The (Continuing) Education of a White Writer Regarding Black Americans and Mental Illness

This post is for two of the best women I know, the New York actor and activist Madeline McCray and her close friend Terrie M. Williams, the author of BLACK PAIN: IT JUST LOOKS LIKE WE’RE NOT HURTING.  

Terrie Williams and Madeline McCray

Madeline and Terrie, you tried to put me wise to the special challenges of African-Americans who suffer from mental illness. You reached out to me as I began research on NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.

You provided me with sources. You tried to educate me. I promised you that I would look deeply into this topic in my book. But in the end, I did not look deeply enough.

Recognition of this truth arrived, appropriately enough, on Mental Health Day, October 10. It arrived in the form of a young woman in Cleveland, an African-American service-staff employee at the Intercontinental Hotel. It arrived just minutes after I’d finished addressing an exemplary civic group on—well, on the topic of education. Education about mental illness. How important this kind of education is.

(from left) David E. Weiss, board chairman; Honoree Fleming; Ron Powers; Elizabeth Newman, president and CEO at The Centers for Families and Children Benefit Luncheon 2017.

It took a three-minute conversation with this soft-spoken young woman to make me realize that my own education has been incomplete.

This is a rich irony—or a well-deserved comeuppance, depending on your point of view. I wrote NO ONE CARES essentially as an effort at education. After schizophrenia invaded my family and attacked both my sons, triggering the suicide of one of them, my wife and I realized that we’d become citizens of a “sub-nation”: the largely opaque nation of the afflicted and their families. Years later, when I recovered my willpower, I decided to write the book as an attempt to widen public understanding (and my own) about the nature and the reach of serious mental illness. That, and to illuminate the gross deficiencies in the American systems of mental health-care, criminal justice, and political willpower in addressing the problem.

As I’d hoped, writing the book educated me—but incompletely, as I now understand.

It is not as though the book ignores the particular ordeal of mentally ill black Americans. At least the public symptoms of that ordeal. It covers the epidemic of fatal shootings, by police, of unarmed and psychotic black men on the street. It portrays the overcrowding of the nation’s jails by juveniles, mostly black, who have been charged with crimes but not yet tried; and the violence visited on them by wardens and guards.

All of this is important. Yet in merely evoking these familiar abuses, I failed to cross an elusive border: the border that defines the daily realities of a sub-nation within a sub-nation. The lives of African-Americans struggling with mental illness amounts to unknown territory—unknown, at least, to most white Americans, of which I am one.

Ron Powers – keynote speaker at The Centers for Families and Children Annual Benefit Luncheon

I was ushered across that border in Cleveland on Mental Health Day.

My guide, the young service staff member, approached me just minutes after I had finished speaking at the annual luncheon of the Centers for Families and Children at the Intercontinental. (I am withholding her name. It’s a sad possibility that in these hair-trigger times, her employment could be jeopardized by the very fact that she spoke up to me about a racially charged public issue.)

Woodlawn Avenue, East Cleveland

The Centers deserves a moment of illumination here. It is a sterling civic institution. A nonprofit with an annual budget of $55 million, it reaches out to the poor, the hungry, the under-educated, the sick, and the troubled—some twenty-five thousand clients—in a city striving to overcome chronic post-industrial poverty entrenched racial tensions. The racial stress is burned into the city’s history along lines of segregation in its housing patterns: most of its black and poor population is concentrated in the near East Side, and most of its white population farther west. Cleveland’s incidents of fatal police gunplay in recent years, highlighted by the shooting of the 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, have deepened black Cleveland’s distrust, bordering on paranoia, toward the mostly white police department.

David E. Weiss

Amidst these overwhelming challenges of poverty and racial unease, the Centers for Families and Children persists as a national model of enlightened civic service and hope. Its board chairman, the lawyer and businessman David E. Weiss, ranks among the most socially engaged civic leaders in the country. Its new director, Elizabeth Newman, has re-ignited its six hundred volunteers with her own passionate sense of mission: to help people find job opportunities and early-education conduits for their children, provide food for hungry families, dispatch pharmacists to households to help manage nutrition and medications, find treatment for substance abuse, and summon emergency services in crisis situations.

And to co-ordinate intervention and help in the crises of the mentally ill. Elizabeth Newman explained this cornerstone service to me in detail:

Elizabeth Newman

“The Centers is equipped to support people with serious mental illness, this skill set actually sets us apart in the community. We routinely assist people living with schizophrenia. We have psychiatrists on staff, in addition to relationships with the local/regional hospital systems and emergency rooms. In terms of onset of psychosis, we are outpatient providers but work in partnership with inpatient providers, so it really depends on the level of severity.  Another agency in town runs the mobile crisis unit, but we receive referrals and connections to clients directly from that unit.”

Which brings me (in my round-about way) to the topic of this blog.

Ron Powers

As mentioned, I had completed my remarks and was standing amidst the departing luncheon attendees when she emerged from the mix of people. She wore the brown uniform of the hotel’s service corps, and her manner was hesitant; yet it was clear that she had something she wanted to say.

What she said was, “Thank you for speaking about schizophrenia.”

I sensed the urgency behind this polite comment and asked her: “Is there a history in your family?”

She hesitated for a moment, as if trying to decide whether she could trust me with an answer, and then:

“My mother. And my brother.”

There is no way to prepare for a response like this, no matter how much you expect it, no matter how often it comes. One rule of thumb is to avoid “condolences.”

I asked her the only questions that seem fitting, and necessary:

“Are they getting treatment? Are they on medications?”

She smiled just a little before answering; and the smile should have told me everything I needed to know. But she spelled it out anyway.

“Black folks don’t like to get treatment. Black folks see it as a white man’s disease.”

While I was digesting this, she added: “Black men don’t like to talk about mental illness. They see it as a sign of weakness.”

And then, as if recognizing the need to explain the obvious to a blockhead (accurate, I suppose, in this instance): “So, no. They aren’t getting any treatment.”

And there it was: a key to the inner realities of a sub-sub-nation. The culturally learned set of attitudes that makes it all the harder for doctors and psychiatrists to intervene in the mental-illness crises of African-Americans. African-American men in particular, who routinely suffer violations of their self-respect, their safety, their very humanity, at the hands (and guns) of those who view them as inherently alien, dangerous, unworthy of inclusion in society.

Which, when you think about it, is exactly the same way that many people view the mentally ill in general.

 

I left the Intercontinental Hotel in Cleveland as the educated educator. I thought of my friends Madeline McCray and Terrie Williams, and about the exasperation they must have felt at my failure to cross that border. Felt silently, without rebuke, in the way many African-Americans experience the myopia of their white friends.

Back home, I sought to verify the viewpoint of the young service-worker at the Intercontinental in Cleveland. Below are some samples of what I came up with. There are more, many more, as a Google search of “African Americans mental illness” will show.

–That African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population, owing in part to the exceptional stress they experience just living their lives. The problems include major depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, recourse to suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder (this last because African Americans are especially likely to be victims of violent crime).

–That many black Americans misunderstand what a mental health condition is and don’t talk about it. Many thus believe that a mental health condition is a personal weakness punishment from God.

–That stigma—which knows no color lines—triggers especial reluctance among African Americans to discuss mental health issues and seek treatment.

–That a pervasive deficit of information—education—causes many African Americans to have trouble recognizing the symptoms of mental illness and to underestimating its dangers. Some may think of depression as “the blues” “or something to snap out of.”

(The above examples are taken from https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/Diverse-Communities/African-Americans)

–That black Americans’ distrust of doctors has some factual justification: Blacks are “over-diagnosed with schizophrenia, frequently misunderstood by their psychiatrists, and largely disenfranchised,” in the opinion of William B. Lawson, the distinguished African-American professor and chair of psychiatry at the Howard University College of Medicine. (https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/768391#vp_2)

 

A Closing Thought

This has been far from an easy blog entry for me to write. No one likes to own up to failures of understanding, especially in the fraught arena of of racial relations. As with NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE itself, I at first resisted writing it at all. Then I decided I had to write it because it was the truth. I hope that it is read with an understanding that writers are often fallible—just like ordinary people.

________

The full recording of the interview with Elizabeth Newman and Ron Powers is available here: http://www.ideastream.org/programs/sound-of-ideas/finding-the-cure-for-aids-book-no-one-cares-about-crazy-people.

Additional coverage of the Luncheon in The Plain Dealer, the daily newspaper for Cleveland: http://www.cleveland.com/healthfit/index.ssf/2017/10/putting_a_renewed_focus_on_men.html

Is the Tide Starting to Turn in the Battle for Mental Healthcare Reform?

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

These were Winston Churchill’s words to the British people after General Montgomery’s forces turned back the formidable German army under General Rommel at Alamein in November 1942.

Readers of this blog know that I see our present struggle to eradicate the terrible abuses of mentally ill people in terms of a war: a war against entrenched ignorance, apathy, denial, and abject cruelty within the institutions that exist to protect all citizens, especially the most helpless. Too many caregivers, jail wardens, and state governments (among others) remain clueless or unwilling to reform the atrocities that they perpetuate.

And yet hope endures. It is important to amplify and celebrate any example of enlightened hope overcoming dark chaos.

Here are three stories, linked below, that offer hope.

The first covers the efforts of lawyers in Illinois, representing a total of 12,000 mentally ill patients, demanding from a federal judge that Illinois face up to its “state of emergency” in Illinois prisons and move to eradicate poor psychiatric care amounting to “cruel and unusual punishment.” https://goo.gl/yaSvtq

The second addresses a barbaric practice that is near the top of my personal list for drastic action, solitary confinement. Written by the executive director of the Colorado department of corrections, it explains why the state recently ended the practice of long-term solitary confinement for prisoners. Colorado now limits stays in solitary to fifteen days. In my opinion, that is fifteen days too long; but it is a significant improvement over the state’s average length of two and a half years “and sometimes for decades.” https://goo.gl/c6SqTf

 

Elizabeth Newman, President and CEO of The Centers for Families and Children

The third focuses on the Centers for Families and Children in Cleveland, a nonprofit group that has existed for years but has accelerated dramatically in its outreach under its young new executive director, Elizabeth Newman. I visited the Centers on Tuesday to give a talk at their annual luncheon. My typic skepticism burned away as I experienced the Centers’ zeal, the intelligence, and the broad scope of outreach, exemplified by the remarkable Ms. Newman. I will return to the topic of the Centers in an upcoming blog. https://goo.gl/Jczmsk

For now, let us celebrate what may be the end of the beginning.

 

In the (Sad) Scheme of Things, This May Count for Progress

Mental healthcare reformers (and many jail officials) have complained for years that our jails and prisons have become defacto hospitals for the mentally ill, however grossly inadequate. The Illinois Youth Center in Joliette, once used for incarceration, has recognized this baleful truth and is transforming itself into a . . . mental hospital for inmates.

Note that they are still referred to as “inmates.” But any little turn toward enlightenment helps.

Facility for mentally ill inmates to open in Joliet

via Chicago Tribune

Illinois Department of Corrections officials Thursday showed off what will soon be the state’s largest residential facility for mentally ill inmates.

The former Illinois Youth Center prison in Joliet has been transformed into a mental health treatment unit for male inmates with severe mental illness. The facility will be the largest of its kind in Illinois and will begin accepting inmates by year’s end. The renovation project cost $17 million, officials said.

Read the full story here: http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/daily-southtown/news/ct-sta-joliet-residential-center-st-0919-20170918-story.html

 

The Psychic Toll of Being a Cop

The violent, trigger-happy policeman is a recurring actor in media accounts of mentally ill people meeting their doom on the streets, in their homes, and in jail. In NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, and on my blog, I myself have offered several accounts of unarmed victims of psychosis being gunned down by poorly trained, sometimes paranoid officers, and of the everlasting grief that descends upon the victims’ families.

The “killer cop” has become a stereotype to many in the mental illness “sub-nation.” All too often, the stereotype is true. Yet it is important that we recognize the unfairness of letting the stereotype stand for universal reality. The link below should be required clicking. It directs us to an essay written by Andy O’Hara, a retired 24-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol. The topic is the high rate of suicide among policemen in this country, and the police culture of silence that discourages these stressed-out men and women from seeking help.

I have retrieved this essay from the website of the excellent Marshall Foundation, a leading source of journalism about the criminal justice system.

It’s Time We Talk
About Police Suicide

More cops die of suicide than die of
shootings and traffic accidents combined.

Deputy Derek Fish RICHLAND COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT

RICHLAND COUNTY SHERIFF’S deputy Derek Fish was just 28 and had only been on the job six years when he committed suicide. According to reports, Fish was coming off a routine shift. He returned his cruiser to the lot at his station and there, at the lot, he shot himself with his service revolver. Fish was, according to his colleagues, an outstanding officer who had recently been promoted. His was the third suicide in his department since 2001.

Read the full story here: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/10/03/it-s-time-we-talk-about-police-suicide 

A TV interview re: NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE

Below is a link to an interview I gave a few days ago with the wonderful Gay Maxwell, continuing education manager at the Brattleboro Retreat–a premier mental-health and addiction treatment center in southern Vermont.

Gay Maxwell, ‎Manager of the Office of Continuing Education at The Brattleboro Retreat

The interview is tied to the upcoming Brattleboro Literary Festival (October 12-15). I will be reading from NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE at 11 a.m. Saturday, October 14, at the Centre Church in Brattleboro.

 

Brattleboro Retreat

An Activist Enters a Solitary Confinement Cell—and Struggles for Control

This riveting essay, written three years ago by a member of Amnesty International, remains among the most compulsively readable indictments of our most barbaric form of punishment.

By Tessa Murphy London,

14 October 2014, 16:07 UTC

Tessa Murphy is a British campaigner at Amnesty International

The breathlessness was overwhelming. Standing in that small, dark cell, surrounded by nothing but three concrete walls, a dank toilet, a small sink, a thin mattress, a concrete slab and a perforated metal door that barely let any air in, the oppressive claustrophobia was hard to control.

Isolation cell in California’s Pelican Bay prison ©Rina Palta/KALW.

This was not the first time I had set foot in a US prison, but it was the first time I had experienced what an isolation cell can do to you.

Everything about that room – the lack of windows, or natural light, or fresh air, the very thought of not being allowed any human interaction – seems to be designed to dehumanise. The basic penal concept of reform and social rehabilitation is excluded inside those three walls.

In solitary, punishment is king. The mere thought of spending more than a few minutes in that place was almost unbearable.

And then, a prisoner told me and my colleague that we were the first outsiders he had seen in 22 years.

I was surprised even to be allowed into California’s infamous Pelican Bay Prison. Correctional authorities across the US are unwilling to allow anyone to see what happens behind those thick concrete walls. And with evidence that has emerged – from Pennsylvania to Arizona, of voices crying for help – it’s no wonder. Across the US, it is estimated that nearly 80,000 people are held in long-term isolation

The authorities describe the system as “secure housing units”, “administrative segregation” and even “restricted housing.” But these euphemisms do not describe the human reality of these units.

The departments of corrections claim only prisoners who are a threat to guards or to other inmates are placed in isolation, after all other measures to control them fail. But as indicated by the tens of thousands detained, isolation cells are routinely used as punishment for minor offences such as disrespecting a prison guard or disobeying an order. In California, for example, suspected gang members can be placed in those dimly lit cells, just for having a calendar with Mayan symbols, or certain tattoos, or for being in the possession of books or other “source items” – or just for speaking to a “validated” inmate.

America’s prison isolation regime is not unusual, but it is cruel. Prisoners across the country are effectively entombed for nearly 22 hours a day in their cells, with no access to any education or rehabilitation programmes, with warehousing for the mentally ill in Arizona, with a man in Louisana who has been held in solitary since 1972. Prisoners must take their meals in the confines of those walls and are rarely given a chance to have any meaningful interaction with another human being. At all.

The only time prisoners in isolation are allowed to breathe outside air is when they are taken, alone, to a small outdoor yard, or cage, for “exercise”. Exercise is the word used by prison guards to describe the chance to walk a few steps back and forth. In California, following a hunger strike, prisoners were frequently given a chin-up bar and a hand ball, if they were allowed any recreation at all.

Some prisoners have literally lost their sanity due to the lack of human interaction – and estimated 30-50% of all inmates in solitary confinement are mentally ill or cognitively disabled, and 20% of those are severely mentally ill. Others have completely lost skin pigmentation because of the extreme lack of sunlight. And still others have taken their own lives after having little else to fill the time but stare at a wall for more than 20 hours every day.

But despite the plethora of horror stories emerging from the solitary cells across the US, the system remains unabated, and thousands of people remain entombed.

Thanks to pressure from local activists, lawmakers and organisations like Amnesty International, some states – like Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Mississippi, New York, Virginia and Washington state – have introduced some reforms over the last few years.

However, at the federal level, the US government is currently planning to expand the use of solitary confinement: the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) bought a correctional facility in Illinois two years ago, and this year’s BOP budget includes a proposal to reopen it as a federal supermax prison, potentially replicating the harsh isolation regime from its predecessor.

But how do these conditions of detention provide justice for anyone? This system prioritises retribution and warehousing of inmates over their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

There is widespread national and international agreement about the harm caused by incarceration in isolation. The United Nations’ top expert on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment has called for solitary confinement to be used only in very exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, and for as short a time as possible. He has repeatedly requested to visit super maximum security prison facilities, but the US state department has not allowed this.

Violent crime is a real issue in the US and elsewhere. But incarcerating people for years and even decades in solitary confinement should not be the way forward for any country purporting to respect human rights. A prison management tool that has been lambasted by human rights bodies and is increasingly challenged by penal experts and others is costly, ineffective and inhumane.

The US should focus its energy and resources on ensuring conditions of detention are compatible with its obligations under international law and standards – that the penitentiary system works for the social rehabilitation of prisoners, instead of perpetuating an abusive and cruel regime that is an affront to human rights.

This op-ed was originally published in The Guardian.

For more information visit our news article Entombed: Life in the USA’s cruel isolation chambers

FREE TYLER WEST, AND ALLL THE TYLER WESTS!

Remarks to the Cambridge NAMI

Thank you, Cambridge NAMI, for inviting me here. And thank all of you for coming tonight.

Schizophrenia has struck hard at the Powers family. In 2002, our younger son Kevin experienced the first of several psychotic breaks that worsened over three years despite intense counseling, hospitalization, and a regimen of medication until the voices in his head instructed him to take his life in our basement in Middlebury, Vermont, in July 2005, a week before his twenty-first birthday.

He had secretly stopped taking his medication several weeks earlier; and we are pretty certain that the voices, in the form of anosognosia, had a hand in that decision as well.

Kevin’s first break, by the way, attacked him just across the Charles river, at the Berklee Academy of Music. Kevin was a brilliant guitarist, as well as a kind and witty and untroubled young man: a golden-haired, blue-eyed burst of sunlight.

Sometime after that, Kevin’s older brother Dean started showing symptoms as well. He had his own series of breaks over a period of years. Dean has survived and stabilized, and is living with us at age 35. Honoree and I believe that Dean was spared a deeper psychosis thanks in part to an enlightened psychiatrist in our state.

This doctor understood the hazards of trusting a young sufferer to remain on oral medication voluntarily. So he arranged for Dean to report once a month to a clinician who would administer his antipsychotic med by way of a needle. For those of you who are interested, the medication is Haldol. If Dean missed an appointment, the doctor, as well as Honoree and I, would know about it.

In nearly four years, Dean has not missed an appointment. He has recovered much of the gentleness, the charm, and the intelligence that we’d thought had disappeared forever in the early months and years of his affliction.

You can find a lot more of the Powers family saga in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. And you can see lots of photographs of Dean and Kevin, and listen to the wonderful guitar music they made together, on my blog, which is the title of my book, all one word, plus “dot-com.”

Now, I didn’t come here tonight to plug my book; or really to talk about my family. I offer you the information I’ve just given as a way of establishing my bona fides: the qualifications that have made Honoree and Dean and me eligible for citizenship in what I call the “sub-nation.” The mostly invisible realm of the seriously mentally ill and those who care for them. People such as you.

“Serious mental illness,” as most of you know, refers not to simple depression, or neurosis, or alienation from society. “Serious mental illness” refers to incurable, genetically delivered brain disease: schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder; and, to a lesser degree of consensus, autism.

I come here tonight as an advocate. Advocates for mental-health reform are almost always people from the “sub-nation.” Beyond our borders, the country at large remains mostly oblivious to who we are. (We are their neighbors, quite often.) The country remains uninformed about the medical nature of the afflictions we battle.  The country remains unconcerned about the abuses that victims of the disease suffer at the hands of untrained police, clueless judges and jail wardens, budget-cutting politicians, and moralists of all stripes who conflate insane behavior with bad character. To some extent, the ironic title of my book is accurate: Nobody cares about crazy people.

And this is what motivated me to become an advocate, above and beyond my family’s personal experience: I’ve been stunned by the education I received after my book was published last March.

I had thought I knew how bad things were. I wrote about how bad things were.

I didn’t know how bad things were.

Not completely. Not down at Ground Zero. Not in the daily life inside the sub-nation, where abominations pile up and travesties of justice go uncorrected and mothers of insane children plead for help and even mercy that fall on the deaf ears of bureaucrats and doctors and law enforcement. No matter how loud they shout.

My post-publishing education began when I stumbled into a domain where I could hear those desperate voices. I’m sure that many of you here tonight got there ahead of me.

I got there through the kindness of a reader of my book. She invited me to join a Facebook site dedicated to private and confidential conversations among the caretakers of the schizophrenic, the bipolar and the autistic. Nearly all of these site members are mothers. Go figure.

The rules are few, simple, and strictly enforced: no judgmental posts. No hostility or abuse. And no reposting of any material on the site without permission of the writer.

I have visited this site nearly every day; it’s called the Circle of Comfort and Assistance Community; and its founder, the educator and advocate Deborah Fabos, has given our sub-nation a precious resource.

I read these testimonies with shock and astonishment. I read them with a sense of grief. And I read them mounting outrage. I am keeping files of them written by mothers who have given me permission. I’ve used their stories in previous blogs, and this evening I am giving you a sneak preview of tomorrow’s blog. It is essentially the text of this talk. Its focus is on a family that is among the unluckiest, most damaged, most neglected, and most desperately in need of intervention and justice of any that I know of. And I know of a lot of such families.

This is the family of Dan and Kimberlee West of Fruitport, Michigan. Their story is one of frantic struggle: a struggle to rescue their schizophrenic stepson, Tyler West, from more than six brutal months in the Muskegon County Jail. Much of this time in solitary confinement. He has been severely beaten by a violent cellmate, and is in imminent danger—as we gather here—of another beating by another cellmate. The charge that landed Tyler in jail, and for which he has not yet been tried, is at once laughable and heartbreaking in its pettiness and meanness.

Here are some features that should make the Wests a poster-family for all that is wrong with our courts and criminal-justice system as they affect the mentally ill. And if I have anything to do with it, they will be.

Dan and Kimberlee West are pillars of the Fruitport community. They would be pillars of any community. They have four children of their own; they’ve taken in three other adopted children besides Tyler, and they have served as foster parents for several young refugees from the Middle East. Kim teaches Sunday school and volunteers for projects around town.

Tyler is about 5 feet 5 inches tall, and weighs about 150 pounds. His mother calls him a gentle boy, and a psychiatrist who evaluated him describes him as “sweet.” He plays five musical instruments, composes music, and is talented in computer design. His joys in life so far, and there have not been many, include playing timpani in his school marching band.

Tyler West has struggled with mental illness since birth. Dan and Kimberlee adopted him at age 7, knowing that he had already been diagnosed with pervasive development disorder, sensory processing disorder, and ADHD.

But if the life inside his head was a nightmare, the life outside it was as well.

Tyler is dark-skinned, and so his new schoolmates thought it would be a good idea to call him “nigger” and beat him up for it. He is small, so they called him a fag, and they beat him up for that too. Tyler does not process information easily and has trouble putting words to his thoughts, and that made everybody mad, so they beat him up for that as well. The beatings lasted through his high school years. His mother believes he has received more than a dozen concussions.

His diagnoses grew more severe: mood disorder at age 12. Autism and bipolar disorder at 16. The psychotic symptoms started showing up less than a year later. He has admitted to hearing voices. He has made several attempts at suicide, at least once by hanging himself. His parents took him to emergency rooms fifteen times in 2015 and 2016. At one care center, they pleaded for a long-term commitment, but they were denied, even though a psychiatrist admitted that Tyler could not understand the consequences of his actions. At another, a county-financed quote “wellness center,” Kimberlee and Dan begged for a civil commitment, through an assisted outpatient treatment program known as Kevin’s Law. 

Brace yourselves for the “wellness” folks’ reply. They said they didn’t know how. And Tyler’s lack of critically needed treatment and medications continued.

 

So now we come to the sad part of the story:

At age 16, Tyler vanished for a few hours with a 14-year-old girl. The girl’s parents filed charges of statutory rape, even though a doctor found no evidence of sexual contact and both of the young people denied it. The Wests entered a guilty plea to spare Tyler the ordeal of a trial, because by then Tyler was speaking in gibberish and lapsing into catatonic states. His attorney was later allowed to withdraw the plea. Yet the imprint of this episode

Shortly after that, police found Tyler in a neighbor’s garage. Despite clear evidence of psychosis, a judge decided that the boy was sane, because he had taken his shoes off before entering. One could of course argue exactly the opposite.

Tyler did 90 days in the Muskegon County jail. Ten of them were in solitary confinement. After that, Tyler’s reasoning capacities were pretty well shot, and so was his reputation with the Muskegon police and court system.

 

This brings us to the wee hours of February 16 of this year, when Tyler’s fragile world came fully crashing down.

Sometime in that night, Tyler, in yet another state of psychosis, wandered across the family lawn and onto the property of another set of neighbors. This couple was sleeping upstairs. Tyler opened an unlocked door, walked over to a sofa, and fell asleep himself. When the neighbors discovered him, the wife insisted on calling the police, and Tyler was arrested on a charge of home invasion.

Back to the Muskegon County jail for Tyler, where he has remained ever since—more than six months. He is awaiting a trial that always seems to need getting postponed, or continued, or otherwise put off. The latest promise is a jury trial set for November 28th. If he survives. He has been moved back into a unit that houses violent offenders, and his new cellmate is awaiting trial on charges of armed robbery. For no particular reason, he has had four additional visits to solitary confinement: in many experts’ opinion, and mine, the most destructive, barbaric, unnecessary and probably unconstitutional form of legal torture available in the United States. During his last stint, he could be heard beating his head against the wall.

 

Kimberlee and Dan West are at the point of nervous exhaustion. As Kimberlee said in a recent email, “Ty still is not well. He is having chest pains because they refuse to give him acid reflux meds. I believe has a staph infection on his foot. We have bought every cream known through the commissary. Not one works. [The nurse] refuses to look at it. He needs antipsychotic meds that work. They refused him an MRI for his head injury [suffered in the fight]. No psychiatrist has looked at him. The [jail] doctor serves 600-700 inmates. He is there only on Fridays.”

Kimberlee concluded: “Presently I believe it is God’s grace that has kept him alive.”

Pardon me for sounding irreverent. God seems to need a little backup. It is up to us to provide it. We sure as hell can’t count on the State of Michigan. Michigan is possibly the most benighted state in the Union when it comes to enlightened mental health care.

Tyler West psychiatric the minute he entered the Muskegon County Jail But as we’ve seen, this jail has no mental health officers and no crisis intervention teams. In fact, Ty should not have been sent to jail at all; he belongs in a psychiatric hospital. But good luck with that. Michigan is a national leader in psychiatric bed shortages. Experts believe that fifty psychiatric beds for every hundred thousand people is the minimal acceptable number. Michigan offers ten beds per hundred thousand. That is about 680 beds for five thousand patients in psychosis.

About twenty years ago, the Republican governor of Michigan, like so many clueless governors, decided that his state had too many mental hospitals and not enough patients to fill them. He started shutting them down. In the six years leading up to 2003, he closed 12 of the 16. Today the number is down to nine. The state saved a lot of taxpayer money. And it now provides the sixth-lowest number of psychiatric beds per capita in the nation. Michigan is hardly alone, of course. America has a collective shortfall of 95 thousand such beds.

But what the Michigan system lacks in psychiatric care, it more than makes up for in vengeance. Michigan has 93 county jails, with a total inmate capacity of more than 18 thousand. Most of these people have not been convicted of anything. Like Tyler West, they are awaiting trial. About two thirds of them have some form of mental illness. And they are not getting help. No treatment. No meds. But lots of pain.

We are talking here about one of the most obscene facts of American life and American public policy: the criminalization of mental illness. This criminalization is built of many shameful parts. One is fiscal greed: shut down those expensive hospitals and don’t waste money on jailhouse shrinks. Another is denial: Tyler West took his shoes off, so he had to be sane when he entered that garage. Still another is plain human cruelty: build more jails, and throw psychotic kids like Tyler West into them and put ‘em in cells with violent criminals, and let’s see what happens.

But there is one element that underlies all these shameful parts and makes them possible. That element is ignorance.

Widespread, ironclad, and probably self-willed ignorance. Ignorance not only among the public, the electorate—but ignorance among those who have the responsibility to know better: federal and state legislatures. Judges. Jail wardens. Police departments. Professional caregivers.

Every category I just mentioned had a chance to help save Tyler West. And all the Tyler Wests in all the hellhole jails in this country.

Every category failed.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am angry.

I’ve felt angry and helpless since Kevin died and Dean was stricken. It’s taken me a while to figure out what to do with these feelings, but I’m getting there. The book was one step. My advocacy is another.

I challenge you to join me. Join me in focusing the anger we all feel, and shrugging off the helplessness.

I challenge you as individuals and as members of Cambridge NAMI. And I call out a challenge to national NAMI, to frankly get off your butts and work hard to make Tyler West a national symbol: a symbol of all that is defiled and broken in our country’s mental healthcare system.

Write letters: write to Michigan governor Rick Snyder. To Circuit Court judge Timothy Hicks. To Muskegon County Sheriff Michael Poulin. (These names will be in the text of my talk on tomorrow’s blog. Noonecaresaboutcrazypeople.com.

We will secure justice for Tyler West. And when we’ve accomplished that, we will move on to the next Tyler West. And the next, and the next. You may follow my blog for the names and stories.

I challenge all of you to join me. And for those of you who may doubt the value of our effort, I will close with the words of a man who used to live and work around here:

For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

Thank you.

More Voices From the Sub-Nation: the Mentally Ill Remain Imprisoned in the Dark Ages

The mothers of America’s mentally ill children continue to find their voices of fierce witness at the ignorance, arrogance, and brutalization of the insane that are the norms in our hospitals, courts, and jails. (Yet, again I ask: why is it nearly always and only the mothers?!) I defy anyone to read the testimonies below and not emerge trembling with outrage: outrage at the often lethal ineptitude with which police and judges and wardens and even doctors increase the damage to our most damaged citizens and those who love them.

Photo credit: Ron Powers

Except for the first of these messages, a mesmerizing cri de coeur written and posted by Laural Fawcett, these accounts have been written for private Facebook sites. I quote from them with permission of the authors.


UPDATE ON SHAYLON: IT’S NOT REALLY GOOD NEWS by Laural Fawcett

September 12, 2017

 

Okay, so here we go again on the merry-go-round of horrors. I have an update about Shaylon. It’s not really good news. 

Shaylon, my son, has had a number of psychotic episodes which led him to harm himself and others. Severe visual and auditory hallucinations caused him to leave home and end up on the street. He recently spent a year-and-a-half in jail (he was released in June 2017) because he thought a pedestrian passerby was attacking him and trying to set his feet on fire. This occurred in San Francisco where he often ends up when he is hallucinating. For some reason he, and many others like him, are drawn to San Francisco. I kind of don’t blame them. It’s a pretty nice city to be in.

I just finished my training as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). I have a new job but, essentially, I’m homeless and couch surfing until I get into permanent housing somewhere. It’s not the easiest thing to do here in the San Francisco Bay Area where my son has been incarcerated and denied appropriate housing and treatment.

In the last couple of weeks, I showed up at Shaylon’s two court hearings. (He was picked up for failing a probation check-in.) What a total, farcical, miscarriage of justice and waste of my time except for the precious opportunity to get a glimpse my son. He was medicated but obviously in psychosis and not well.

The judge repeatedly said, “We don’t want you here. You don’t belong here and you need to stay away from San Francisco.” He didn’t speak to other criminal defendants, prior to my son, in such a condescending manner. In fact, other defendants were offered programs and assistance. My son was told, “We can’t keep monitoring you.” My son’s probation officer was reassigned and his new probation officer wrote up a travesty of a report asking him to be extradited to Fresno. The courtroom erupted in laughter when the judge said, “Contrary to popular belief, Fresno is not a foreign country so we cannot extradite him.” Neither treatment nor acknowledgement of my son’s medical diagnosis were offered. Compassion was in short supply but immature snickering and cruel comments were plentiful.

The court told Shaylon to leave the city — permanently — and ordered him to be released to the streets, again, at an unknown time. I was ignored and marginalized even though the public defender tried to alert the court that I was present on my son’s behalf as advocate and caregiver. I wasn’t allowed to speak.

I had to travel to Fresno that day to finish my old apartment walk-through to end tenancy and get my much needed deposit back. But my needs and my son’s needs were not considered.

Now, once again, Shaylon’s whereabouts are unknown.

The public defender’s department is saying that the probation department is responsible for providing access to treatment and housing services. The probation department is saying that the public defender’s department is responsible for providing treatment and housing services. Meanwhile, no treatment or housing services are being provided by either.  Behind the scenes I discuss how to implement said services with my son’s prior assigned probation officer. It remains to be seen.

Why are people with neurological brain disorders being incarcerated? Why isn’t my son getting treatment for his psychosis?

Medical professionals and others should be asking, “What is the purpose of the health care and mental health care systems?” In my opinion, the purpose of the healthcare system, and this weird, dangling, anomalous part of it called the “mental health care system,” is to bring a person to optimal health. That can’t be done in the criminal justice system.

Some of the scariest, most dangerous patients I deal with, as an EMT, have dementia or Alzheimer’s. They’re medically fragile, confused, and unpredictable. They require tremendous amounts of care and resources, and can wreak havoc on the healthcare system and those who try to work with them. We don’t let them wander the streets in misery. We don’t discriminate against this population the way we do the seriously mentally ill.

I stand alone. I’m indignant about the injustice against a person, with a grave disability, who happens to be my son. The court forces me to abandon him to street-life hell and homelessness. The court is telling Shaylon to disappear. He’s being stripped of his humanity.

Photo credit: Ron Powers

Below are some portions of other messages that I have been receiving and archiving for inclusion in a blog on this theme:

 

From Roseann Pruett:

My daughter, Beth, is in her fifth month [in solitary confinement] at Madison County jail, Edwardsville, Il. [The warden] says he wants to find her a bed but I don’t believe that any longer! John Q. Public has no idea. No hope left…I believe they will end her life one way or another. Court cancelled many times. I could go on and on. My beautiful paralegal daughter, mother of 3, grandmother, sister to 4 others. Oh, yeah, did I say her twin brother was in there 5 yrs. ago. Beat him to a pulp! Would gladly exchange places with her! If only she could get the medical attention she needs so desperately. I’m out…

The mother who writes below is living in isolation somewhere in America. She fears reprisals if her name is attached to this.

 

I lost my son on January 2, 2008. He is one of the thousand people killed every year by law enforcement. He had been placed under the auspices of Telecare corporation1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3747134/, after many years of hospitalization more than a year before he was killed. I had a strong disagreement with the doctor in charge of the local Telecare. He put [my son] on an antidepressant. I told him that my son was a classic paranoid schizophrenic and should not be on an antidepressant. He said, “With the cocktail of antipsychotics he is on, he needs something to wake him up in the morning.” My son was conserved by the county so the doctor didn’t need to listen to my wishes. I learned after his death that ALL of the patients, upon being transferred out to Telecare, had been re-diagnosed schizoaffective by this doctor.

From what he had to say I realized the man loved making cocktails and did not want anything like a Bipolar or schizophrenia diagnosis to interfere with his fun. Within Telecare my son was at two different well supervised places so I did not understand that the next house was to be different. I was told he had graduated from their program and did I want to hold him back? They had supposedly been teaching him to shop and cook but he was severely ill. He could participate in the training, (2 months worth)! But he was in no way able to access food when they put him into a place that did not offer food or anyone supervising (even though they called it a board and care). It was the week between Christmas and New Years. My son must not have been home when they delivered his med package for the week. They put it on top of the refrigerator in the shared kitchen and forgot to check to see if he was taking the nine different medications, (13 pills), in his S.M.W.Th.F.S. Box to be taken twice daily. Four days later another patient told the Telecare employee that my son needs to be 5150ed. That was ignored. On the fifth day they realized he had gone off his meds and they decided to cover it up. THE upshot of all that was he went into the knife drawer, (sharp knives in a house of unsupervised mental patients)? He walked around the backyard with the knife and the other patient later told the police that they were not scared of my son but scared for him. He was scared too as he sequestered himself in his locked room. A patient had gone to the office two blocks away. A very deadpan employee called the cops and, (I have the cd), told them my son was chasing other patients with a knife. Which was not true. A cop, who later explained that he was into SWAT techniques and went to workshops in SWAT on his weekends, was the first responder and set off the incident by jumping the gun. Or taser I should say. My son was then immediately shot four times with a glock and then tased for an additional thirty seconds straight while they screamed at him to put his hands behind his back so they could handcuff him. He was lying on the floor clutching at the mortal wounds on his torso. I only regret that I was not there to stand between them and him. Please feel free to ask any questions. It’s hard to describe this stuff so I almost can hear the monotone I usually go into while describing his death. I am still committed to telling the story to those who want to know.

I would be really grateful if you would use my story. I have written extensively on it but don’t have it all pulled together. I recently got into a fb debate with someone and he found the newspaper report on my son’s death and put it up on the thread. That newspaper report made my son look like a psycho killer type. It makes my story look like I am lying to defend him. Just mentioning this because you may want to question my account too. Perhaps before you write about it you will want to ask questions for clarification. That’s fine. We have been among the ignored as my son was not of color and was not a child but was 24 and he had weighed over 300 lbs as a result of all those medications. He had been a handsome guy as a teenager and not even slightly overweight. To the extent our story can help educate I really want you to be able to use it, Ron, and thank you for wanting to.

 

These are excerpts from messages written by the mother of a young man, evaluated (too late) as schizophrenic by two doctors, who is awaiting trial on a charge of murder. It is a truism, and also true, that the vast majority of the mentally ill are not violent; yet the untreated mentally ill are at greater risk of harming themselves and others. “Matthew’s” schizophrenia symptoms were initially mistaken for symptoms of drug abuse, a tragically common error. This account also demonstrates the persistent, disgraceful willingness of too many prosecutors to treat the mentally ill as common criminals.

 

. . .In retrospect, what we were told were drug issues during our son’s junior year in high school were actually the first signs of his brain disorder.

He was admitted to the local psychiatric hospital three times from age 17 to 20. His last admittance was October 2015. He was catatonic. We thought he had taken some K22https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/synthetic-cannabinoids-k2spicebecause that’s what they told us the last time…once again in hindsight this was his first total psychotic break.  After that he came home and got a job as a groundskeeper at our Country Club.

Summer came and went and things were great. On November 13. . .he took his dad’s truck without permission. . .He was acting strangely, mumbling to himself, staying up all night and day, pacing, saying strange things to the family, like, “I’m not going to let them hurt you,” and “The chip they put in my head is how they’re following me.”

On November 30, 2016, I got a call: there was an altercation at the Country Club involving Matthew. I drove there. As I approached I could see police and sheriffs and SWAT teams.  Our son allegedly had obtained an unsecured rifle from the shed and shot and killed his co-worker.

Photo credit: Ron Powers

.

. . .We are shattered. He is a wonderful, warm, highly intelligent, compassionate young man.  No one who knows him can believe this. The drug screen at the jail was negative. The court-appointed lawyer met with him and called to ask us if he had ever been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

 

We were stunned. The answer was no, never; the doctors had always assumed drug reactions. Another lawyer met with Matthew asked us the exact same question. So, two doctors evaluated him and both believe he was in a psychotic break.

 

That was December. As I write, it is July. The jail has had him medicated since. He spent time in solitary, and now he in Gen Pop [the general prison population].

 

The prosecutor offered him 50 YEARS [in return for a guilty plea]!! We turned it down. Now we are trying to get him a bed at a secure facility, but they won’t give him a bed unless they evaluate him and I doubt the judge will lower the bond [$500,000] without a guarantee of commitment. We are hoping that we can get the bond reduced and get him the care he needs. The meds he is on are a band aid, and there is no therapy at all.

 

. . .He’s been told what happened [the shooting], but has no clear recollection of the two weeks prior to the incident or weeks after.

We will not let him be another statistic…

We are holding up as best as we can, I am on antidepressants.

Photo credit: Ron Powers

We have been researching schizophrenia, and Matthew is “textbook.” But with the right medication and counseling he can live a somewhat normal life.

 

The issue is convincing a skewed “justice” system that he has a brain disorder. I recall when I first was allowed to visit him, he kept telling me to have them cut his brain out; that there’s something wrong with it. I’m frustrated by the lack of empathy within the justice system. Matthew didn’t choose this. He can’t help it. He has a BRAIN DISEASE, just like cancer or diabetes or any other disease. . .

 

Solitary Confinement: Cries for Help and Voices of Despair from Victims’ Mothers

This blog has lately been focusing on solitary confinement of jail and prison inmates as an intolerable practice in our criminal-justice system. Solitary confinement is inhumane, unproductive as a “corrections” technique, and psychologically destructive. It must be abolished.

My mission is to encourage others who feel this way to petition their congressmen and women to initiate repeal—and to identify and support the several organizations who are already working toward this.

 

I recognize the odds against my voice making a difference. It is all too easy for anyone who’s not personally connected to a victim of “the hole” to utter tsk-tsk noises at a safe removal from Ground Zero. Neither of my schizophrenic sons was ever arrested and threatened with this living entombment. My wife and I have never had to watch helplessly as either of our boys disappeared into one of the jails around the country where this barbaric practice continues unchecked; where the mostly-young and often mentally ill inmates undergo tortures of the damned, and their mothers1 The reader will note that I write, “mothers.” The almost complete absence of fathers from this discussion or from any conversation on their offsprings’ mental illness is a phenomenon that needs further examination. And Pete Early, I am NOT looking at you! agonize while pleading in vain for justice, or at least mercy.

 

Therefore:

 

In this blog, we are going to eliminate the tsk-tsking middleman—me—and hear from a sampling of mothers at Ground Zero whom I know through correspondence. The rawness of their outrage and grief has given them a truth-telling eloquence that far surpasses anything I’ve written or will write. They speak for thousands upon thousands of similarly violated families who cannot or will not seek to make their stories public.  

 

I have edited their emails to me only lightly, for compression and clarity. I have included the identities of two mothers, who have given me their permission. One is Jennifer Tirkot of Coral Gables, Florida. The other is Kimberlee Cooper West, of Fruitport, Michigan.

 

We will begin with some brief entries from a blog kept over several years on a private site by Jennifer Tirkot. Ms. Tirkot’s epic struggle with the state’s corrections system on behalf of her brain-disordered son John far exceed the damage he has endured during several stretches of solitary. I am planning to devote a future blog to her nearly unthinkable plight. Pete Early has also written about Ms. Tirkot: http://www.peteearley.com/2017/02/06/mother-repeatedly-tries-to-get-her-psychotic-son-help-instead-he-beats-her-and-is-arrested-twice/

 

Entry No. 1: I wrote my son’s story to have him taken out of solitary confinement and transferred to the state psychiatric hospital. This is his 2nd incarceration in 2 years for having a brain disorder. The last time he was incarcerated for hitting a police officer and EMT worker. They were Baker Acting him for his psychosis when he hit them. They transferred him to jail and locked him away in solitary confinement for 10 months. I had no choice but to share my story with the world. Pete Earley is publishing it. My son spent last Christmas and this Christmas in solitary confinement for having a brain disorder.  That’s what we do now.  We lock them in solitary confinement in jails/prisons and refuse to medicate them. 

Entry No. 2: I would like to sue the State of Florida for over wait times for competency restoration. My son suffers from schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, personality disorder, bipolar, depression, and anxiety. He’s been in jail for over 7 months without medication.

Entry No. 3: He’s severely depressed and they are not treating his depression. Plus, his hands are all scared and his knuckles are red. I asked him what happened to his hands and he said he’s been hitting his cell wall to punish himself for hitting the patient. After 72 days in solitary confinement, he developed Bell’s Palsy, where the left side of his face became paralyzed. He refused medication for it because he said God was punishing him for hitting the patient. The left side of his face is now paralyzed. He’s been without medication to treat his schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, personality disorder, bipolar, depression, and anxiety for over 7 months. I’ve been told by Elaine, head of DCF Forensic Hospitals, they can hold him incompetent without medication up to five years.

Entry No. 4 (dated July 21 of this year): Today is my son’s birthday…he’s in solitary confinement for having a brain disorder and the State of Florida didn’t take my “Do Not Release” letter seriously sent to Brevard County Circles of Care psychiatric care unit. I can never imagine crying anymore..but…I cry in my sleep, I cry when I wake up, and when I think I can’t cry anymore…I can’t stop crying…Happy Birthday to my loving son…

 

 

This mother, whose tragedy I mention in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, posted briefly, and searingly, on a private site:

October 22, 2014 Josh died alone in a jail cell. My 39-year-old son killed himself today. Josh hung himself in a solitary confinement cell in a prison south of St. Louis, Missouri. He died alone, afraid, and powerless. Josh needed help. Instead, he got punishment. Like all mothers, I had dreams for my children — dreams that didn’t include mental illness or prison.

 

I have written before of the nearly inhuman outrages, including solitary confinement, visited on Kimberlee Cooper West’s mentally ill adopted son Tyler, who still awaits trial on a minor charge after being incarcerated last February (!) Kimberlee has bravely encouraged me to tell Tyler’s story, with identification, and she has plunged into research regarding the lingering psychic damage of solitary confinement, which I will draw upon in a future blog.

 

Here is Kimberlee’s latest message to me:

 

Hello Ron. We as a society have to look at Solitary Confinement honestly. The studies have shown high recidivism rates. The psychological effects last a life time. Is that a healthy thing for society?  During solitary confinement, Ty called home dozens of times a day. He was screaming, crying, begging, for our help. He asked what is going on?  Please come pick him up. By this point he was further into his psychosis. He did not understand why he was there. He was suicidal, banging his head against the wall. No one intervened. He did not understand what was happening. There were times they forgot about him. Times he was not fed.

 

Four separate times our son was sent to solitary confinement. It was not because he was a bad kid. He has a serious mental disorder and is also autistic. The jail staff did not know what to do with him. He needed a hospital. They stopped all his antipsychotics cold turkey. This can lead to convulsions, And death. The medication insert warns “Do not stop medication abruptly.” Ty said “My insides and body are uncontrollably shaking.” He said “It feels like I have the flu. It feels like I’m dying. Mommy, I can’t breathe in here.” He has moderate COPD, from his reflux and dysphagia.

 

Why do they put people in solitary with breathing problems? Health problems are not considered. If they live or die, no one cares about inmates. The Jails are short on staff, so they forget about these people. They use their own formulary of a cheaper antipsychotic.  They waited many days before prescribing antipsychotics. CMH [Community Mental Health] decides when they are released. Social workers and case managers, are not doctors. CMH is not there weekends or holidays. This prolongs an inmate’s time in solitary. 

 

Muskegon County Jail has a doctor only on Fridays. They save money by not using doctors. Nurses take the place of doctors. So many inmates will confess to anything to end solitary confinement. Guilty or innocent, it does not matter. Research has shown that autistic people do not benefit from solitary confinement. Yet I know several who are in solitary. It can cause lifelong problems for the autistic. Our son has the maturity of a 12 year old. He has never hurt anyone. Now he has trauma to add to his list of disabilities. Jail staff do not consider these mitigating circumstances. There still are no laws on the books to protect our autistic and mentally ill kids. Ty has experienced delusions and has been in a fog.

 

Solitary accelerated our son’s mental illness. From there on we were on a downward spiral. . . Our independent forensic psychologist has described Ty as in acute turmoil, in a hypomanic state with major depression and diminished coping mechanisms. . . 

 

[The idea of solitary is] to “teach a lesson.” That I challenge. How does that work if someone has an adolescent brain, is mentally unstable or withdrawing from drugs? . . . If I locked my teenage son in his room and tased him I would go to jail. If it is not o.k. for me to do it, then why can they? . . .

 

We unconsciously assume that those thrown into solitary confinement are exclusively men. This letter, from the mother of an adopted daughter, attests otherwise:

 

[Our daughter] has been in solitary confinement several times in NYC and another urban area. One time, she was merely transferred and they automatically put her in solitary for 3 weeks. We got to visit her once for 1 hour. We drove 5 hours to get there. Most depressing visit I can recall. All metal, no touching, no hugging or human tenderness allowed.

When people do not “jump” as requested, they put you in solitary to “teach you a lesson,” as they have told her many times. You get 1 free hour per day, to shower, but that is it. No calls either. Just letters. That is the only form of communication. Another interesting fact is that many, many, many prisoners are adoptees. Many of them have mental health issues, but instead of dealing with that outside the system, thy are remanded to jail/prison. [Our daughter] spent over 2 years in federal prison and is now in a county jail, awaiting sentencing. She is hoping to get out in a month or so. But then she will serve 1.5-3 years on federal probation. If that gets violated, they frequently use it as a means to “throw you” back into prison.

The criminal “injustice” system is a travesty in its present state. I say, “tear it apart and start all over again,” building a system that treats those with medical and/or mental health issues as human beings first, and criminals last. Criminals are not born. They merely took a wrong turn. I do not believe they should be punished for life and/or altered immeasurably. Climbing out of the “hole” society has created for troubled souls is fraught with hazards, roadblocks, and generally impassable terrain.

 

I will be posting more parents’ testimonies regarding solitary confinement as time goes on. I welcome any repostings of this that readers care to make.

 

How to Kill “the Monster in Our National Basement”—a Proposal

In my previous blog, I called for the abolishment of solitary confinement—“the monster in our national basement”–throughout America’s jails and prisons. I left the question open as to how this might be accomplished.

Detention Centres, Solitary Confinement. Credit publik15 via Flickr http://bit.ly/2v2Yf8F

I see one route, and one route only, toward this essential and long-overdue reform: enactment of a federal law that categorically bans solitary confinement in all federal, state, and local prisons, jails, and detention centers. The law would establish strong felony charges (I would stop short of solitary confinement) for wardens and guards who violate it.

The congressional bill calling for total abolishment should be bipartisan, and should be buttressed by as many signatories as possible.

The law should have a name, of course. I propose the Dorothea Dix Humanity Toward Prisoners Act.

I will enlarge on this remedy and its possible champions later in this essay.

It is true that recent years have seen several initiatives to curtail solitary confinement, which currently encages 80,000 to 100,000 American prisoners and inmates on a given day. They are well intentioned half-measures, and they are doomed to meaninglessness and failure. Half-measures will never be enough to eradicate this evil.

Dix-Dorothea-LOC
Dorothea Dix
Among the most publicized has been then-President Obama’s executive order in January 2016 to ban solitary for juveniles in federal prisons. The facts, however, virtually neutralize the order’s headline appeal. How many juveniles reside in the federal penal system? Fewer than thirty, according to a survey conducted by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit organization that monitors criminal justice. This is in contrast to the system’s total population of 197,000). https://www.themarshallproject.org/2016/01/27/there-are-practically-no-juveniles-in-federal-prison-here-s-why#.lRlqKK4Kv

Nearly all juvenile offenders are sent to state prisons, or to local jails. Most of these are pre-trial detainees, trapped behind bars as they await trials that may be weeks, months, or years in the future.

USGS Rikers Island
Rikers Island By U.S. Geological Survey, conversion to PNG by uploader (Herr Satz). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A scandalous eighty-five percent of adolescents at the dreadful Rikers Island in New York—from a population that often approaches ten thousand daily—are pretrial detainees, most of whom simply cannot afford to pay bail for charges of petty crimes. Although this form of detention has been frequently challenged on constitutional grounds, it persists, with these young captives enjoying the same rights as convicted prisoners: the right to be separated indefinitely from their families; the right to be beaten and slashed by guards and fellow inmates; the right to kill themselves; and, of course, the right to solitary confinement and descent into madness (if they are not mad already, as twenty percent of the Rikers population typically is).

Kalief Browder. Credit Zach Gross

The single most notorious and crushing example of this, which I treat on pp. 150-151 of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, is the post-incarceration suicide of Kalief Browder, a promising young African-American man falsely accused of a crime and then packed off to Rikers for three years, two of which he spent in solitary, before being released. Browder was the subject of two piercing essays by Jennifer Gonnerman in the New Yorker, linked below:

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/kalief-browder-1993-2015

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/kalief-browder-learned-how-to-commit-suicide-on-rikers

 

Few jails in America, or in history, are as dangerous to their inmates as Rikers. When guards manage to intervene in a suicide attempt, for instance, they often follow up by beating the inmate until his blood and urine flow. (To give credit where it is due, Mayor DeBlasio announced in 2014 that he had a plan to close Rikers. The plan would take ten years to implement. That’s nice. Maybe then he can start helping out on Guantanamo.) Across America, and with varying degrees of official brutality, the young, the mentally ill, and the un-tried are largely at the mercy of inept, negligent, or actively repressive wardens and jailers. As I wrote in my previous blog: “[O]ur state prisons—1,330,000 inmates strong—and our archipelago of county and local jails—with 630,000 behind bars at any given time, most of these young and unconvicted and awaiting trial—function under no such restrictions.”

Endemic in the United States, solitary confinement appears indifferent to a region’s general political values. It is the Monster Who Will Not Die—at least not until a stake is driven through its heart. Half-measures do not contemplate the stake. The federal government must.

 

California prides itself as being among the most progressive of states; yet it has ranked among the most promiscuous in the matter of bulldozing prisoners off for long stretches in “the Hole.” In the state’s charmingly named Pelican Bay State Prison alone, more than 500 prisoners had been held in solitary for more than 10 years, 78 of whom for more than 20. In all, the state held 9,870 prisoners in isolation in December 2012, when inmates, following the longest inmate hunger strike in California history to protest the practice, filed a prisoners’ lawsuit, Ashker vs. Governor. https://ccrjustice.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/08/2015-09-01-Ashker-settlement-summary.pdf Supported by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the suit was settled in the prisoners’ favor—pretty much—in 2015. Settlement terms resulted in the trimming down to 3,471 solitary prisoners as of August 2016, a 65 percent reduction. It greatly reduced the number of long-term solitary captives as well.

 

Prison officials had long justified solitary by pointing out the high percentage of gang members in their system. Gang-bangers’ influence was considered toxic, and dangerous, within the general prison population.

California’s enforced curtailing of “the Hole” is admirable, even pivotal, as far as it goes. The specter of gang members in the general population has not yet produced chaos: prison administrators have been obliged to seek other remedies, and they have worked. And for the hard-nosed among us, who believe that jailbirds deserve everything they get, here is a hard-nosed fact that may sway them: wiping out solitary confinement saves taxpayers’ money.

California Governor Jerry Brown’s 2016-2017 state budget stipulates a reduction of $28 million as a direct result of the jail and prison housing conversions.

As the nonprofit national watchdog group Solitary Watch has reported, citing the state’s Department of Corrections figures:

“The cost reductions are unsurprising given the long-reported high cost of isolating individuals in California’s prisons. In 2010-11. . .it cost $70,641 annually to hold prisoners in the SHU [Security Housing Unit]. . .In contrast, [spent] an average of $58,324 on general population prisoners.”

Solitary Watch continued: “As our fact sheet on the issue of cost points out, solitary confinement routinely costs more. One estimate put the average difference at as much as $50,000 a year, per-individual.” http://solitarywatch.com/2016/01/08/california-expects-to-save-28-million-by-reducing-solitary-confinement/

All of this is admirable; a promising, if woefully belated, start to the fulfillment of Dorothea Dix’s noble dream.

And yet, it remains just that: a start. A good intention. A half-measure, given the history of what too often happens to good intentions. As 2015 ended, 5,378  men and 199 women in remained in various forms of solitary in California. That is 5,577 solitary inmates too many.

Leahy2009
Patrick Leahy By Senate Judiciary Committee (http://judiciary.senate.gov/about/images/Leahy.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The most promising—well, half-measure—was introduced last October.  Five Democratic senators brought out a bill called the Solitary Reform Act (S. 3432), which would restrict solitary confinement for all federal prisoners, not just teenagers. The co-sponsors were Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois, Christopher Coons of Delaware, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Al Franken of Minnesota.

 

Once again: this proposal is enlightened as far as it goes, and in all likelihood reflects the senators’ understanding of the art of the possible, and its limitations. The legislation would free about ten thousand solitary inmates in federal prisons, roughly 6 percent of the total Yet it would not touch the oppression of the 70,000 people encaged in state prisons and county jails.

I believe that federal law must go much farther—all the way to the death of the monster in our national basement.

I believe that federal law must encompass not just federal prisons, but the very constitutionality of solitary confinement.

113th Congress Official Photo of Rep. Tim Murphy
Timothy F. Murphy By Timmurphy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I believe its sponsors should be bipartisan. Surely they must not exclude the Republican Congressman Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, a trained child psychologist, who emerged last year as his party’s almost solitary champion of the mentally ill and their interests with his breakthrough CARES Act, which was incorporated into President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The Republican Senate majority whip John Cornyn, a doctrinaire conservative on many issues, has supported reform, and Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, a medical doctor.

 

Joe Kennedy, Official Portrait, 113th Congress
Joe Kennedy III via Wikimedia Commons
Potential Democratic sponsors in addition to the five mentioned above might begin with the young Representative Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, who leapt into the headlines and television soundbites last March with his riveting and eloquent rebuke to Rep. Paul Ryan, who had called the (doomed) Republican replacement bill to Obamacare “an act of mercy.” “This is not an act of mercy, Kennedy snapped, after rattling off several tenets of the scripture. “It’s an act of malice.” Kennedy’s family, of course, has a long history of involvement in health care and mental-health care issues, and the Kennedy name on such a bill would give it great symbolic power.

Marcykaptur
Marcy Kaptur By Online Guide to House Members and Senators (Online Guide to House Members and Senators) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Finally—for purposes of this short list, anyway—I have admired the progressive zeal and compassion of the longtime Ohio Democrat, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who has been honored as a Legislator of the Year by the National Mental Health Association for her efforts in defending Medicaid funds for the mentally ill and for expanding insurance parity for such sufferers, and for initiatives to safeguard young people entering the juvenile justice system.

Any and all of these legislators would enhance the prospects of an eventual dispatching of the monster in our national basement.

I believe that such a law is especially urgent in these days of civic turmoil, street terror, collapse of faith in our institutions, widespread ignorance of or contempt for national traditions; even the irreducible dignity of our fellow human beings. Abolishing solitary confinement would do more than end an enduring national scourge. It would enshrine in history the crusade of the frail woman who concluded her timeless “Memorial” to the Massachusetts legislature back in 1843:

Gentlemen, I commit to you this sacred cause. Your action upon this subject will affect the present and future condition of hundreds and of thousands. In this legislation, as in all things, may you exercise that “wisdom which is the breath of the power of God.”

The full text of Dorothea Dix’s Memorial, with a brief explanatory, is here:

https://usa.usembassy.de/etexts/democrac/15.htm

I will continue my discussion on solitary confinement when I return from a brief vacation. Please feel free to repost this.