Criminal Solution: Competency Hearings Explainer and Timeline of Events

A Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and Spotlight PA Special Investigation

By Brittany Hailer and Danielle Ohl

Photos by Nate Smallwood

Determining whether someone is mentally fit to stand trial in Pennsylvania often traps them in the very place making them worse — jail. This following is a brief explainer of some key takeaways from our investigation. And our Timeline of Events in Rachel Bridgeman’s arrest and incarceration. See our full coverage of this investigation here.

Key Points:

  • A decades old Pennsylvania law is supposed to protect people with mental health issues from prosecution if they cannot understand the legal system and cannot aid in their own defense.
  • If a court finds someone incompetent to stand trial, the judge can order therapy at a state hospital to restore competency or dismiss the case if further therapy won’t help.
  • Rather than help people with mental illness, the competency system is so broken it often extends incarceration which can exacerbate mental health issues.
  • An analysis of nearly 700 cases from 2018 through August 2022 found people going through competency proceedings were most often charged with low-level crimes that could stem from experiencing mental health issues in public.
  • There is no one state agency overseeing the competency system and no standardized way for documenting competency assessments and hearings, making it difficult to identify people who may be languishing in jail.
Rachel Bridgeman speaks on the phone while attempting to retrieve her possessions at the Zone 2 precinct in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood on Dec. 2, 2022 (photo by Nate for Spotlight PA and PINJ)

Timeline of Events

  • August 11, 2022: Rachel Bridgeman is arrested on three charges related to prostitution.
  • August 12, 2022: Rachel self-reports to jail staff a history of psychosis and says she had a “mental breakdown” earlier in the year.
  • September 14, 2022: Allegheny County Jail staff refer Rachel to the Behavioral Assessment Unit, a section of Allegheny County pretrial services that assesses defendants for competency issues.
  • September 21, 2022: A judge dismisses the prostitution charges against Rachel.
  • September 22, 2022, about 5 p.m.: The Allegheny County Jail releases Rachel.
  • September 22, 2022, 7:27 p.m.: Pittsburgh Police arrest Rachel at a Rite Aid for retail theft and defiant trespass.
  • September 23, 2022: After her preliminary arraignment, Rachel is placed on a “behavioral hold” in the jail. Under the Mental Health Procedures Act and Allegheny County rules of criminal procedure, Rachel should get evaluated for competency within 48 hours.
  • October 7, 2022: A court psychiatrist assesses Rachel for competency, two weeks after the court ordered her evaluation.
  • October 12, 2022: The court finds Rachel incompetent to stand trial and orders her to receive treatment at Torrance State Hospital.
  • October 13, 2022: The court delays Rachel’s scheduled preliminary hearing until 10/27.
  • October 27, 2022: The court delays Rachel’s scheduled preliminary hearing until 11/9.
  • November 5, 2022: Rachel bangs her head on the floor and walls of her cell. Jail staff inject her with psychiatric and sedative drugs and tase her while removing her from her cell. Jail staff transfer Rachel to Allegheny General Hospital. Upon her return to the jail, Rachel begins banging her head again.
  • November 6, 2022: Jail staff transfer Rachel again to Allegheny General Hospital in the early morning hours for scans related to her head injury. Upon return, she resumes banging her head, so jail staff move her to a padded cell. Staff inject her with psychiatric and sedative drugs as she continues to bang her head.
  • November 7, 2022: From the padded cell, Rachel tells staff she was banging her head because “I just hear voices, and sometimes they get so bad. They were just loud.” She asks if she can leave the padded room.
  • November 8, 2022: Rachel meets with an attorney from the Abolitionist Law Center, an advocacy law firm that provides no-cost representation to incarcerated people.
  • November 9, 2022: The court delays Rachel’s scheduled preliminary hearing until 11/30.
  • November 18, 2022: Jail staff note in Rachel’s medical records that she is on a behavioral hold, but that staff “may reconsider it” if her condition improves and she continues to take the antipsychotic medicine medical staff prescribed.
  • November 21, 2022: Jail staff note in Rachel’s medical records that she “expressed disappointment that she hasn’t been able to reach her family and hasn’t got to speak with them in a ‘long time.’”
  • November 30, 2022: A judge dismisses the retail theft and defiant trespass charges against Rachel after her sister and an Abolitionist Law Center advocate attend the preliminary hearing and intervene on her behalf.
  • December 1, 2022: Rachel leaves Allegheny County Jail and reunites with her sister, Sarah.