“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
These were Winston Churchill’s words to the British people after General Montgomery’s forces turned back the formidable German army under General Rommel at Alamein in November 1942.
Readers of this blog know that I see our present struggle to eradicate the terrible abuses of mentally ill people in terms of a war: a war against entrenched ignorance, apathy, denial, and abject cruelty within the institutions that exist to protect all citizens, especially the most helpless. Too many caregivers, jail wardens, and state governments (among others) remain clueless or unwilling to reform the atrocities that they perpetuate.
And yet hope endures. It is important to amplify and celebrate any example of enlightened hope overcoming dark chaos.
Here are three stories, linked below, that offer hope.
The first covers the efforts of lawyers in Illinois, representing a total of 12,000 mentally ill patients, demanding from a federal judge that Illinois face up to its “state of emergency” in Illinois prisons and move to eradicate poor psychiatric care amounting to “cruel and unusual punishment.” https://goo.gl/yaSvtq
The second addresses a barbaric practice that is near the top of my personal list for drastic action, solitary confinement. Written by the executive director of the Colorado department of corrections, it explains why the state recently ended the practice of long-term solitary confinement for prisoners. Colorado now limits stays in solitary to fifteen days. In my opinion, that is fifteen days too long; but it is a significant improvement over the state’s average length of two and a half years “and sometimes for decades.” https://goo.gl/c6SqTf
The third focuses on the Centers for Families and Children in Cleveland, a nonprofit group that has existed for years but has accelerated dramatically in its outreach under its young new executive director, Elizabeth Newman. I visited the Centers on Tuesday to give a talk at their annual luncheon. My typic skepticism burned away as I experienced the Centers’ zeal, the intelligence, and the broad scope of outreach, exemplified by the remarkable Ms. Newman. I will return to the topic of the Centers in an upcoming blog. https://goo.gl/Jczmsk
For now, let us celebrate what may be the end of the beginning.
Below is a link to an interview I gave a few days ago with the wonderful Gay Maxwell, continuing education manager at the Brattleboro Retreat–a premier mental-health and addiction treatment center in southern Vermont.
The interview is tied to the upcoming Brattleboro Literary Festival (October 12-15). I will be reading from NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE at 11 a.m.Saturday, October 14, at the Centre Church in Brattleboro.
This riveting essay, written three years ago by a member of Amnesty International, remains among the most compulsively readable indictments of our most barbaric form of punishment.
By Tessa Murphy London,
14 October 2014, 16:07 UTC
Tessa Murphy is a British campaigner at Amnesty International
The breathlessness was overwhelming. Standing in that small, dark cell, surrounded by nothing but three concrete walls, a dank toilet, a small sink, a thin mattress, a concrete slab and a perforated metal door that barely let any air in, the oppressive claustrophobia was hard to control.
This was not the first time I had set foot in a US prison, but it was the first time I had experienced what an isolation cell can do to you.
Everything about that room – the lack of windows, or natural light, or fresh air, the very thought of not being allowed any human interaction – seems to be designed to dehumanise. The basic penal concept of reform and social rehabilitation is excluded inside those three walls.
In solitary, punishment is king. The mere thought of spending more than a few minutes in that place was almost unbearable.
And then, a prisoner told me and my colleague that we were the first outsiders he had seen in 22 years.
I was surprised even to be allowed into California’s infamous Pelican Bay Prison. Correctional authorities across the US are unwilling to allow anyone to see what happens behind those thick concrete walls. And with evidence that has emerged – from Pennsylvania to Arizona, of voices crying for help – it’s no wonder. Across the US, it is estimated that nearly 80,000 people are held in long-term isolation
The authorities describe the system as “secure housing units”, “administrative segregation” and even “restricted housing.” But these euphemisms do not describe the human reality of these units.
The departments of corrections claim only prisoners who are a threat to guards or to other inmates are placed in isolation, after all other measures to control them fail. But as indicated by the tens of thousands detained, isolation cells are routinely used as punishment for minor offences such as disrespecting a prison guard or disobeying an order. In California, for example, suspected gang members can be placed in those dimly lit cells, just for having a calendar with Mayan symbols, or certain tattoos, or for being in the possession of books or other “source items” – or just for speaking to a “validated” inmate.
America’s prison isolation regime is not unusual, but it is cruel. Prisoners across the country are effectively entombed for nearly 22 hours a day in their cells, with no access to any education or rehabilitation programmes, with warehousing for the mentally ill in Arizona, with a man in Louisana who has been held in solitary since 1972. Prisoners must take their meals in the confines of those walls and are rarely given a chance to have any meaningful interaction with another human being. At all.
The only time prisoners in isolation are allowed to breathe outside air is when they are taken, alone, to a small outdoor yard, or cage, for “exercise”. Exercise is the word used by prison guards to describe the chance to walk a few steps back and forth. In California, following a hunger strike, prisoners were frequently given a chin-up bar and a hand ball, if they were allowed any recreation at all.
Some prisoners have literally lost their sanity due to the lack of human interaction – and estimated 30-50% of all inmates in solitary confinement are mentally ill or cognitively disabled, and 20% of those are severely mentally ill. Others have completely lost skin pigmentation because of the extreme lack of sunlight. And still others have taken their own lives after having little else to fill the time but stare at a wall for more than 20 hours every day.
But despite the plethora of horror stories emerging from the solitary cells across the US, the system remains unabated, and thousands of people remain entombed.
Thanks to pressure from local activists, lawmakers and organisations like Amnesty International, some states – like Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Mississippi, New York, Virginia and Washington state – have introduced some reforms over the last few years.
However, at the federal level, the US government is currently planning to expand the use of solitary confinement: the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) bought a correctional facility in Illinois two years ago, and this year’s BOP budget includes a proposal to reopen it as a federal supermax prison, potentially replicating the harsh isolation regime from its predecessor.
But how do these conditions of detention provide justice for anyone? This system prioritises retribution and warehousing of inmates over their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
There is widespread national and international agreement about the harm caused by incarceration in isolation. The United Nations’ top expert on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment has called for solitary confinement to be used only in very exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, and for as short a time as possible. He has repeatedly requested to visit super maximum security prison facilities, but the US state department has not allowed this.
Violent crime is a real issue in the US and elsewhere. But incarcerating people for years and even decades in solitary confinement should not be the way forward for any country purporting to respect human rights. A prison management tool that has been lambasted by human rights bodies and is increasingly challenged by penal experts and others is costly, ineffective and inhumane.
The US should focus its energy and resources on ensuring conditions of detention are compatible with its obligations under international law and standards – that the penitentiary system works for the social rehabilitation of prisoners, instead of perpetuating an abusive and cruel regime that is an affront to human rights.
This blog has lately been focusing on solitary confinement of jail and prison inmates as an intolerable practice in our criminal-justice system. Solitary confinement is inhumane, unproductive as a “corrections” technique, and psychologically destructive. It must be abolished.
My mission is to encourage others who feel this way to petition their congressmen and women to initiate repeal—and to identify and support the several organizations who are already working toward this.
I recognize the odds against my voice making a difference. It is all too easy for anyone who’s not personally connected to a victim of “the hole” to utter tsk-tsk noises at a safe removal from Ground Zero. Neither of my schizophrenic sons was ever arrested and threatened with this living entombment. My wife and I have never had to watch helplessly as either of our boys disappeared into one of the jails around the country where this barbaric practice continues unchecked; where the mostly-young and often mentally ill inmates undergo tortures of the damned, and their mothers1 The reader will note that I write, “mothers.” The almost complete absence of fathers from this discussion or from any conversation on their offsprings’ mental illness is a phenomenon that needs further examination. And Pete Early, I am NOT looking at you!agonize while pleading in vain for justice, or at least mercy.
In this blog, we are going to eliminate the tsk-tsking middleman—me—and hear from a sampling of mothers at Ground Zero whom I know through correspondence. The rawness of their outrage and grief has given them a truth-telling eloquence that far surpasses anything I’ve written or will write. They speak for thousands upon thousands of similarly violated families who cannot or will not seek to make their stories public.
I have edited their emails to me only lightly, for compression and clarity. I have included the identities of two mothers, who have given me their permission. One is Jennifer Tirkot of Coral Gables, Florida. The other is Kimberlee Cooper West, of Fruitport, Michigan.
Entry No. 1: I wrote my son’s story to have him taken out of solitary confinement and transferred to the state psychiatric hospital. This is his 2nd incarceration in 2 years for having a brain disorder. The last time he was incarcerated for hitting a police officer and EMT worker. They were Baker Acting him for his psychosis when he hit them. They transferred him to jail and locked him away in solitary confinement for 10 months. I had no choice but to share my story with the world. Pete Earley is publishing it. My son spent last Christmas and this Christmas in solitary confinement for having a brain disorder. That’s what we do now. We lock them in solitary confinement in jails/prisons and refuse to medicate them.
Entry No. 2: I would like to sue the State of Florida for over wait times for competency restoration. My son suffers from schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, personality disorder, bipolar, depression, and anxiety. He’s been in jail for over 7 months without medication.
Entry No. 3: He’s severely depressed and they are not treating his depression. Plus, his hands are all scared and his knuckles are red. I asked him what happened to his hands and he said he’s been hitting his cell wall to punish himself for hitting the patient. After 72 days in solitary confinement, he developed Bell’s Palsy, where the left side of his face became paralyzed. He refused medication for it because he said God was punishing him for hitting the patient. The left side of his face is now paralyzed. He’s been without medication to treat his schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, personality disorder, bipolar, depression, and anxiety for over 7 months. I’ve been told by Elaine, head of DCF Forensic Hospitals, they can hold him incompetent without medication up to five years.
Entry No. 4 (dated July 21 of this year): Today is my son’s birthday…he’s in solitary confinement for having a brain disorder and the State of Florida didn’t take my “Do Not Release” letter seriously sent to Brevard County Circles of Care psychiatric care unit. I can never imagine crying anymore..but…I cry in my sleep, I cry when I wake up, and when I think I can’t cry anymore…I can’t stop crying…Happy Birthday to my loving son…
This mother, whose tragedy I mention in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, posted briefly, and searingly, on a private site:
October 22, 2014 Josh died alone in a jail cell. My 39-year-old son killed himself today. Josh hung himself in a solitary confinement cell in a prison south of St. Louis, Missouri. He died alone, afraid, and powerless. Josh needed help. Instead, he got punishment. Like all mothers, I had dreams for my children — dreams that didn’t include mental illness or prison.
I have written before of the nearly inhuman outrages, including solitary confinement, visited on Kimberlee Cooper West’s mentally ill adopted son Tyler, who still awaits trial on a minor charge after being incarcerated last February (!) Kimberlee has bravely encouraged me to tell Tyler’s story, with identification, and she has plunged into research regarding the lingering psychic damage of solitary confinement, which I will draw upon in a future blog.
Here is Kimberlee’s latest message to me:
Hello Ron. We as a society have to look at Solitary Confinement honestly. The studies have shown high recidivism rates. The psychological effects last a life time. Is that a healthy thing for society? During solitary confinement, Ty called home dozens of times a day. He was screaming, crying, begging, for our help. He asked what is going on? Please come pick him up. By this point he was further into his psychosis. He did not understand why he was there. He was suicidal, banging his head against the wall. No one intervened. He did not understand what was happening. There were times they forgot about him. Times he was not fed.
Four separate times our son was sent to solitary confinement. It was not because he was a bad kid. He has a serious mental disorder and is also autistic. The jail staff did not know what to do with him. He needed a hospital. They stopped all his antipsychotics cold turkey. This can lead to convulsions, And death. The medication insert warns “Do not stop medication abruptly.” Ty said “My insides and body are uncontrollably shaking.” He said “It feels like I have the flu. It feels like I’m dying. Mommy, I can’t breathe in here.” He has moderate COPD, from his reflux and dysphagia.
Why do they put people in solitary with breathing problems? Health problems are not considered. If they live or die, no one cares about inmates. The Jails are short on staff, so they forget about these people. They use their own formulary of a cheaper antipsychotic. They waited many days before prescribing antipsychotics. CMH [Community Mental Health] decides when they are released. Social workers and case managers, are not doctors. CMH is not there weekends or holidays. This prolongs an inmate’s time in solitary.
Muskegon County Jail has a doctor only on Fridays. They save money by not using doctors. Nurses take the place of doctors. So many inmates will confess to anything to end solitary confinement. Guilty or innocent, it does not matter. Research has shown that autistic people do not benefit from solitary confinement. Yet I know several who are in solitary. It can cause lifelong problems for the autistic. Our son has the maturity of a 12 year old. He has never hurt anyone. Now he has trauma to add to his list of disabilities. Jail staff do not consider these mitigating circumstances. There still are no laws on the books to protect our autistic and mentally ill kids. Ty has experienced delusions and has been in a fog.
Solitary accelerated our son’s mental illness. From there on we were on a downward spiral. . . Our independent forensic psychologist has described Ty as in acute turmoil, in a hypomanic state with major depression and diminished coping mechanisms. . .
[The idea of solitary is] to “teach a lesson.” That I challenge. How does that work if someone has an adolescent brain, is mentally unstable or withdrawing from drugs? . . . If I locked my teenage son in his room and tased him I would go to jail. If it is not o.k. for me to do it, then why can they? . . .
We unconsciously assume that those thrown into solitary confinement are exclusively men. This letter, from the mother of an adopted daughter, attests otherwise:
[Our daughter] has been in solitary confinement several times in NYC and another urban area. One time, she was merely transferred and they automatically put her in solitary for 3 weeks. We got to visit her once for 1 hour. We drove 5 hours to get there. Most depressing visit I can recall. All metal, no touching, no hugging or human tenderness allowed.
When people do not “jump” as requested, they put you in solitary to “teach you a lesson,” as they have told her many times. You get 1 free hour per day, to shower, but that is it. No calls either. Just letters. That is the only form of communication. Another interesting fact is that many, many, many prisoners are adoptees. Many of them have mental health issues, but instead of dealing with that outside the system, thy are remanded to jail/prison. [Our daughter] spent over 2 years in federal prison and is now in a county jail, awaiting sentencing. She is hoping to get out in a month or so. But then she will serve 1.5-3 years on federal probation. If that gets violated, they frequently use it as a means to “throw you” back into prison.
The criminal “injustice” system is a travesty in its present state. I say, “tear it apart and start all over again,” building a system that treats those with medical and/or mental health issues as human beings first, and criminals last. Criminals are not born. They merely took a wrong turn. I do not believe they should be punished for life and/or altered immeasurably. Climbing out of the “hole” society has created for troubled souls is fraught with hazards, roadblocks, and generally impassable terrain.
I will be posting more parents’ testimonies regarding solitary confinement as time goes on. I welcome any repostings of this that readers care to make.
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.
“After Mr. Bear-heels’s death, the Omaha police chief, Todd Schmaderer, said that the department had “failed” and that officers would receive additional training. A police spokesman said on Wednesday that the chief was not available to comment.”–The New York Times
Or as Bob Dylan put it in the last line of “Oxford Town”: “Somebody better ‘vestigate soon.”
Two former police officers in Nebraska were charged with assault after beating and using a Taser on a mentally ill man as they tried to take him into custody for “erratic behavior” in Omaha last month, an official said on Wednesday. The man later died.
The Douglas County attorney, Donald W. Kleine, said in a televised news conference that Scotty Payne, a five-year veteran, faces charges of felony second-degree assault for repeatedly shocking the man, Zachary Bear-heels, 29, with a Taser on June 5.
Ryan McClarty, who has been on the force for two years, was charged with misdemeanor assault for punching Mr. Bear-heels, Mr. Kleine said.
“Zachary Bear-heels had committed no crime,” Mr. Kleine said. “He was simply a human being suffering from severe mental illness that was quite obvious to anyone who was in contact with him.”
Asked why the former officers had not been charged with murder or manslaughter, he said, “There is no evidence whatsoever that these officers intentionally killed Mr. Bear-heels.” He said the coroner’s office ruled that Mr. Bear-heels’s death was caused by “excited delirium.”
Attorney Don Kleine to files assault charges against 2 officersVideo by KETV NewsWatch 7
“That is something we had a question about,” Mr. Kleine said, referring to possible tougher charges. But he said his office could find no “approximate cause” linking the officers’ actions to the cause of death — such as the use of the Taser, or the blows, which did not result in “brain bleed” or contusions to the brain, he said.
The officers were fired Friday, after the Omaha Police Department investigated the episode.
Mr. Payne, 38, is due to turn himself in on Friday for a bail hearing, and Mr. McClarty, 27, will be cited on suspicion of third-degree assault, Mr. Kleine said.
Matthew D. Burns, a lawyer for Mr. Payne, said his client was “devastated” and “feels terrible because a person lost his life.”
Mr. McClarty’s lawyer could not immediately be reached.
Mr. Kleine said he was filing the charges before a grand jury being called to look into the case, which has attracted concern from Mr. Bear-heels’s Native American community. The felony assault charge carries up to 20 years in prison — the same as manslaughter — and the other charge can carry up to one year in prison, a $1,000 fine or both.
According to a police statement, the episode started on June 3, when Mr. Bear-heels was taking a bus from Murdo, S.D., to Oklahoma City. He was dropped off at a station in Omaha and was not allowed to re-board because a passenger had complained about his behavior.
On June 4, Mr. Bear-heels’s mother, Renita Chalepah, called the Omaha Police Department to report that her son was missing and that he was bipolar and had schizophrenia. On June 5, officers were called to a gas station because of a disturbance and found a man, later identified as Mr. Bear-heels, dancing in front of the convenience store and refusing to leave, according to the police.
Officers on the scene spoke to his mother about where to take him. But after he was placed into a cruiser in handcuffs for “erratic behavior,” he tried to leave the vehicle, and four officers, including Officer Payne and Officer McClarty, tried to restrain him and force him back into the car.
After a struggle, Officer Payne shouted, “Taser, Taser,” and warned Mr. Bear-heels three more times that the Taser would be used, the statement said.
Officer Payne then discharged the device, which struck Mr. Bear-heels in the abdomen and right thigh. The officer continued to activate the device as it clung to Mr. Bear-heels, who resisted being dragged into the vehicle. As Mr. Bear-heels was propped up in a sitting position against the car, he stopped resisting, the police statement said, but Officer Payne kept using the Taser on him over the next one minute 45 seconds.
“You’re gonna get it again,” the police statement quoted the officer as saying.
“These are egregious violations of the Omaha Police Department’s policy, procedures and training on use of force and the use of a Taser,” the statement said.
After Mr. Bear-heels managed to slip a hand out of the cuffs, swung his arms and kicked out with his legs, Officer McClarty punched him in the head and neck area multiple times while Officer Payne used the Taser again — making it about 12 times that he used the device on Mr. Bear-heels, the police statement said.
Part of the encounter was caught on a dashboard camera of a police vehicle and shown during the news conference.
After more police officers arrived to help, Mr. Bear-heels was handcuffed to a gurney. Medics then said he had stopped breathing and had no pulse. Mr. Bear-heels was pronounced dead in the hospital, the police said.
After Mr. Bear-heels’s death, the Omaha police chief, Todd Schmaderer, said that the department had “failed” and that officers would receive additional training. A police spokesman said on Wednesday that the chief was not available to comment.
One woman, a member of the Native American community who attended the news conference, tearfully spoke up about her fears for her own mentally ill son. “We are people, too,” she said.
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.”
Several weeks ago, I suspended this blog, largely out of lingering psychic exhaustion after the completion and publication of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.
Since then, I have noticed that the problems I covered in the book have not been suspended. The ones most troubling to me include the appalling indifference–by public policymakers and by the society that elects them–toward the ongoing obscenity of throwing mentally ill young people into county jails, where many are deprived of essential medication, beaten by guards and inmates, and thrown senselessly into solitary confinement, a form of torture on a par with waterboarding. This obscenity is largely a factor of the massive bed shortages in our vanishing psychiatric hospitals–juicy targets for budget-cutting legislatures, and a problem that has not been adequately addressed since the catastrophe of deinstitutionalization.
Another problem–one that loomed suddenly while the book was in production, with the election of Donald Trump and the inexplicable wave of cruelty that has hardened amidst the Republican Congress, is the threat to the existence of Medicaid support for the seriously mentally ill along with many other categories of sufferers.
Yet another is the perceived softening of the National Alliance for Mental Illness–NAMI–in its outreach to the seriously mentally ill. The powerful activists Dj Jaffe, Janet Hayes (https://www.facebook.com/JanetHaysNOLA), Teresa Pasquini (https://www.facebook.com/teresa.pasquini.3), Lauren Rettagliatta (https://www.facebook.com/lauren.rettagliata), Mary Zdanowicz (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1296146654) (so many determined women! So few men!) and the nonpareil blogger Pete Earley (http://www.peteearley.com/blog/) have commented on this with varying degrees of concern. The common criticism is that NAMI is pulling away from outreach toward victims of serious mental illness–incurable brain afflictions transmitted through the genes–and concentrating its resources, and its funding opportunities, on a “big tent” approach that emphasizes “mental wellness,” or “mental health.” The plight of these sufferers, most but not all of whom fall under Freud’s term, “the worried well,” deserve outreach. But that outreach is being supplied by several other organizations formed specifically to answer their needs.
I share others’ concern and outrage over all these issues. What disturbs me most acutely these days is a recent surge in the brutalization, often fatal, of mentally ill young men at the hands of police and prison guards. I append a few links to these atrocities below.
I believe that this brutalization, fed largely by the twin jail/hospital crises mentioned above, is a stain on our national character, and that we must mobilize a movement to reform it.
As some visitors to the blog know, I speak as the father of two schizophrenic sons, one of whom took his life in 2005, and one of whom lives on with us in a condition of stability if not recovery. As awful, and as enduringly heartbreaking, as their fates, each was spared the dehumanizing horrors of falling into the criminal-justice system. In my surviving son’s one encounter with the police, in our hometown of Castleton, Vermont, the officer acted with tact, humanity, and restraint. I feel that it is my mission–exhausted and often in despair as I am over these ongoing crises, to do what I can to ignite the conscience of Americans and those whom they elect to protect and enhance society, especially its most helpless citizens.
(Okay, full confession: I just re-read that last sentence, and it sounds pompous as hell. Sue me!)
With this message, I will be ceasing new entries on this blog related to my book, NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. I will leave the blog online for an indefinite period so that I might be of help for those of you looking for connections with others in the sub-universe of mental illness.
I thank the many people who have viewed and responded to my entries over these months. You have been thoughtful, brave, and generous with your responses and ideas regarding mental illness–your own, and those of people whom you love. And your kindhearted reactions to the music, photographs, and stories of and about my sons Dean and Kevin have warmed Honoree and me immeasurably. I hope that my essays and reportage about the scourge of mental illness has brought solace and encouragement.
I suggest that those of you seeking support and a safe place to share your stories will consider the private Facebook site Circle of Comfort and Assistance. Membership requires a sponsor, but I will be happy to consider sponsoring any of you who write to request it. I would like to thank my team of editors and publicists at Hachette, the publisher of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, for believing in my book and committing themselves full-out to its success.
I thank my blog administrator Beth Jones for her unfailingly prompt and professional work. And I thank my literary agent, Jim “Agent Jim” Hornfischer, for doing whatever it is that agents do. Seriously, Jim, you are a writer’s dream of an agent and a close friend. Without your encouragement and guidance, my book would never have happened.