Longtime Deptford Township resident Michelle Robinson knew there was something wrong with her son when he threw a brick through her car window.
Even though Zephan Robinson had been in and out of trouble with the law since he was a teenager, Michelle and her tight-knit family knew something had changed in his late teens.
After he was assigned probation in 2015, Zephan was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 21. Despite that diagnosis, he is now in Salem County Jail awaiting trial on charges of violating probation and bank robbery, according to his mother.
“I would love to go in front of a judge and say that nothing is wrong with my son and to let him do the [prison] time,” Michelle said. “But that’s not the case. My son is sick and he can’t help himself.”
“Instead of everybody looking down on him, they should be trying to help him.”
Along with her family, Michelle is trying to get Zephan — who was later diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of symptoms of schizophrenia and mood disorder — out of the prison system and under proper care.
“My son is sick, and he needs help. He needs the proper help so that he can come out and live a regular life,” she explained. “I want him to be held accountable, but that cannot happen inside a prison cell.”
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, a public health crisis, according to a 2017 study in the journal “BMC Public Health.” The study states that correctional facilities such as the one Zephan is in are on the front line of mental health care and have become America’s “new asylums.”
The result is the number of individuals with serious mental illness in prisons and jails now exceeds tenfold the number in state psychiatric hospitals.
The treatment of mentally ill individuals in prisons and jails is critical, especially since such individuals are vulnerable and often abused while incarcerated, according to a 2014 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit that makes treatment possible for severe mental illness.
The study shows that if untreated, psychiatric illnesses often get worse, ultimately leaving the afflicted in prison or jail sicker than when they entered. Yet New Jersey has made virtually no effort to divert mentally ill individuals from jails, despite the crisis, says the report.
In recent months, Zephan has grown distant from Michelle and the family, barely staying on the phone long enough to have a conversation about whether he is eating and taking his medication.
According to his mother, even though it has been over a year since Zephan was incarcerated, his family still has not found adequate resources to get him into proper care. Michelle has said her family even faced racist remarks from a person in a position to help.
“I’ve just been having a rough time getting him where he needs to be,” she noted. “He is sick. He can’t help it. So I have to be the voice that I’m being for him.”
Michelle initially wanted to hold a Woodbury rally for mental health and prison reform. For help, the family contacted their local church, which directed them to The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the famed civil rights organization.
The NAACP offered to help Michelle hold a press conference, but as of deadline, it has yet to follow up with Michelle. Even though her family has reached out to a powerful organization, contacted doctors for diagnoses and hired lawyers, Zephan is still without proper care.
Michelle plans to reach out to The National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) for advocacy support and resources. She added that even if Zephan is convicted, his family will continue to fight for the proper care he needs.
“Even in my son’s sickness, he took very good care of my mom,” Michelle said of her ill mother. “He would take her to the bathroom, change her, feed her.”
“Somebody told me I should hold onto that.”