The first hint that Daniel Jason might not fit in with others came when he walked into his kindergarten class with his hands shielding his eyes so he wouldn't have to look at anyone.
A good baseball player throughout his childhood and teen years, Daniel nonetheless sat by himself in his team's dugout.
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A fine college student who graduated early, Daniel had problems with almost all of his roommates. He clearly struggled in his first romantic relationship. Some time off in Florida didn't bring him peace.
But of all the places where Daniel has had difficulty fitting in, the numerous jail cells where he's spent all his time since March of 2007 have been the most difficult to endure for his parents, Joseph and Nancy Jason.
"He's not a thug," the mom says of her son as she sits at the dining room table in their Buffalo Grove home. "He's acting like a fifth-grader and they put him with criminals."
Daniel has Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning person with an organic developmental disorder in the autism spectrum, explains his father, Joseph Jason, whose experience with his son has turned him into a crusader for people with mental illnesses. A certified public accountant, Joseph Jason is president of the Barrington Area chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He knows the struggle all too well.
"It's like a nightmare that just keeps going," Joseph Jason says of his son's ordeal.
A bright child who had difficulty making friends and socializing, Daniel was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome as a teenager after he threw a tantrum, was hospitalized and his interactions with his parents became more argumentative.
"He'd be in your face," his mom recalls.
"He lashes out verbally," his dad says.
The boy used the Internet to write offensive and juvenile things about girls' bodies.
With treatment and counseling, Daniel was able to run cross country at Stevenson High School and did well enough academically to get into plenty of colleges. He wanted to major in finance at the University of Iowa, but his parents were worried about him being so far from home. They told him to start at Illinois State University with the promise that if he got straight As for two years, he could transfer.
"He got all As," his mom says, accustomed to the way Daniel can lock in on a goal.
Roommates -- who didn't understand the mental illness that led to Daniel typing at 3 a.m., eating sloppy meals with his fingers or leaving the room a mess -- just thought he was a jerk. One punched him.
Daniel had trouble socially, but he managed to graduate early in December of 2005. He also started dating a woman for the first time. It wasn't a healthy relationship. When his parents couldn't manage to meet her during one of their visits, Daniel lashed out.
"We got a text message in the car," the dad says, recalling the words they are sure their son didn't mean: "I hope both of you get killed on the way home."
Those kind of impulsive threats are how Daniel responded after his girlfriend ended their relationship.
He'd send hundreds of emails and text messages, threatening to go public with secrets of their relationship.
He returned to Iowa for graduate school. She got an order of protection. Daniel violated that order of protection. He was suspended from grad school and his parents brought him home and tried to get him help. He returned to Iowa, spent a month in jail, and within hours of his release, violated court orders by contacting his old girlfriend.
Using his smarts and a couple thousand dollars of his bar mitzvah money, Daniel started trading options online and made $120,000, which he used to travel to Daytona Beach, Fla.
While there, he continued to communicate with his ex-girlfriend and send inappropriate and disturbing photos and messages. When he came to Iowa to visit her in March of 2007, he was arrested again and sent to jail.
Firing his lawyers and choosing to defend himself, Daniel mailed one of his stick-figure drawings to an attorney, depicting the lawyer, a gun and the saying "R.I.P." That led to the FBI filing charges and a federal conviction.
Daniel threatens violence, but isn't violent, say his parents, who note that mental health treatment, not jail, is the only way to end this sad cycle of inappropriate and criminal behavior.
"What's the answer? You can't just keep him in jail and prison for his whole life," says the father, who notes that he hasn't even been able to hug his son since a 2007 court appearance.
"I get five to eight phone calls a week from families in the same situation and that's just the calls I get," says James Pavle, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a not-for-profit group that advocates alternatives other than jail for many of the people with mental illnesses. "Over-incarceration is a tragedy."
Studies show that 16 percent of our nation's jail and prison population suffer from mental illnesses, and many experts think the percentage is higher, Pavle says. In the 1950s, we had 550,000 psychiatric beds in facilities across the nation. Now, we have fewer than 100,000. We moved away from large mental institutions, but we didn't move that money into other treatments, Pavle says.
"What confounds me the most is the comfort level that we in this society have with the incarceration of people with mental illnesses," Pavle says. "This great society of ours, we're just not cutting edge when it comes to treating people with mental illness."
The Jasons continue to write prosecutors, judges and other authorities, trying to get their son into a facility with the mental health treatments he needs.
"We are begging you, from the bottom of our hearts to please give him a chance to improve and build a life for himself," they write.
"We really don't know our son anymore," the mom says, wiping tears from her eyes. "You think if you love that child, it's enough. But it's not, because it's in their brain."