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What about Mae?

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Mae Rosell (above) has become mentally challenged because of years of alcohol abuse. Her home, at least for now, is the Middle Peninsula Regional Security Center in Saluda. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

by Larry S. Chowning
First in a series.

Mae Rosell’s son just graduated from Virginia Tech and will soon be a first lieutenant in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Ordinarily, graduation would be a proud day for a mother. Unfortunately, Mae was unable to attend graduation because she is incarcerated at the Middle Peninsula Regional Security Center (MPRSC) in Saluda.

When asked how many jails she’s been in, her first remark is “too many,” and then she goes through the long list of facilities in which she has been incarcerated. 

Mae was born and grew up in Hampton to a hardworking family. Her stepfather works in the ocean scallop fishery and her mother owns three houses that she rents for income. 

When Mae was 11 years old some “friends” introduced her to alcohol. About a year later, she and her “drinking friends” took to the open road as runaways and caught a ride to Florida. From that point on, Mae’s life has been an open road with more and different drinking buddies.

Her mother tried to find her and sometimes would. It made little difference, because when she would get the “itch,” Mae would take to the road again, more drinking and more unsavory friends.

Years of alcohol abuse have damaged Mae’s mental capabilities, said jail superintendent David Harmon.

Mae is in the Saluda jail on charges of trespassing, but in reality she’s there to be protected from the alcohol abuse that drew her in when she was a child, and now will not let her go. It’s taken her youth. It’s taken her mind. It’s left her worn, withered and vulnerable.

“The first time I ran away I was 12 years old,” Mae said last week as she sat in her cell wearing the orange “medical” attire of the regional jail. Her voice is a little hard to understand as the effects of alcohol have left her with slurred speech. “I quit school when I was in the eighth grade. I ran away with my drinking friends.

“We went to Florida and I started dancing (at a topless bar). I love to dance,” she said while making a dancing motion with her hands and body to some deep, dark rhythm she recalls from her past.

She also talked about the good money—about $10 for a topless dance per table.

Mae is only 40 years old, but looks much older. Most of her offenses have involved trespassing, such as living in a tent behind Walmart in Gloucester.

She was living in Water View with a “friend” recently when she was charged with trespassing at a county convenience store.

“She shouldn’t be in this facility,” said Harmon. “This place is for criminals. Mae made bad choices and ruined her life, but by having her here now we are not protecting society from her, we are protecting her from an element of society that preys on people like her. That’s not our function!”

Unfortunately, state regional jails have become holding facilities for the mentally challenged. “We are seeing it more and more,” said Harmon. “The state keeps closing down facilities that help people like Mae, and now the only place we have to put her is in jail. It’s not right. It’s not fair to us. It’s definitely not fair to people like Mae.”

Since Mae’s latest trespassing offense happened in Middlesex, she’s a county inmate—and her stay is being funded by the taxpayers of Middlesex County. 

Assistant Middlesex County Administrator Marcia Jones said Mae is similar to other so-called criminals that Middlesex taxpayers are supporting.

“She shouldn’t be in jail,” said Jones. “She needs to be at a place where her alcohol problem can be addressed and where she can get some [therapeutic] help. The regional jail is not equipped to handle her problems. It looks like we are getting more and more people here like Mae because there is nowhere else for them to go.”

There are support people at the jail trying to get Mae into a nursing home facility. “Mae is homeless because of her mental issues,” said Harmon. “It’s sad. Here you have a person who could have had a normal productive life, but she chose alcohol.”

In her recent court case on trespassing charges, the judge ruled Mae was “incompetent to stand trial,” said Harmon. 

“My mother tried to help me and she’s still trying,” said Mae with a sound of hope in her voice.

With her history of running away, however, Mae was asked if she would stay in a facility that could provide her help.

Her response came as a question. “Can I smoke there?”

Mae has three children and two grandchildren whom she hardly knows. Mae’s children were raised by their grandmother. When asked what advice she would give to them, she paused, tucked her head as if ashamed, closed her eyes, and said very clearly, “Stay away from alcohol and drugs.”

Part 2 of this series will focus on the programs being used by the Middle Peninsula Regional Security Center to help mentally-challenged inmates. 

posted 05.27.2009

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