This excellent Mother Jones piece by Samantha Michaels pinpoints one of the worst ongoing atrocities in our criminal-justice system–the indefinite pre-trial incarceration of young mentally ill defendants. This broken system cries out for restorative, enlightened oversight at the federal level.
By the time he turned 15, Jesus G. was hearing voices and having suicidal thoughts. It was early 2013, and he’d been living at the Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles for more than a year, though he’d never been tried or found guilty of a crime.
In late 2011, Jesus’ younger brother accused him of molesting him, but Jesus denied the allegations. The clock stopped on his case months after that, when a doctor decided that, due to his hallucinations and immaturity, he wouldn’t understand what was happening in court.
As with adults, when a kid like Jesus is declared incompetent to stand trial, the state can detain him while trying to improve his mental functioning and knowledge of court procedures. But while California law limits the amount of time adults can be confined—often in hospitals—during this process, no such cap exists for children, who are regularly held in juvenile hall instead. As the months passed, Jesus and his attorneys wondered when he would ever get out.
In California and across much of the country, children with cognitive problems routinely languish in custody for months or years while judges determine whether they’ll be able to pick up the skills needed for a fair trial. Most states don’t have comprehensive programs to help these kids become “competent,” as the courts call it, referring to someone who has the ability to assist their attorney with their defense and possesses a solid understanding of the charges and proceedings against them. In one egregious case, according to a legal director at the National Juvenile Defender Center, children were asked to watch episodes of Law & Order to prepare for their trials.
According to California Assembly member Mark Stone, about 300 of the estimated 7,000 wards in California’s juvenile justice system last year were not getting the help they needed to become competent for trial. Now, lawmakers in Sacramento are considering a bill that would limit how long kids are detained after a judge finds them mentally unfit. And it would spell out the services they can receive to get up to speed. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill last year after critics protested that dangerous, emotionally unstable teens might be let loose.
But this year Stone hopes a compromise will be more palatable: In his new bill, most kids could be detained six months while trying to become mentally competent, but those accused of certain violent crimes could be held for 18 months. Some advocates say a year and a half is still far too long to hold a child without trial, but others say it’s a step in the right direction for a system that often feels haphazard at best and an absolute mess at worst.
Before he got to juvenile hall, Jesus was struggling at home. He’d recently moved to California with his mom and told adults at school he was depressed and wanted to die; he tried cutting his wrist because he claimed his stepdad abused him. At age 14, after he was locked up, a medical examiner found he was functioning in some ways like a six-year-old. “For him to understand the reality of what’s transpiring and understand the process, what people are doing with him and what he needs to do in his own defense…those are going to be difficult things for him,” the doctor told the court.
The fight for better juvenile competency laws has roots back in the 1990s. Across the country, a jump in homicides led to a superpredator panic, and delinquent teens were depicted as dangerous criminals. New laws made it easier for them to be transferred to the adult system, where a third strike could land them in prison for life.
By then, courts already had procedures for dealing with adults who weren’t mentally fit for trial, and many states started to apply the same standards to children. But that hasn’t worked out well, says Thomas Grisso, a psychologist in Massachusetts and a leading expert on these issues. Like adults, kids can struggle to understand court proceedings because of a mental illness or an intellectual disability. But many kids aren’t ready for trial simply because they’re immature. Their brains haven’t developed fully, or they haven’t picked up the average knowledge an adult would have about courts, Grisso says, so they require different types of services to get up to speed.
California does have a separate competency law for juveniles, and back in 2007 it was the first state to acknowledge that immaturity could make someone unfit for court. But since then it has lagged behind. “California ended up with one foot moving forward and the other one stuck in the mud,” says Janet Warren, a psychiatry professor at the University of Virginia who helped develop procedures in her state for juvenile competency that are now hailed as a model.
National guidelines written by Grisso and his colleague Kimberly Larson encourage lawmakers to keep kids in the least restrictive environment possible while they study to become competent—ideally at home. In California, however, “juvenile halls have become an unfortunate default holding place for incompetent youth,” public defenders in Los Angeles wrote in an amicus brief, noting that the state doesn’t use residential group homes enough. And California has no hospital beds for these kids, says Jim Salio, president of the Chief Probation Officers of California. “Because there’s no other place to house them, we end up with these minors in juvenile hall. They really should be in some other place.”
Experts recognize that locking them up can worsen their mental health problems, make them less likely to graduate high school, and boost their odds of committing crimes later. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to detain anyone indefinitely during treatment for competency problems; a person could not be “held more than the reasonable period of time,” the justices wrote. But what’s reasonable? In California, Salio says, some teens are held two or three years.
According to a study in Virginia, most kids can develop the skills needed for trial within three months by studying court procedures with an expert and receiving treatment for any mental health problems if needed. After six months, if a child has not become competent, it’s unlikely he ever will.
During his year-plus at juvenile hall, Jesus continued his schooling but received no services to prepare him for trial, his attorneys told the court, including no ongoing treatment to deal with his hallucinations, depression, and suicidal thoughts. The probation office explained a committee focused on competency programming was still “in the planning stages” and that Jesus probably couldn’t start until the following year.
Albert C., a 15-year-old accused of assault and gun possession, was also locked up in Los Angeles after a judge found him unfit for trial. His programming, according to an amicus brief, involved just 90 minutes a week of going over worksheets with court vocabulary, followed by a quiz. The person who administered the worksheets hadn’t graduated from college or received much training. “He was essentially warehoused for a year with no therapeutic services or treatment,” wrote the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center and local public defenders, noting that doctors recommended he take medicine for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
It doesn’t have to be that way. In Virginia, most kids with cognitive problems stay at home while they prepare for their trials. The state has hundreds of trained forensic evaluators who meet with them there a few times a week, typically over three to four months, using an individualized curriculum with interactive animated software, flashcards, workbooks, coloring books, board games, verbal conversation, and role playing. Florida, Louisiana, and Maryland also have comprehensive, state-wide programs for incompetent kids. But some states like California face pressure to spend their money on more hospital beds for the growing number of incompetent adults left languishing in jails. “To put juvenile competence as a financial burden on top of that makes me pessimistic about a lot of states suddenly getting on board,” Grisso says.
Virginia experts counter that it’s cheaper to do it their way. Warren estimates children in her state become fit for trial at a cost of about $5,000 each, while it takes $200 a day to detain a kid in juvenile hall and $600 a day to keep someone in a psychiatric facility. In other words, a few months of treatment and education could cost three and a half times more in juvie than at a kid’s home.
Jesus and Albert both fought their pretrial detention. Neither kid had much luck. Jesus was held in juvenile hall for about 16 months before he was finally released. Albert stayed for about a year until a judge declared him competent and he pleaded guilty to his crimes. In his case, a judge ruled that although local protocols suggested kids shouldn’t be held for more than about four months during competency treatment, that didn’t carry the force of law in California.
Last year, the California Legislature passed a bill that would have put a six-month cap into law, with support from the Chief Probation Officers of California, but the governor vetoed it amid concerns that kids with aggressive behavior would get out of custody too soon. Assembly member Stone tried to put more teeth into the bill this year, with a six-month cap for most kids and an 18-month cap for those accused of certain violent crimes, including murder and rape as well as certain acts of sexual abuse, like the ones Jesus was accused of.
The new bill would lay out the types of services that courts could consider for incompetent kids, things like therapy and medication instead of just workbooks with court vocabulary. And it would encourage courts to look for options besides juvenile hall while still considering public safety, and require them to dismiss the cases of incompetent kids who are only accused of misdemeanors. Lawmakers have until Friday to vote on the proposal.
In the meantime, children are waiting. Dale Major, an attorney in San Francisco, says one of his teen clients has spent about three years locked up without trial, spread out over multiple arrests, after being declared incompetent because of post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia, attention deficit disorder, and developmental immaturity. “Even though he’s in juvenile court, he’s now 18, sitting in a county jail, getting no services,” he says. “The kid has had no childhood.”
Below is the text of the talk I delivered to the 2018 conference of Pathways to Hope in San Antonio on Friday. Pathways is an exemplary nonprofit outreach organization that has set new standards for reclaiming and treating victims of mental illness and addiction.
Because of a last-minute scheduling conflict, the venue for my talk was shifted from an auditorium furnished with audio-visual recording equipment to one that lacked same.
In one sense, that is a good thing: people who are curious about what I had to say can find out without having to watch the image of my homely mug flapping its gums for half an hour.
In another, it is not so great.
I’d designed this talk as a forceful message—a call to arms, if you like—not only for the Pathways attendees but as a video document that could be distributed on the Internet to advocacy groups around the country, to access stations in towns and cities, to educational and religious groups, to judges and the law-enforcement community, and to state and federal political leaders with the power of policy-setting over our country’s broken mental-healthcare system.
My talk includes a look into the broken lives of two sufferers whose hellish plight epitomizes the rank obscenity of the ignorance, indifference, and neglect at the extreme edges of our judicial and municipal authorities. These victims’ images and encapsulated stories may be found near the end of my talk.
Finally, my remarks conclude with two proposals that will be difficult to achieve and can be fulfilled only via a sustained and broad-based outpouring of activist passion. One proposal is the enshrinement of mental-illness reform as the predominant civil-rights issue of our time. The other is the establishment of a new Cabinet-level federal department: the Department of Mental Healthcare.
I cannot overstate the urgency I feel for the necessity of these goals, and for our sustained witness of those unfortunate people who exemplify the atrocities in our dealings with the insane. Nor can I overstate the frustration I feel (I seldom mention this) at the societal inertia that enshrouds progress and muffles the voices of reform.
I realize that the remarks below are not for everyone. Except that they are.
TEXT OF MY TALK TO THE PATHWAYS TO HOPE CONFERENCE, AUGUST 24, SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
My wife Honoree and I would like to thank you members of Pathways to Hope for inviting us to this enlightened and important conference.
We are grateful in particular to your inspirational president, Doug Beach; his associate the Rev. Carol Morehead, and their All-star array of board members. Including your great county judge Nelson Wolff, who has so brightly illuminated your path.
You have reached out to a couple of chilly Yankees from the People’s Democratic Republic of Vermont—and got us down here to enjoy a little sunny weather.
Honoree was actually kind of rattled yesterday when I read her the temperature here. I told her not to worry; it would probably warm up.
I hope you know how special you are. Three years ago Pathways to Hope did not exist. Today, you are a piston in a great city’s emergence as a dynamo of human reclamation: the reclamation of the most helpless and vulnerable and overlooked people among us. I speak of those who have been stricken with mental illness.
And I speak of the families and friends who have interrupted their lives and often their livelihoods to protect them.
Something big is going on here in San Antonio and Bexar County. Has been for a while. At about the time Pathways was getting organized, in December 2016, the Boston Globe had this to say about the civic revolution you were joining:
“San Antonio has done in Texas what Massachusetts has not come close to: making mental health care a community priority, a real system built with creativity, humanity, and sustained commitment. A national model, saving lives and money.”
And you are now a central part of this. Your work embodies what has come to be known as “the San Antonio way.”
Let’s examine what “the San Antonio way” means, for the benefit of those who are not aware of it.
It means a great and rare coming together. A spontaneous combustion of civic will that rebukes our long national apathy toward mental health reform. A galvanizing of public agencies and private businesses and healthcare providers and churches and ordinary people—teachers, volunteers, and victims of mental illness themselves. A drive to finally seize control of our broken care and judicial and enforcement systems that too often intervene in the shattered lives of afflicted people only to make things worse.
San Antonio has said “Enough of this! Let us intervene in these systems and rebuild them from the grass roots up!
And let me be more specific still:
In this city it has meant creating special mental health units within the police force: handpicked officers who are rigorously trained to ease themselves into crisis situations and tamp down psychotic behavior, using words and gestures instead of guns. Incredibly important!
It has meant achieving national prominence in the practice of jail diversion. Gilbert Gonzalez and his Bexar County mental health staff have used jail diversion to identify more than 20,000 people with serious mental illness and divert them from jail into treatment. It has saved Bexar County more than fifty million dollars and counting!
That is just incredible! Cost-efficient—and more importantly, humane! Why is the San Antonio Way not the American Way?
I want to help make that happen!
My tools are limited. I’m a bereaved father and a writer—not a policy-maker or a neuroscientist or the leader of a great movement. Just a writer.
But as Elie Weisel said, “Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.”
So let me pray for grace, and not mince words.
American mental health care today is in a crisis.
I will speak to you of this crisis, but I also want to speak through you . . . to all those Americans, good and solid citizens, who may not yet have been poked and prodded to see our mental illness crisis for what it really is.
It is a crisis that takes many forms:
It is a landscape . . . a landscape of humiliation and grief and ignorance and shame. A hell on earth for too many of the most helpless, the most dispossessed, the most misunderstood, the most feared, and too often the most brutally confined and punished for the crime of existing while insane.
The crisis is a graveyard . . . a graveyard of hope, where we bury our complacent myths of compassion and loving community. These qualities are just not evident in society’s dealings with the mentally ill.
And all too often, it is a literal graveyard—where we bury the bodies of our brothers and sisters—our sons and our daughters—whose lives have been needlessly sacrificed to the appalling indifference and outright cluelessness of the very institutions designed to protect them.
The crisis is a swampland: an economic swampland whose quicksand drains and drains our national treasury. America spends about as much as any country on mental healthcare. Around $230 billion a year, in federal, state, local and private funds. That is nearly twice the amount spent in 2012.
And we spend it worse than just about any country.
The great advocate and my friend Dj Jaffe lays it on the line: our government, spurred by lobbyists, pours money into treating high-functioning patients and on treatments that lack evidence.
I know that Pathways to Hope reaches out beyond the borders of chronic mental illness to help those with behavioral and addictive issues, and simple bad luck. Yet you take care of the core group, the chronically insane, as well.
But at the national level, Jaffe and others have a point.
The powerful blogger Pete Earley adds that we squander even more money by over-spending on emergency systems: jails and prisons, for example. Meanwhile, state mental hospitals are being closed.
Politicians love to build jails because voters think jails keep them safer. Politicians love to close hospitals because voters think this will save them tax money.
This gets it exactly backwards: housing an inmate with mental illness in jail costs $31,000 annually, while state and community mental health services cost about $10,000.
Folks, America is getting fleeced! And America can’t or won’t see it! And so it goes on: a jail is built. A hospital closes. Fewer beds. less care, treatment, and medication. But more cells. And hundreds of thousands of chronically ill people—bipolar and schizophrenia sufferers—go untreated because the money doesn’t stretch to them.
Now I want to move to an area of spending on mental illness that is even less examined than the squandering of public dollars—but is perhaps even more catastrophic and dangerous to our social fabric down at Ground Zero.
I’m talking about the uncounted millions of dollars sacrificed each year by private households. By families. By parents who have no choice but to empty their bank accounts and their life savings, and often quit their jobs, to protect an afflicted child from going under.
I can’t give you statistics. There are no reliable statistics; not yet.
But I can tell you a couple of stories. Stories that represent hundreds of thousands of similar stories. Stories that I use with permission from the mothers and wives who shared them on a private Facebook site.
“I have no way to go back and detail the cost to me and my family. I can say that the cost was tremendous. The expenses of traveling to the hospitals, the days lost at work because I had to be in the emergency room, or at a treatment team meeting, or in court. These things caused me to lose my job. More than once. So, how do you account for that? Thousands? Tens of thousands? And this is not counting paying for attorneys and doctors, neurologists and neuropsychologists. And medicine! And a locked safe to keep the medicine.
It’s tremendous, just a tremendous reality.”
This mother concludes:
“I retired way early because I am not able to work anymore.”
Here’s another, from the wife of an afflicted husband:
“Many years of paying rent and utilities before finally getting public assistance. Raising his children while his ex-wife recovered from breakdown due to his illness. Full time work cut to very part time, so I could be there for the grandchildren and to advocate endlessly for any kind of help.
Early retirement related to my own stress. Retirement pension a third of what it should have been. Paying for others to clean his apartments. Automobiles totaled at least twice. Expenses to keep him out of jail. Paying others to shovel out his filthy apartments so he doesn’t have his section 8 housing taken away. Vet bills for his dog. Transportation costs numerous times to get him home from yet another place he’s run away to. The long-term financial repercussions have been devastating.”
I think these two examples give us enough to think about. Or should.
So let’s move from the crisis of foolish spending into the crises of our hospitals, our caregivers, and criminal justice system itself.
America harbors two million, three hundred thousand incarcerated citizens at any given time. One-point-three million in state prisons. A little over half are serving time for violent crimes. The rest are in for property theft and drug convictions, and they should be somewhere else. Treatment, supervised community service. More humane, less expensive.
But no: lock ‘em up.
Jails and prisons breed psychosis like the Tropics breed mosquitos and grass breeds ticks. The Kaiser Foundation estimates that about eighteen percent of these populations live with serious mental illness. Serious meaning chronic. Incurable. Leaving the victim essentially helpless. I’m talking about schizophrenia. Bipolar affliction. And the rest of that happy little family. That amounts to three hundred eighty-three thousand insane inmates. Or about ten times the number of patients in our dwindling state hospitals.
I think everybody here can recite the following sentence in their sleep: “We are criminalizing mental illness.”
And yet, with the exceptions of certain oases such as San Antonio, we just keep on doing it.
We buy ever more cells, but never enough, and more solitary confinement: in my opinion, the cruelest, most unethical, most psychologically damaging and most worthless form of legalized torture in our criminal-justice system. Think of the descriptive nicknames: “The box.” “The hole.”
Yet jail inmates, most of whom have not been convicted of anything, keep getting shoved into solitary. Why? Because it’s there. A handy space in an over-crowded jail. And why are jails over-crowded? Mainly because of the stream of mentally ill kids who do not belong there. But are crowded out of hospitals.
Time in the box deepens psychosis. In Florida two years ago, a psychotic young man who’d been in solitary for two years tore off his penis with his bare hands.
One in eight jail prisoners in Florida lives in solitary. One in eight! About twelve thousand total. Out of eighty to a hundred thousand American inmates at any given time.
And the circle goes round and round. And solitary confinement goes on and on and on. Why? Because there is no substantial reform movement. So most Americans hardly ever give it a thought.
Solitary confinement is a national disgrace, and it must be abolished!
A couple more stories now. Stories have a moral force that statistics usually lack.
This from a mother whose brain-damaged son did some time in jail:
“First of all, everyone said that he should not be there. Doctors and other staff. It was known that he needed a real neuro psychological environment. To sum up years of suffering: The state knew, the state hospital knew, and no one did anything until I threatened a lawsuit, even then nothing, until I caught the division in a big lie with a brain injury facility.
The lack of training is unbelievable. State hospital employees don’t keep up with new findings, because they are not encouraged to do so. When I did find a good person, I made sure to tell the top administrator. Then that person was actually told not to talk to me anymore. Yes, buck passing and leaving my son to be secluded for years. I truly believe that the disdain is the word that tells our story. I would say to staff, ‘How can you sleep at night?’”
Listen to this message from the mother of a young psychotic son:
“One of the most shocking remarks said to me was when I tried to get our local hospital psych ward to keep our son over the 72-hour hold period. He was psychotic and refusing treatment. The nurse I pleaded with said, ‘You are his mother and he has a right to be crazy if he chooses.’”
This was said by a professional nurse in a hospital psychiatric ward. How many of you have heard variations of this remark?
Here’s another testimony from the mother of a psychotic child:
“The hotline sent two police officers to my house. When I asked them how they would approach the situation, one of the officers said, ‘If I feel threatened, I will shoot him.’ Based on this interaction, my husband and I declined their offer to do a ‘wellness check’ on my son.”
I will close off with two cases that have literally kept me awake at night. Because I cannot square either of them with any vision of an enlightened and just America.
Youknow about Tyler if you‘ve been reading this blog. I’ve written several times about him and his family. Tyler is the adopted son of Kimberlee and Dan West, two of the best and most civic-minded people I know.
Tyler was already suffering from brain-related afflictions when the Wests took him in as a small child. He is a small and dark-skinned and sweet-natured young man, and he has cognitive processing problems, including with language that is spoken to him. Later he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and autism.
These traits made him a target for repeated beatings in his childhood. Yet Tyler remained gentle, and developed talents for music composition and computer programming. He carried a comic doll around with him.
Still, his symptoms of psychosis deepened and he had trouble grasping reality. Two years ago, when Tyler was 16, he disappeared for about eleven hours with a 14-year-old girl. They both denied having sex, and no traces of semen were found. Still, a judged sentenced Tyler to five days in jail on a charge of statutory rape.
This sentence put Tyler in the crosshairs of local law enforcement. I will skip over several harmless misdemeanors and suicide attempts, not to mention futile efforts to have him civilly committed in a hospital or care center. Bed shortage, you see.
But I will tell you that Tyler’s brain continued to decompose. Disaster struck on a February night in 2017, when Tyler, in a mild psychotic state, wandered across his family’s lawn to a neighbor’s house, opened an unlocked door, and fell asleep on a sofa.
The neighbors discovered him and had him arrested on a charge of home invasion.
Tyler West entered the Muskegon County Jail on February 19, 2017, until June 29, 2018. Sixteen months, as his hearing date got postponement after postponement, During that time, he suffered concussions from at least four beatings from violent fellow inmates. He did stretches in solitary, and could be heard beating his head against a wall. He was deprived of regular medication.
Last June, Tyler finally got his sentencing hearing. The judge moved him to quarantine in a reception center for a month. He is now an inmate at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan. Length of stay, undetermined. But he may be facing an 18-month sex offender class.
The whereabouts of Tyler’s comic doll are not known.
Okay, I have saved the worst for last. I ask you to please brace yourselves.
This is James Mark Rippee. He has lived on the streets of Vacaville, California, for nearly twelve years. He is schizophrenic. Thirty-one years ago, Mark Rippee suffered a motorcycle accident that left him blind, with head trauma, brain loss, and a shattered right leg that is kept in place with a metal rod. He has endured more than fifty surgeries. He is beaten and robbed regularly.
Mark Rippee’s brother and twin sisters cared for him for eighteen years, until they could no longer control his violent behavior. They have since petitioned every service agency available to them for help get Mark into a protected and therapeutic environment. Or at least a legal guardian, someone who would look after his finances and his needs for shelter, and food, and medical care, and safety.
Every agency has told them “No.”
The bedrock answer is that Mark Rippee has his RIGHTS!
He enjoys the “right,” the civil “right,” to refuse care and treatment. And in his disordered, shrunken state of reasoning, he exercises that right.
And that is all the caring agencies need to hear in order to turn their backs on this hopelessly brain-damaged man.
Here is Mark’s brother, Joseph Privatte.
“I have contacted lawyers, Adult Protective Services, The Public Defender, The Public Guardians Office, the police and fire departments, Mission Solano, five hospitals, several case workers, Laurel Creek Mental Health, the Vacaville Homeless Roundtable, the Solano County Health and Social Services Administration, the Vacaville mayor . . .”
..and he goes on. I’ve left out about half the agencies he has contacted.
And now listen to Mark’s sister, CJ Hanson, after she attended a meeting of the Solano County Board of Supervisors. They were seeking to have Mark designated as “gravely disabled” so that he could be involuntarily committed and receive protection from the county.
California law defines “gravely disabled as being unable to provide for one’s basic personal needs for food, clothing, or shelter.
The siblings’ mission failed. The Board of Supervisors, CJ told me in an email, “consider him self-sufficient if he can eat out of dumpster. They consider him self-reliant if he knows to cover himself with newspapers, or to sleep under a bush to try to stay warm. They consider him self-sufficient if he can panhandle.”
CJ wants to get the state to re-define what it means to be Gravely Disabled. “If my brother is not aware or capable of seeking medical attention, then he is not capable of being self-sufficient. The criteria now in use is archaic! It is disgusting! It is inhumane!”
And it is likely to remain in use for the foreseeable future.
I can’t predict the fate of Tyler West or James Mark Rippee. Or the tens of thousands of Tyler Wests and James Mark Rippees who suffer atrocities today because institutions of justice and reclamation have turned their backs. I’ll repeat it: suffer atrocities, in the landscape of ignorance and shame, the graveyard of hope, or the swampland of wasted resources, that make you wonder at times how far we have really progressed from the era of Bedlam Asylum in the London of the Fourteenth Century, where torture, demonic superstition, and shackles ruled the brief lives of the so-called idiots and lunatics and morons trapped inside its filthy cells.
I am tired of wondering. I am tired of passively complaining. I am tired of giving talks around the country that aim to stimulate the passion for reform, yet result generally in kindhearted applause and handshakes.
I am angry and frustrated, and I want action! I have chosen this gathering of Pathways to Hope as the occasion for two specific action proposals that I am willing to fight for, if enough committed people will rally along with me.
Proposal One is my call for the establishment of a federal Cabinet-level department, the Department of Mental Illness!
This Department will have broad powers of oversight and policymaking into federal, state and county levels of criminal justice: establishing and enforcing standards of education in mental illness among judges. Ensuring speedy trials for jail inmates and accountability in sentencing. Demanding accountability from jails in consistent, humane treatment and medication of inmates in psychosis.
And pursuing, with remorseless intent, the agenda of wiping out the great moral blight that continues to infect our jails, our prisons, and our claim as a civilized nation. I am talking about solitary confinement. It destroys minds! It does not rehabilitate! It is bestial! It must go!
That is Proposal One. A Cabinet-level Department of Mental Illness. Here is Proposal Two:
We must recognize mental healthcare for what it so clearly is: the civil rights issue of our time!
I’m not talking about symposia or a holiday or public-service commercials. I am talking about a national movement! Built around a charismatic figurehead. Someone who can ignite and fuel an ongoing national movement. A galvanizing male or female member of Congress, perhaps. A retired statesman. A member of the clergy. A leader from the world of business. Someone from the ranks of Project Hope. Or someone we have not yet heard of.
It is a civil right to live with hope and dignity. Other movements have recognized that and have broken through. Now it is our turn.
The novel was an indictment of cruelties visited upon American migrant farmworkers, traveling west to California to find survival work in the Great Depression.
One of its immortal passages described the shock—the sense of violation—that these starving migrant workers felt as they looked upon acres and acres of rich ripe fruits and vegetables that had been strewn across the land to rot, because the owners did not want to pay decent wages to the migrants for harvesting them.
Here is what Steinbeck wrote:
“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our successes.”
Do those lines remind you of anything going on today? We have work to do; the work of reclamation. Let’s get to it. Thank you.
Solitary confinement is the monster that lives in our nation’s basement.
We tell ourselves that we have the monster under control. That is, if we tell ourselves anything at all. Most of the time, we avoid thinking about him.
Solitary confinement is just another tool, we assure ourselves. Like we assure ourselves that—oh—the AK-47 is just another appliance. Ethically neutral. Dangerous but necessary. Good to have around when you need it. Properly stored, properly maintained, properly et cetera.
Here is the difference between solitary confinement and the AK-47: solitary is worse. Solitary is inherently evil. Solitary has no utilitarian value. No economic value. No social-protection value. No ethical or moral value. Solitary has one consequence and one consequence only: the slow and torturous disintegration of the human mind.
Solitary confinement must be abolished in this country. Not “limited.” Not “scaled back.” Not “reviewed” or “studied.” Abolished. Dragged out of the basement and exterminated. Prohibited by federal law as cruel and unusual punishment. Crueler, if not more “unusual,” than waterboarding, which is brutish and unproductive, but brief, and usually without lasting destruction to the psyche.
Solitary confinement must be wiped out because of its very purity: it is the purest most unadulterated method of infesting a human brain with loneliness, then despair, then desperation, and finally with head-banging madness that the world has ever seen. Solitary confinement is a demon that feeds on human souls.
As it feeds, here is some of the residue that it leaves behind, to fester: Paranoia. Stupor. Amnesia. Hallucinations; imaginary shapes and voices. Rage. Suicidal impulses. (Half of all jail and prison suicides are committed in solitary or soon after release, though solitary inmates make up only 5 percent of these populations.)
Let’s pause here for a disquisition on what we mean when we say “solitary confinement”: small concrete cell, maybe 7 by 10 feet. Small bed and toilet or hole in floor for urination and defecation. Steel door with slot for sliding food in. Darkness.
The hits include newspaper and magazine journalism as well; and, occasionally, television. The most dignified journals sometimes season their reportage with language that would make an old-time yellow journalism copy editor blush. Here is the August British journal, The Guardian:
“After her son tore off his penis with his bare hands in his cell, Gemma Pena thought Florida’s prison authorities might see his illness,” began one such story, in the August Manchester Guardian. “They’d see he needed a hospital, instead of solitary confinement. The article continued:
“‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s when the nightmare really started.’
“As her son Kristopher has moved through Florida’s prison system; so has Pena, relocating around the state to stay close to him. Now she lives in a tiny one-room apartment in a run-down Miami neighborhood. There’s a bed, a small table, two chairs, and a little window. She keeps the door locked. She lives in a solitary confinement of her own.”
In 2009, the respected advocacy journalist Brooke Shelby Biggs, writing in the progressive bi-monthly Mother Jones, offered a social history of American solitary confinement. Her consummately researched essay should be reviewed by anyone interested in the subject.
Biggs reminded us, for instance, of the fact that “solitary” is not some primitive artifact of 14th-century “Bedlam Asylum.” It is a fairly recent demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, wrought by the most pacifistic religious order in the Western World. In 1790, the Society of Friends (the Quakers) completed work on the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia—the first edifice of the modern prison system. The Quakers conceived the newly evolving prison system as a vehicle not only for punishment but for spiritual rehabilitation. Hence “penitentiary,” denoting penitence. Solitary confinement was refined, at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, as the highest distillation of the penitent act. It was not long, though, before evidence began to show that these isolated souls, instead of discovering peace through reverence, were going mad.
“Eastern State was a grand failure, and it was closed in 1971, 100 years after the concept of total isolation was abandoned. But what it revealed about the torturous effects of solitary may have made the practice attractive to those less concerned with rehabilitation and more interested in retribution. Solitary in the 20th century became a purely punitive tool used to break the spirits of inmates considered disruptive, violent, or disobedient. . .”
And that is more or less where things stand today.
In 2014, Pope Francis described such confinement as a form of torture. By the following year, more than 80,000 inmates, a high percentage of them already mad, were stored in solitary, more than in any other country. The numbers had been rising before that. From 1995 to 2000, the solitary confinement population in America increased by 40 percent. These figures exclude juveniles, who comprise the most inexcusable of all solitary confinement populations—in jails, mostly, awaiting hearings and trials. Adolescent brains, even “healthy” ones, are in a final stage of development that leaves them vulnerable to disruption, especially that caused by stress. (see NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, pp. 34-38). If the “right”—that is, the wrong—genetic inheritance is present, this is the age when schizophrenia develops.
Well, then, if solitary is so awful, why do inmates and prisoners keep getting stored away there?
The most rational defense of the practice that I’ve found is protection: the protection of one prisoner from others that want to do harm to him or her. Or to protect other prisoners from one dangerously violent individual.
But what’s that, you say? Dangerously violent individuals deserve what they get? Let’s keep in mind that up to half of some prison populations suffer severe mental illness; that these illnesses are not treated during solitary (nor, too often, out of solitary either), and that this kind of caging deepens and even creates psychosis. Who benefits when such a brain-damaged entity is placed in, and finally allowed out of, this confinement?
And if “protection” is the rationale, why not simply create an additional regulation-sized and lighted cell or two for that purpose?
The second-most rational defense concerns “discipline.” In fact, this is the only other remotely rational defense.
But “discipline”—and its justifications—are in the eye of the jailer. Which is very bad news for the disciplined. The range of “justifications” is nearly endless, exotic, and often the product of a clueless or sadistic jail official.
Sure, there are “policies.” Good ones, often. In January 2016, President Obama issued executive orders to ban solitary for juveniles in federal prisons, with their total population of some 197,000. Yet our 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.
At these levels, little accountability exists to enforce the “policies” restricting solitary. In that breach, here is a tiny sampling of the reasons sending inmates into “the Box”:
And often, for reasons unexplained: the mother of a young, psychotic inmate in Florida, with whom I have been communicating since last autumn, claims that her son has done stretches in solitary for as long as nine months. What possible offense could merit confinement in “the hole” for nine months? Florida, by the way, boasts—if that is the word—more than 12,000 isolated inmates: one-eighth of the total in America.
Long stretches in the tight darkness such as this one seem impossible to believe—until you learn that that a man named Albert Woodfox, a former Black Panther arrested for robbery in 1969, was released only in 2016, having served more than forty years in solitary. For those keeping score, this is a United States record.
I suspect a further reason, a reason that underlies the absurdist reasons listed above. I suspect it even though I find little empirical evidence to back me up. I suspect that wardens and guards throw prisoners into solitary out of fear. The same kind of fear that slave owners once harbored toward their slaves. And stemming from the same reasons.
Solitary confinement, in other words, is used to fight fear with fear.
Solitary confinement is the monster that lives in our nation’s basement.
We tell ourselves that we have the monster under control. That is, if we tell ourselves anything at all. Most of the time, we avoid thinking about him.
In my next blog post, I will discuss what I believe is the only hope for exterminating the monster.
The book is permanently closed now on James “Abba” Boyd. The book may be closed as well on the police body-cam as a check on violent police behavior, especially toward the mentally ill.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that it would no longer pursue criminal charges in the most shocking, sensational, and visually documented, episode of lethal force by police in the young century.
Was the lethal force necessary? View the clip above and judge for yourself. The overwhelming popular consensus holds that it was not. Yet in a court of law, a trial in which jurors viewed the footage, cutting-edge forensic technology yielded to the oldest form of persuasion known to man: words. Artful words, delivered by an “expert witness” for the defense. Second-degree murder charges against the two officers, detective Keith Sandy and officer Dominique Perez, who fired bullets into the psychotic Boyd at close range dissolved in a hung jury. And on Wednesday, federal investigators announced that they saw no point in continuing their inquiry.
I wrote about the Boyd killing, and the outrage aroused by the video, in Chapter 10, “Chaos and Heartbreak,” of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. More details, and much testimony, has poured forth in the three years between my writing and Wednesday’s final withdrawal by the Justice Department. Here is a summary of how the story built, and of the significance I believe it holds.
WHO WAS JAMES “ABBA” BOYD?
As reporters Patrick Malone and Daniel J. Chacón describe him in this probing profile a month after he was killed http://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/in-death-by-police-bullets-boyd-has-become-a-cause/article_a356df2a-55ba-5ca8-aac1-432f63640bf0.html, Boyd was a lost soul from the moment of his birth until the moment of his death. His alcoholic and abusive parents divorced. His father beat him with a rubber hose, and Boyd claimed sexual abuse by relatives. He spent much of his childhood in foster homes, and much of his adulthood in mental institutions and in jail. He was chronically homeless. His sister recalled that despite these hardships, James was “highly sensitive, affectionate and intelligent with a good sense of humor.”
These traits could not save him from being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.
As a mentally ill homeless man in a medium-sized city (population 559,000), Boyd was inferentially known to the police. Known and despised. In fact, another bit of recorded evidence, not widely circulated, appears to substantiate the inference. A squad car dash-cam recorded a conversation between Detective Sandy and another officer as they headed toward the Sandia foothills. The voices are indistinct and variously interpreted, but seemed to indicate that Sandy knew his quarry.
It was said of Boyd that the one corner of the world where he could find a measure of peace, and some relief from the thoughts that tormented him, was the remote sweep of the Sandia foothills about 13 miles east of Albuquerque. It was here, of course, that he was slaughtered.
Boyd was 39 when he made his final visit to those foothills on the Sunday of March 16, 2004. The husky, bearded man with deep circles under his eyes carried some rudimentary camping equipment in a bulging kind of knapsack. He may have been wailing. A resident of a gated community on the edge of the wasteland looked out his window and spotted him. The spotter was offended: camping without a permit was against the law! He called the police.
Before long, squad cars with flashing red lights began screeching to a halt in the vicinity. As the day wore on, reinforcements arrived; the armed force would swell to forty officers, including a SWAT team. Officers deployed and crept toward Boyd, who was standing motionless beside a large rock. They had brought service revolvers, Taser guns, a rifle, a “bean-bag”-dispensing shotgun, a German shepherd attack dog, and a supply of “flash-bangs”—non-lethal devices used to stun and temporarily blind a suspect. Apparently, fighter jets from nearby Kirtland Air Force Base were unavailable.
The police made do with what they had. They demanded that Boyd surrender. Threatened and thrown on the defensive—the most dangerous possible state for someone in psychosis—sBoyd stood his ground. The video shows a small white object in each of his hands. Police would later describe the objects as knives.
To their credit, the police did not attack immediately. The single police officer present who’d had some crisis-negotiation training tried to talk Boyd into giving up. The addled man responded that he was the Defense Department and did not appreciate being given orders. The talk eddied and ebbed and flowed for an hour or so, as the two discussed Playstation games and whether Boyd could have a meal at a Denny’s if he surrendered.
Eventually, a senior office pulled the negotiator away and assigned him to another duty. Now effective communication had ended.
The standoff continued. It ended after more than three hours, near nightfall. The video shows Boyd seemingly ready to walk the short distance down the slope to where a clutch of cops faced him, weapons drawn. The sticking point, fatal to him, was that he refused to drop the knives in his hands.
And then all law-enforcement breaks loose. Boyd turns to his right and bends to pick up his knapsack. He hoists it over his shoulder and bends again. Bewilderingly, it is at this vulnerable and unthreatening moment, with Boyd absorbed in gathering his belongings, that an officer lobs a flash-bang. It explodes at the cornered man’s feet and produces the desired effect. Boyd lurches, then drops the sack, spreads his arms, and freezes. Sandy and Perez close within four feet of him, the German shepherd racing out ahead. The officers yell, “Get on the ground!” When Boyd refuses, they open fire with rifle and pistol. Boyd begins a pivot to his left, at which point he takes a rifle bullet to his back, ripping through a lung. Bullets strike both his arms, shattering the right one. He sprawls face-down on the rocky ground and receives a bean-bag blast in his buttocks. The dog continues to worry at him. Clearly, he is grievously wounded, yet the officers show no urgency in getting him off to a hospital. Instead, they surreally insist on him getting his hands up, although he is prone.
As I write in Chapter 10,
“The shooting stops, and the police chat among themselves for a few moments, striking attitudes of disengagement weirdly typical of officers—and perpetrators as well—in the seconds following use of lethal force. Then an officer leans down to the mortally wounded man and tugs harshly at his left arm. At length he yanks it free [from beneath Boyd’s torso], and everyone crowds around to see what is in Boyd’s hand. From the video it is not clear what, if anything, he had been holding.”
Eventually the police transport Boyd to a hospital half an hour away. That night, doctors amputate his shattered arm and remove the punctured lung. A few hours later, James “Abba” Boyd dies.
The city’s residents were unstrung by years of lethal gunplay by the city’s police department: some thirty-seven shooting deaths of civilians since 2010 alone, resulting in twenty-three of them fatally (three-fourths of these were mentally ill). None of these cases produced an indictment. Yet Albuquerque paid out a cumulative $28 million to settle officer misconduct lawsuits.
But even this sustained butchery took second place to another factor that raised James “Abba” Boyd’s execution in the New Mexico foothills to almost a sacrificial moment: with it, the body-cam came of age.
Miniature video-recording devices had been on the market and in use by some police forces for several years before this event. Yet never had the footage from one made such an impact on the public imagination or on law-enforcement policy. After the Albuquerque police department released this shocking visual narrative at the demands of the Boyd family’s lawyers, it—and the still images made from it—played on TV newscasts, in newspapers, and on websites. Versions of it, edited to varying lengths, are still available on You Tube.
It was just this visual narrative that caught my attention as I began work on NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE in 2014. Credulous fool that I am, I included the Boyd/body-cam saga partly because I believed that it heralded a milestone. This device, surely, would usher in an era of accountability and self-restraint among those police officers who might otherwise give vent to their more sadistic impulses.
USHERING IN A NEW. . .ERROR
Three years can be a long time for the lifespan of an era in this country. As I commented at the beginning of this essay, the book is permanently closed now on James “Abba” Boyd. And closed along with it is the hope that the body-cam, or any other deus ex machina, might ensure safety—or at least the lives—of mentally ill people in trouble with the law, law enforcement, or jailers.
Largely on the strength of the damning video, detective Keith Sandy and officer Dominique Perez, who’d fired the fatal bullets into Boyd, were indicted on second-degree murder charges. But last October, a mistrial resulted when jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict.
McCarthy, who is 78, is a former SWAT team member. A profile of him in the online journal New Mexico In Depth http://nmindepth.com/2016/12/04/officers-language-strips-emotion-from-shootings/ describes his courtroom skill in using “stilted, mechanical language [which] is typical of jargon used by police officers across the country in reports and testimony. But when used to describe a police officer’s decision to use deadly force, it can also have the added result, intentional or not, of transforming a chaotic, emotionally charged scene into an abstract, formulaic equation” and thus desensitize a jury to the moral consequences of what is being tried.
The report was published in December 2016 by journalists Justin Horwath and Jeff Proctor, and it deserves wider attention than it probably received. Horwath and Proctor take us into a pervasive world of para-militarized courtspeakdesigned exactly to accomplish what George Orwell prophesied: “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
For instance, guns are not “guns” in this specialized language; they are “systems,” or “platforms.” Police officers use them not against human beings, but against “problems.” The policeman’s duty is to “fire until that problem disappears from the sight picture.”
Or, to update the adage: A picture is no longer worth a thousand words. In courtspeak, not even a thousand words are worth a word.
Law enforcement failed James Boyd. Forensic technology failed James Boyd. Language failed James Boyd. And the search continues for some way to bolster the odds of simple continued existence among society’s most abject members as they are confronted by the most dangerous of the most powerful.
A hallucinating inmate caught spitting and urinating on the floor of his cell. A woman wildly smearing fecal matter on her cell walls. These were just two of 47 unstable disturbing accounts detailed in the class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and its former leader, Joe Arpaio, “America’s toughest sheriff.”