I have written about the state-enforced incarceration, torture (via solitary confinement), and medical and inhumane neglect of young Tyler West of Fruitport, Michigan, since I began this blog nearly two years ago.
I have included mention of this mentally ill, ridiculously over-prosecuted victim’s plight in nearly every talk I have given. I’ve contacted journalists, advocates, and elected federal and state officials in and around Michigan. (Senator from the neighboring state of Minnesota, sometime mental health reform advocate, and perhaps presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar, I am looking at you. https://twitter.com/amyklobuchar/status/705052728171634688
No one answers. Silence prevails among people in a position to rescue Tyler and elevate him to a national symbol of our debased mental healthcare systems: a silence as absolute as that which surrounds Tyler when he is repeatedly thrown into solitary confinement for reasons undisclosed to his parents.
No one. No one. No one, on the evidence, cares about crazy people.
It causes me lacerating psychic pain to think about Tyler West and his inexplicable Bedlam-like imprisonment. (For details, see my other blogs about Tyler on this site.) My helplessness, and his family’s helplessness, in seeking justice for him exhaust and infuriate me no end. I no longer write about him as much as I used to, as much as I should.
The one person in this world who sustains any shred of hope within me, and who inspires me to speak about about Tyler yet again, is his courageous mother, Kimberlee Cooper-West. Kimberlee is a religious and civic-minded woman; and although struggling with her own grief, she has never given up on her violated adopted son. I have quoted many times from her impassioned writing. And today, reading through the Facebook file of my colleague in advocacy Dee Dee Moon Ranahan, I came upon her latest cry from the heart. It follows below. Ms. Stabenow? Ms. Klobuchar? Detroit Free Press? National NAMI? In this season of love and charity and reverence and soul-reclamation, to paraphrase Atticus Finch: “For God’s sake . . . do your duty!”
November 8 was our son Tyler’s 20th birthday. We were unable to say “Happy Birthday” as he was in lock down for five days. Days later, we drove a little over an hour to Richard Handlon Correctional Prison in Ionia, Michigan. (Tyler is number #113697.) We had cake with him. He made a cake from two honeybuns, smashed peanut M&M’s, and a melted Snickers bar on top. He’s inventive. We sang “Happy Birthday” to him.
He’s still our boy. Few mention him. Our heart breaks for what we’ve lost. This is Tyler’s third year away for his birthday. Next, he will miss Thanksgiving and Christmas. He hasn’t been given counseling, education, training, or the proper medications. He’s been beaten up four times since he was incarcerated.
Why couldn’t mental health professionals keep him in an inpatient psychiatric hospital? For the love of God there was no good reason to release our son from the hospital. His safety was compromised. No one was responsible. He was nearly shot at for trespassing. He was an inpatient five days prior to his arrest. He was delusional and hearing voices. What is wrong with this country? Why is there no long-term treatment?
This is a brain disease, ya all. Maybe we should start locking up every grandma and grandpa who is violent or disorderly from Alzheimer’s. Serious mental illness is a disease. It is prodromal to Alzheimer’s. Prisons are corporations. Their goal is money. They need prisoners. Caught up in the system — it’s a real thing.
We are receiving a criminal justice system education. Months are now years. One caseworker, Ms. Williams, calls many people names like dumb, retarded, idiots and pedophiles. Everyone in Ty’s facility is either mentally ill or autistic. She told Tyler, a 19-year-old kid who was only supposed to be in prison for two months, “You’re doing 15 years.” It leaves me to wonder how many have given up from her words.
Ty’s not even provided an inhaler for asthma and chronic lung disease. He has autism and a serious mental illness. When he was in school he was never suspended. He was a target for bullies which was our main concern. Incarceration never crossed our minds. On his birthday, I sent his appeal papers certified to a judge. Hopefully, he will give him an appellate lawyer.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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 groupSolitary 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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. 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:
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.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Ronald K. Lospennato, Advocacy Center 504-208-4679
NEW ORLEANS – Two civil rights organizations, the Advocacy Center and the ACLU of Louisiana, joined forces to file a lawsuit today on behalf of Dennis Bargher, who, while suffering from schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses, was held at Tangipahoa Parish Jail (TPJ) for nearly two years without treatment. The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.
TPJ officials knew that Mr. Bargher was severely mentally ill, that a court had ordered his treatment with prescription medications, and that without treatment, Bargher would quickly descend into psychosis. Despite that, they refused to treat him, held him in solitary confinement for weeks and months at a time, and denied him food until he had lost nearly half his body weight. Bargher’s abuse at the hands of jail officials continued for almost two years until late 2011, when he was discovered – psychotic, emaciated and enfeebled – by civil rights groups and transferred to a different facility.
Miranda Tait, an attorney for the Advocacy Center said “prison conditions are very hard on inmates with mental illness. Conditions of overcrowding, violence, lack of privacy, lack of meaningful activities, isolation from friends and family, and uncertainty about life after prison affect all inmates. These conditions are especially difficult for people with mental illness. The intentional withholding of medical treatment, with callous disregard for the inmate’s medical needs, is tantamount to torture”
According to Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana, “Under the Constitution, prisons are obligated to provide inmates with adequate medical care, including mental health care. Officials cannot abuse or neglect inmates, deny prisoners essential treatment or allow offenders to physically and mentally waste away simply out of contempt or because they don’t understand the disease.”
With few psychiatric services available to the public, people with mental illness are increasingly funneled into a criminal justice system that is ill-equipped to address their treatment needs. Hundreds of thousands of men and women in U.S. jails and prisons suffer from serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. “It’s past time for us to provide adequate care for those with illnesses,” continued Esman. “Dennis Barger was wrongly denied that care, and suffered greatly as a result.” Representing Dennis Bargher are Miranda Tait and Ronald Lospennato of the Advocacy Center, ACLU of Louisiana Senior Staff Attorney Justin Harrison, and ACLU Cooperating Attorney Ron Wilson.
This horrific story, originally reported by the excellent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and picked up by Slate a couple days ago, is yet another demonstration of my assertion in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE that “too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.” Terrill Thomas’s death by slow, deliberate, guard-induced dehydration while in solitary confinement at a Milwaukee County jail is an abomination, and a part of a larger national abomination. Our society must demand an end to solitary confinement!
Thanks to my friend Teresa Pasquini for alerting me to this. Not until you read fairly deeply into the story will you discover that Andrew Chaylon Holland, the helpless victim of this savagery, “began to manifest schizophrenia in his 20s,” that he had faced nine criminal cases between 2014 and 2016 for assaults “directly related to his mental illness,” that he had difficulty staying on the medications that stabilized his behavior, that in rational moments he declared his wish to continue psychiatric treatment and rehabilitation, and that even though a superior court judge had recommended treatment for him a the county’s mental health inpatient unit, he died after suffering through 46 hours in a restraint chair inside the county jail. Case closed.
The Dark Ages live on in contemporary America’s treatment of its seriously mentally ill. They will not end until American society faces up to this ongoing pageant of atrocity. Faces up and demands that, like disembowelment, drawing and quartering, keelhauling, slavery, child labor, forced sterilization, and burning at the stake, jail and prison abuse of the mentally ill (and every other prisoner) cease!
From time to time on this blog, I’ve lamented the uncounted family members—mothers, mostly—who are aware of the hideous abuse their mentally ill children suffer in jails, and sometimes in care centers and by law enforcement; yet who choose to keep their voices muted for fear of stigma and possible retaliation by the abusers.
On Sunday I persuaded one such mother to let me share the latest of several testimonies that she has written and posted on a members-only website for families of SMI (serious mental illness) victims. I have withheld her name. It is the details, after all, that matter; not the specific identity.
This woman is hardly a malcontent: she is a Sunday-school teacher at her church, has had years of experience as a foster parent (including for refugee children) and is civic-minded in many other ways. What you will read below is not her first plea for help and understanding. Her son has been mistreated in all sorts of unthinkable ways: by the community and by “care-givers” as well as the violent inmate who attacked her son on Saturday night.
So, here is a rare public accounting of the ongoing private hell routinely suffered by those trapped in the sub-universe of mental illness. (I should note that this message has received a tremendous outpouring of concern and offers to help from fellow members on the site.)
Our society needs to hear many more such voices: enough voices, and enough response to those voices, to disprove the ironic title of my forthcoming book, NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.
“Ty is a victim again. Tyler our 18-year-old son was beat up last night in jail. The guy was a lot bigger than Ty. No one stopped it. Saturday night is commissary night. No one called the guards. They didn’t want to get locked in before they received their commissary. There are parts of it he doesn’t remember. They asked him a few questions, then he fell asleep. Thank God he woke up this morning. No one checked on him during the night. Why would you put a kid, who never has hurt anyone in with violent offenders? He has a headache and a black eye. He’s nauseated, feels drunk and tipsy. He was never checked on by a nurse or doctor. They don’t have a doctor, on weekends. This is concussion number 5 or 6. All have been severe. Another Traumatic brain injury! Getting beat up is nothing, new for my baby. This might not help his other problem, as he hears voices. If only they would have kept him in the hospital for long term. Out of 15 ER visits in under 2 years. Ty has only spent 2 weeks total inpatient. He’s been hearing voices for at least a year and a half. He’s never been stable. Hope they take him to the hospital to get him an MRI. Is that wishful thinking? He’s is going to see a forensic psychiatrist next month. Prayers, ya all! It’s us again! One song Ty is playing every instrument seperately, then mixed, in ghostbusters. The other song is my grandson, singing and Ty is playing. Ty wrote this song one Sat. afternoon In 15 mins., then played it for the first time. Titled ‘We are all God’s people.’ Just wish everyone else realized this!”
Kimberlee Cooper-West is an unassuming mother, a Sunday-school teacher, and a civic volunteer who lives in a village of about a thousand people on the western border of Michigan, the state where she was born. (Not all that far, as I think of it, from the Interlochen Arts Academy, where my late son Kevin spent three happy years before succumbing to schizo-affective disorder.) Photographs on her Facebook page show her wreathed in family members, or busy at a Catholic charity event. She has had extensive experience as a foster mother. In short, she is one of the countless quiet pillars of community upon whom the cohesion of society depends.
It is a pretty safe bet that Kim West has never thought of herself as intersecting with a moment in history. And yet this intersection seems a possibility.
Kim West is the woman who a day ago gave me permission to reprint the post quoted at the top of today’s blog: a post that detailed the beating her young mentally ill son Ty endured in a jail cell from another inmate on Saturday night.
Kim had submitted her post to a site called the Circle of Comfort and Assistance, one of many “closed,” or private websites whose members are assured anonymity, and who in turn agree not to publish others’ writings without permission. She has been a sadly regular contributor.
I came across Kim West’s (latest) essay during one of my frequent visits to the CCA page. I could hardly contain my outrage, even though this kind of atrocity-account is hardly new to me. It was the accumulation of cruelty and neglect suffered by the boy that prompted me to intervene: years of unresponsive “care-givers,” draconian court decisions, hostility to the West family from within its community, and a string of prior beatings behind bars.I wrote and asked her for permission to reprint on this blog. I have made similar requests to other contributors in the past; have been turned down; and have honored their understandable wishes for privacy. Kim agreed. And this morning (Monday), she advanced farther out of the cold, into the light. She gave me permission to go public with her name, her family’s location, and more particulars of her son’s horrific–but not uncommon–treatment by the “normal” world around him.
I should also mention that Kim West’s fellow CCA members were also stirred to fury and compassion. A long thread of reactions to her complaint offered equal measures of sympathy, excoriations of the region’s mental-health “system,” and generous helpings of advice: get a lawyer. Contact the ACLU. Call the governor and your representatives in Congress. Alert a newspaper or three to what is going on. Raise hell. At least one of them, Marie McAuley Abbott, of Pontiac, Michigan, the mother of a mentally ill son named Kyle, decided today that she would join with Kim. She posted, and gave me permission to re-post:
“Kyle has been without any power since last Wed. No one from CMH or his guardian has called to check on him! My daughter picked him up and kept him for awhile and now I have him. I live an hour from him! He could be laying somewhere dead and they would never know. They are in charge of him! I’m sorry for all the other people in his complex with no one looking out for them!”
Until Kim West, and now Marie Abbott, decided to step out of the cold and into the light—into what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is”—calls to action from within the world of the afflicted have largely fallen on deaf, or at least closed ears.
For decades. For centuries.
Families and friends of the insane do not want to talk about their, and the victim’s, problems. They choose to draw a protective blanket of silence around themselves, for the same reasons of combat veterans have done, and families of cancer victims.
The reasons have to do with the dread of stigma and shame, and even reprisal.
If I tell the truth about what I saw and did in the war, my buddies will call me a rat. And a crybaby. If I talk about my night-sweats and nightmares and heavy drinking, they’ll laugh and say I couldn’t take it. Coward. And anyway, it’s unspeakable.
Or in the case of cancer:
If I talk about my husband’s cancer or put that into the obituary when he dies, my friends will find it sickening and turn away. Or they’ll think maybe I’ve got it too, and it’s catching. And anyway, it’s unspeakable.
Or in the case of severe mental illness:
If word of this gets out, people will think my daughter is a monster. They’ll think my son is a criminal. Or that I gave it to him. Or they won’t think at all; they’ll just want her put away somewhere, out of sight. They think crazy people aren’t even human anyway.
Or bigotry to that effect.
This silence has devastated mentally ill individuals, and it has devastated the sub-universe of the insane. The silence has erased mad-people’s human identity and rendered them mere abstractions. What’s the problem with slashing public spending for. . .abstractions? Why be concerned if an abstraction gets beat up in jail, or left homeless, or shot dead in the street?
Because of this pervasive self-inflicted silence, the persecution of the mentally ill has not changed in many ways since the opening of Bedlam Asylum. Seven hundred years ago.
And now a quiet church-going community volunteer and family woman in a Wisconsin village has said to herself and to the world,
I am going to be silent no more.
This is the way mass movements begin. With a quiet mother deciding, No more. With a mild assistant department-store tailor deciding that she did not want to move to the back of the bus. With a sickly woman visiting insane asylums in Massachusetts and coming back to report on what she had found. With a tiny legal representative decided to march two hundred forty-one miles from the Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, on the coast of the Arabian Sea, in India, to pound salt.
Lest anyone think that the possibilities I’m imagining here are overblown, let us be clear: as I write, the interests—including the survival interests—of insanity victims in America are in extremis. The Republican president and the Republican-controlled Congress seem to have it within their grasp to destroy the Affordable Care Act, and with it, the most important source of funding for hospitals, care centers, doctors, and medications essential to these victims’ continuing status as human beings.
The mighty lords of politics in our time could not care less about any of this. It is going to be up to the small, quiet women of our society, the unacknowledged pillars of our little communities, to save the insane.
Kimberlee Cooper-West, Marie Abbott—this is your moment. History is waiting.
Watch “Got us Fallin In Love Again, Usher, by Ty West” on YouTube
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Watch “We Are All God’s People, written by Tyler West” on YouTube