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Change has been coming to Mississippi's mental-health-care system, but it has been slow. State senator Billy Thames, an influential Democrat, led reform efforts in 1997 after a close relative waited a month for an appointment at her local clinic. "I started making calls, and I could not get any help," he says. "What about the average person who doesn't know anybody?" Thames produced the Mental Health Reform Act of 1997, which, along with subsequent legislation, promised to create seven regional crisis-intervention centers that would keep the mentally ill out of jail, closer to their relatives and not constantly on the road to Whitfield. But these probably won't open for two years. The new laws require communities to take more responsibility for improving their mental-health care, but there's no state budget to do it.
So Chief Huff is still making room for townsfolk like Big Earl in his jail. Back in 1992, Big Earl was driving a car when the voices in his head told him the police were after him again. He rammed into a wall, pinning and killing a man. Last year he walked up to a utility repairman and threatened to kill him for no reason. Each time, Earl has come to the city jail to await an opening at the state mental hospital. Huff knows Earl by now and has compassion for him. He remembers how, when he was six, he watched his own aunt make the trip to Whitfield. Of naked Earl in his jail, Huff says, "He doesn't feel like he's losing his mind, because it's so gradual." After forcing Earl out of the cell, Huff and his men put him in the back of a cruiser. With Earl finally on his way to Whitfield again, Huff drives home and showers. He knows he and Earl will meet again.