A Senate Candidate from Colorado Speaks Brilliantly for “the Movement”

Andrew Romanoff could be our long-awaited congressional beacon of mental healthcare reform–if the lifers among the Democratic power-brokers will give him the chance to shine.

I traveled to the Denver suburb of Lakewood, Colorado, over the weekend, to flap my gums about reforming mental healthcare in America. And found myself listening to the most stirring talk I have ever heard about reforming mental healthcare in America.

Hint: it wasn’t mine. It covered much of the same ground, but with the riveting pace, passion and purpose that educates and inspires.

The talk was delivered without notes by a guy who came so late to the event that people were starting to walk toward the exits. When they spotted him coming through the door, they rushed back to their tables and shouted in unison: “You’re LAAAAAAATE!”

The shout was not hostile. It had been rehearsed: an affectionate scolding to one who was known and loved by the people there, who understood that he is deluged with speaking obligations. 

The speaker did not disappoint. His remarks galvanized the audience, which erupted in a standing ovation at the conclusion. He had completely upstaged a certain gum-flapping speaker from earlier in the evening. The gum-flapping speaker hardly minded. He recognized that if the political will of Colorado voters were to move in the right direction, this late-arriving figure could well be the charismatic figurehead of the mental-health reform movement from the floor of the United States Senate.

If that should happen–well, better late than never.

The occasion was a gala honoring Heart-Mind-Connect, a new entrant in the expanding archipelago of grass-roots advocates for fixing our broken systems for reclaiming the mentally ill. H-M-C was recently organized by a small collective headed by the singer-songwriter Maree McRae, whose son Stephen was stricken with a rare disease known as common variable immune deficiency. CVID, a genetic disease, attacks antibodies that fight infections, and can produce schizophrenia-like behavior in its victims.

The galvanizing, late-arriving speaker was Andrew Romanoff, 53, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2020. Romanoff is campaigning to get past a crowded primary field that includes the former Colorado governor, John Hickenlooper, so that he can take on the incumbent Senator, the Donald Trump-supporting Cory Gardner.

Andrew Romanoff

Romanoff’s resume bristles with achievement. He won four elections to the Colorado House of Representatives, serving from 2001 through 2009, serving as Speaker from 2005 until term limits ended that run. His causes included expanding the Medicare health program; supporting the “Green New Deal” to promote renewable Energy; championing immigration reform to ease the path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; and opposing special-interest funding of political candidates. He has rejected Political Action Committee donations for his Senate campaign.

Romanoff holds degrees from Yale and the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, and a master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He has researched the Ku Klux Klan for the Southern Poverty Law Center. He has taught English in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

He served as president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado from 2015 until 2019.

So naturally (according to Romanoff’s own accounts) the intrepid and visionary Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has done its best to make him disappear. Apparently the DSCC prefers the easy listenin’ strains of the incumbent to the reformist drums and trumpets of candidates such as Romanoff.

As Channel 4, the CBS affiliate in Denver, reported in August:

“The DSCC is a powerful political machine that spends hundreds of millions of dollars each election and Romanoff says it is threatening polling, media and other political consultants that if they work with him, it will cut them off.”

“The DSCC has endorsed John Hickenlooper. Romanoff says helping Hickenlooper is one thing, sabotaging his campaign is another.”

Via CBS Andrew Romanoff Accuses Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Of Trying To Push Him Out https://denver.cbslocal.com/2019/08/29/andrew-romanoff-democratic-senatorial-campaign-2020-cory-gardner/

What a waste of hope and vision that would be.

Romanoff’s focus on mental healthcare springs from personal experience–as it does for so many advocates and policymakers. 

During his tardy appearance at the H-M-C gala, Andrew Romanoff spoke for about twenty electrifying and lucid minutes, sans suitcoat (the polar opposite of being an empty suit, it occurred to me), tie loosened, fingertips in his trousers pocket, crisply ticking off the goals and the challenges of the mental healthcare reform movement. I did not take notes–no one at the event had prepared me for the eloquence and accuracy and force of Romanoff’s words. I can guarantee one and all, however, that the standard-bearer we have all longed for within the halls of political power may be working his way there.

The emotional peak of his remarks came as Romanoff recounted the horrific story of a family member who put a pistol to her head in 2014 and pulled the trigger.

The victim was Romanoff’s first cousin. “I thought of as her my kid sister,” he said. The calamity occurred without warning, without advance hints that the young woman was disturbed. “Her mom and dad and I–the four of us–were celebrating New Year’s 2015 when she walked into the backyard and killed herself.”

Romanoff’s casual, wry demeanor changed as he briefly told this story. His eyes filled and he paused several times.

A cynical politician–perhaps a lifer on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee–might have seen this moment as calculated; a carefully rehearsed, twice-told tale manufactured to elicit sympathy.

I choose not to think so. As Huck Finn said, I been there before. I doubt that many readers of this blog, burdened in private by their own bereavements, would think so either.

Andrew Romanoff
Andrew Romanoff, Photo Credit: Jeffrey Beall via Flickr http://bit.ly/2Mg8jqI https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I choose to believe that Andrew Romanoff is the goods: as a potential voice in the Senate for enlightened reform of our country’s shameful mental healthcare systems; but also as a voice for enlightened governance generally. 

I wish him well.

Examining Solitary Confinement

The leading Democratic candidates for president in 2020 have at long last agreed that abolishing this atrocity is an essential part of criminal-justice reform. It is up to us to hold them to their words.

When you hear or read the words “solitary confinement,” what images form in your mind?

A naughty inmate spending some time in a kind of “time out” space wearing a hang-dog expression?

A lonely prisoner in a tiny dark cell gazing at light from the slit of a window, with maybe half a bowl of dirty drinking water at his feet?

A mentally ill man who, after 112 consecutive days of solitary, has just severed his penis with a razor and flushed it down his cell’s toilet? 

One of these things is not like the others.

All three images are rooted in the dark dominion of solitary confinement. Only one of them burns through the fog of euphemism and forces a reckoning with a terrible truth—in this case, one of the most perverse, destructive, and unnecessary varieties of soul-murder yet devised by man.

The topic “solitary confinement” has been raised lately (and gingerly, and fleetingly) by several candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination: raised as an agenda item in their calls for repairing the fissures in America’s criminal-justice system. (Criminal-justice reform is tightly intertwined with reform of our negligent systems of mental healthcare in America.)

Dorothea Dix

The candidates have in turn been influenced—inspired—by the efforts of a bright new coalition of mental-health reform advocates: parents, mostly, spurred to action by the death or deep psychosis of a beloved child. Polite yet unyielding, ferociously informed, they amount to a neo-Dorothea Dix approach to getting justice for the dispossessed. 

Iowa is their perfectly chosen beachhead. Not only does the state offer an early concentration of corndog-chewing candidates for them to buttonhole. Iowa City is the home of the turbo-charged advocacy team of Scott and Leslie Carpenter. Armed with an exhaustive five-point bill of particulars for mental healthcare reform compiled by the California advocate DeDe Moon Ranahan, the Carpenters essentially have brought the grass roots onto equal footing with the political elite—on this issue, at least.

But why shine the spotlight on solitary confinement when the justice reform agendas are crowded with so many other “big-ticket” demands? Cutting the U.S. prison population in half comes to mind, as do ending the notorious “cash bail” system that keeps poor young inmates locked up only because they can’t afford otherwise; or tightening up on police oversight; or legalizing marijuana; or abolishing private prisons. 

Here is the reason: I sense that of all these important, difficult-to-achieve goals, the abolishing of solitary is among the easiest to bring up and then dismiss: the one most vulnerable to lip service.

Thomas Edward Silverstein

And that would be a colossal shame. Stuffing sentient human beings into small, dark, fetid enclosures and leaving them there is about the worst thing it is possible to do to one’s fellow man. The American record for duration in solitary was held by a triple murderer named Thomas Silverstein, who died just last May at age 67. He’d spent more than half his life in isolation. 

It borders on the impossible to find shared humanity with a monster like Silverstein. Yet traces of his humanity struggle to declare themselves like green shoots through cracked pavement. “It’s almost more humane to kill someone immediately than it is to intentionally bury a man alive,” he wrote. For one superb writer’s searching attempt, read Pete Earley’s masterful 1992 book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison.

Or return for a moment to the lost soul who severed his penis with a razor. That would be the mentally ill inmate identified by his initials, J.I., a solitary inmate at Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On the night of September 2018, jail guards, alerted by prisoners’ shouting in a lockdown unit, rushed to the scene, where they beheld J.I., his hands and forearms bloody, who told them: “I have a real medical emergency. I just cut my penis off and flushed it down the toilet. I have no need for it anymore.”

J.I., who survived, had sat in solitary for 112 consecutive days. He’d been sent there for yelling at staff members. Records showed that guards had been negligent in monitoring his therapeutic needs. 1

Solitary is patently barbaric; bereft of any use (other than convenience and a lust for inflicting psychic pain).  It is a legalized yet likely unconstitutional torture which, I have come to believe, is slightly more heinous even than the death penalty: its victims, while not dead, experience death as their own observers, existing in claustrophobic isolation and silence and darkness and decay, with no definable release awaiting them. 

And so in order to tolerate it as public policy or even as a thought, some self-anesthetizing helps. (Those charged with actually imposing it on human beings presumably develop tougher psychic scar tissue.)  “Solitary confinement” is a term useful for the necessary numbing: an abstraction, one of those “Orwellian” constructions that serve more to camouflage than to evoke their full, and usually terrifying implications. 

That very abstraction is dangerous. It can too easily lead to evaporation.  

This blog, then, is a plea to those presidential candidates who have made the abolition of solitary confinement a part of their criminal-justice reform demands: Do not let this happen. Honor the constituency that has materialized in Iowa and exists throughout the nation. Keep this issue alive. 

In subsequent blogs I will trace the peculiar origins of solitary confinement in America, and will look into some of the lesser-known forms of its use—for example, as an instrument of control for juvenile inmates and even schoolchildren.

I will close this blog with a soaring testimony of hope, resilience, faith, and self-reclamation written by a former criminal and solitary inmate named Thomas Tarrants, and published in the August 19 edition of Christianity Today. 2 It was sent to me by my friend, the literary scholar Harold K. Bush of St. Louis University. Thank you, amigo.