent of the jail's population of about 2,600 have mental problems.

Wharton said jail is an inappropriate place for many of the mentally ill whose crimes are the result of their illnesses.

Rodgers, 44, is one of the city's most notorious - and unpredictably violent - mental patients. She has cursed and assaulted tourists and police and anyone else who happened to be around at the wrong time.

Saturday, Lawhead, a former mental health center director who is special assistant for health care for Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, was slugged a block south of The Peabody. Her lip was cut and some teeth loosened. Rodgers was charged with assault in the case.

Some say Rodgers is mad at the world. "She's angry at being homeless and helpless and having to walk around and beg for food," said a longtime friend, Thelma Herman. "It's getting cold, and she lives in abandoned buildings that just adds to the stress."

Others say Rodgers is mad, period, and in need of long-term care and confinement.

Her attorney, assistant public defender Kathleen Mitchell, wouldn't let Rodgers be interviewed by a reporter.

Former jail chaplain Novella Smith-Arnold has known Rodgers since 1982 and tried to help her. "The longest she has been hospitalized, to my knowledge, has been for seven months," Smith-Arnold said. "She needs institutionalization because there is no place to put her. She is chronically mentally impaired. She walks the streets, and everybody in jail is afraid of her."

Most often, Rodgers has been picked up for criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, public drunkenness, assault, theft, drugs and prostitution.

She's even been arrested in jail, once for flinging body wastes at a jailer who was trying to take her fingerprints.

She's been arrested for offering cops $2 sex and $20 drugs.

Some say she has been to jail so many times she thinks of it as a home or haven. "She usually sleeps on the jail steps out front when I come in early in the morning," said Joey Rhea, an officer for Pro-Tech Security assigned to the Detention Lobby. "She's not the only one. "There are five or six of them that sleep around here."

Rodgers is a widow and mother of five grown children.

Her first brush with the law was at 11 - she pulled a fire alarm and brought firetrucks on a false run.

Court records indicate she grew up in and around Foote and Cleaborn Homes public housing near downtown.

Her father was absent - $16 weekly child support often didn't arrive in time to pay the rent - and her mother, Florine Shorter, was on welfare.

Rodgers was a willful child with an IQ of 66 and a grade school education. "There is a history of mental illness in this family," a Juvenile Court officer noted in a 1968 report. "This girl does seem somewhat unstable."

Rodgers was twice committed to state reform schools and had two arrests for prostitution by age 17. By the time she was 24, she had two children, but it was her mother who cared for them.

Court records describe Rodgers as a "disruptive influence" and noted "she has manifested symptoms of mental illness and emotional disorders that have threatened the physical safety of the family members."

Rodgers's response to stress is to become "intensely aggressive and irrational," the report said. Counseling from state social workers had little impact.

"Gloria, she used to be a prostitute, back in the days when she used to be a beautiful lady," Herman said. "She was hooked up with a pimp, and they just abused her. She got on drugs that destroyed her."

In recent years, Rodgers has been a one-woman harassment committee to downtown businesses, tourists and police.

Her favorite haunts are outside The Peabody and Radisson hotels, Beale Street, the Greyhound bus station and a Mapco gas station on Danny Thomas. She has been arrested dozens of times for trespassing, stealing bananas or cookies from a store shelf and screaming at tourists.

Earlier this year, she was arrested at the Greyhound station after she cursed a female passenger and chased a man with a shoe. She told the arresting officer she was off her medication.

Police took her to The Regional Medical Center at Memphis for an evaluation, but she refused to cooperate and cursed the staff. When she could not be calmed down, police took her to the jail and charged her with disturbing the peace. The charge "emergency commitment" was crossed out on her arrest ticket.

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Edition: Final; Section: News; Page: A1
Copyright (c) 1998 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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