Janice Dotson-Stephens was hilarious — and blunt — recalls her family. She had four children, 10 grandchildren, and had been struggling with manic depression and paranoid tendencies for more than 40 years.
“Despite her illness she was a great mother,” Michelle Dotson told Refinery29. “She knew she didn’t always have control and so when she did, she wanted us to be our best.”
On Friday, Dotson-Stephens died at the Bexar County Jail in Texas at the age of 61. She’d been held there on a charge of criminal trespassing since July 17. Her bond was set at $300 USD — it likely would have cost about $30 USD to have her released. But Dotson-Stephens' family had no idea where she was until they were notified of her death. Now they are looking for answers.
“Where was the miscommunication?” Dotson asks. “Why wasn’t our grandfather or brother or sister called?”
The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office is currently investigating the death and in a statement said that the cause of death appeared to be natural. They couldn’t confirm if she had been diagnosed with a mental condition.
But this incident was not Dotson-Stephens’ first encounter with law enforcement. Her family says that her mental illness often made her act erratically. In the past, when she’d been picked up by police, her family was notified and she was quickly transferred to the state hospital and put under psychiatric evaluation. This time, that transfer never happened. Instead, she spent months in the county jail.
Because she could be irrational when off her medication, it wasn’t unusual for the family to go for stretches of time without hearing from Dotson-Stephens; court records show that she refused to be interviewed in the days following her arrest. But in August, a few weeks after she’d been taken into custody and assigned a court-appointed attorney, her father called the Bexar County Jail looking for his daughter. He was told she wasn’t in their custody. Their worst fear was that she’d been released onto the streets, but they were unable to get any confirmation of her whereabouts until being informed of her death.
The case caught the attention of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, who recently tweeted about Dotson-Stephens.
In an email, Sen. Harris told Refinery29, “The death of Janice Dotson-Stephens is a tragedy. No one should be held in jail for months before they have been convicted of a crime because they can’t afford to pay a few hundred dollars for bail. Our system of justice is supposed to be blind. It is an injustice that a person with money who has been accused of the same offense and can pay to get out of jail, but a person who can’t pay sits in jail with residual consequences, and in this case, tragically dies in jail. We must reform our broken money bail system.”
Dotson-Stephen’s sister-in-law, Leticia Dotson, confirmed in an interview with the KSAT ABC that they would have posted her bail if they’d been able to locate her. "She had people who loved her and family who would have easily paid the $30 USD to get her out of jail if that’s what we had to do to take the next step,” Dotson said.
A funeral service will be held for Dotson-Stephens on December 28 as her family struggles to understand the circumstances that lead to her death.