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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USGS Rikers Island
Rikers Island By U.S. Geological Survey, conversion to PNG by uploader (Herr Satz). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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

Kalief Browder. Credit Zach Gross

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leahy2009
Patrick Leahy By Senate Judiciary Committee (http://judiciary.senate.gov/about/images/Leahy.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The most promising—well, half-measure—was introduced last October.  Five Democratic senators brought out a bill called the Solitary Reform Act (S. 3432), which would restrict solitary confinement for all federal prisoners, not just teenagers. The co-sponsors were Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois, Christopher Coons of Delaware, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Al Franken of Minnesota.

 

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

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

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

113th Congress Official Photo of Rep. Tim Murphy
Timothy F. Murphy By Timmurphy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I believe its sponsors should be bipartisan. Surely they must not exclude the Republican Congressman Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, a trained child psychologist, who emerged last year as his party’s almost solitary champion of the mentally ill and their interests with his breakthrough CARES Act, which was incorporated into President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The Republican Senate majority whip John Cornyn, a doctrinaire conservative on many issues, has supported reform, and Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, a medical doctor.

 

Joe Kennedy, Official Portrait, 113th Congress
Joe Kennedy III via Wikimedia Commons

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

Marcykaptur
Marcy Kaptur By Online Guide to House Members and Senators (Online Guide to House Members and Senators) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Finally—for purposes of this short list, anyway—I have admired the progressive zeal and compassion of the longtime Ohio Democrat, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who has been honored as a Legislator of the Year by the National Mental Health Association for her efforts in defending Medicaid funds for the mentally ill and for expanding insurance parity for such sufferers, and for initiatives to safeguard young people entering the juvenile justice system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Must Kill the Monster of Solitary Confinement

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.

Cellule du quartier d'isolement de la prison Jacques-Cartier, à travers le judas, Rennes, France

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.

End of disquisition.

If the public and its political leaders ignore this monster in the basement (or buffoonishly shrug it off  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/12/opinion/chris-christies-defense-of-solitary-confinement.html and https://www.themarshallproject.org/2016/12/14/what-chris-christie-got-wrong-about-solitary-confinement#.HFGlWqlkR it isn’t because it’s a secret. Google “mental illness solitary confinement” and six hundred twenty-five thousand hits come up. They include thousands of studies, professional and academic, that overwhelmingly condemn the practice as a form of torture; as devastating to the brain; as falling below international standards of incarceration; unconstitutional; as an affront to decency.

A solitary confinement cell at the Cumberland County Jail, Portland (Joanna Walters)

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.”

You may read the entire article via this link:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/03/solitary-confinement-mentally-ill-prisoners-florida

The New York Times has returned time and again to attacking the abhorrent practice with probing news stories and editorial commentary. Here are links to Times pieces in recent months and years:

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/opinion/solitary-confinement-is-cruel-common-and-useless.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/opinion/solitary-confinement-is-cruel-common-and-useless.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/20/opinion/justice-kennedy-on-solitary-confinement.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/02/opinion/cruel-isolation-of-prisoners.html

Isolation exercise yard, Security Housing Unit, Pelican Bay, Crescent City, California, a supermax-type control, high security facility said to house California’s most dangerous prisoners. © Richard Ross

A sampling of other journalism on the topic barely scratches the surface. In July 26, 2006, Laura Sullivan of National Public Radio produced a valuable timeline: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5579901

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.

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2009/03/solitary-confinement-brief-natural-history/

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.

Biggs writes:

“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”:

To “teach a lesson.” To punish someone for “talking back.” For “failing to speak English when able.” To separate fighting inmates—seldom minding who was the aggressor. For refusing to attend church services. For trying to translate for another detainee. (These examples are taken from the Introduction to “Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, The New Press, February 2016, https://longreads.com/2016/02/09/a-brief-history-of-solitary-confinement/)

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.

Angola Three event, Manchester Metropolitan University, November 2016 (05)
Albert Woodfox
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.

 

 

Thank you, Deb Fabos, for posting this

Civil Rights Groups File Suit on Behalf of Man Intentionally Denied Mental Health Treatment in Jail, Man Was Abused by Tangipahoa Prison Officials

via ACLU.org

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.

Zip It, Scaramucci!

Thanks, Mr. Scaramucci, for (as you would no doubt put it) pissing on our parade.

Anthony Scaramucci at SALT Conference 2016 By Jdarsie11 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Your verbal golden shower came down on a day that otherwise would be recalled with sunlit joy and celebration by all Americans: Friday, July 28, 2017, when, in the early hours, the Senate narrowly defeated a destructive, long-dreaded bill that would have vitiated the Affordable Care Act, and rained down havoc on the most helpless members of our society. On the poor. On the elderly. And on the mentally ill, many of whose struggling caretakers depend on the Act’s Medicaid provisions to pay for their imperiled loved ones’ medications and treatment. “Suffering humanity,” as Dorothea Dix call them. Us. 

Senator John McCain

True, the Senate managed to keep the wolves from ravaging “the miserable, the desolate, the outcast” (Dix) by only a single vote. 

(And thank you, Senator John McCain of Arizona, for casting that decisive vote, one of the most courageous and restorative gestures in American political history.) True, certain congressional leaders were callously pleased to keep the threat of repeal alive, and the dread among potential casualties ratcheting upward, for seven years before decency narrowly prevailed. And true, this legislative rough beast’s hour could come round again, and it could arise and slouch toward Washington to be reborn.

All true. But early on Friday, suffering humanity caught a rare break. And we will take what we can get. It should be a day for celebrating, for parades.

But on second thought, no. Better to stay indoors to avoid the stench, or venture outside only with galoshes. Because on Thursday, Anthony Scaramucci came along and relieved himself of some stuff he’d been holding in. Figurative fly unzipped, the White House’s brand-new “Communications Director” communicated to the New Yorker magazine exactly how much he knew or cared about chronic mental illness, about its victims, and about those whose lives and emotions are bound up in the scourge.

http://www.newyorker.com/news/ryan-lizza/anthony-scaramucci-called-me-to-unload-about-white-house-leakers-reince-priebus-and-steve-bannon

Within hours, nearly all major news outlets had reported Scaramucci’s hot flow:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/us/politics/scaramucci-priebus-leaks.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

The paragraph below, taken from the Times report, is representative:

“Mr. Scaramucci, who has so emulated Mr. Trump’s style that colleagues privately call him ‘Mini-Me,’ made clear in his conversation with The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza that he is trying to push Mr. Priebus out. ‘Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,’ he said. Mr. Scaramucci complained that Mr. Priebus had prevented him from getting a job in the White House until now, saying he ‘blocked Scaramucci for six months.’”

Mind you, Scaramucci’s now-famous rant was not on the topic of mental illness, per say. Divinely, it was on the topic of leaks. He could not hold in his vengeful fury over the fact that leaks had been flowing out of the White House in a steady stream, and he was pissed off about it, and he thought he knew who was leaking, and that man’s career was as good as in the toilet.

And indeed, the press coverage focused almost entirely upon Scaramucci’s complaint, and upon the spectacularly obscene language he employed in his tirade to the New Yorker’s Lizza. The man does appear to have an uncommon predilection for using his own genitals as metaphor, which has emboldened me to adapt that general framework in this essay.

Yet (to get, finally, to my point) it was neither Scaramucci’s attack on Reince Priebus nor his affection for scatology that is my concern here. Rather, it is his recourse to “paranoid schizophrenic” and “paranoiac” that makes my blood boil.

Here, after all, is the man whose public voice (god forbid we should hear his private voice!) is, by definition, the voice of the Administration. What Anthony Scaramucci thinks and says, especially in conversation with reporters, can fairly be construed as an extension of what his chief, President Donald Trump, thinks and says. (And if that is not the case, we must ask why the president did not fire or at least rebuke him following his use of “paranoid schizophrenic” and “paranoiac” as expletives.)

This usage cuts far deeper than mere coarseness or ugly language, which we have come to expect in Donald Trump’s administration. “Paranoid schizophrenic” and “paranoiac” are terms of neuropsychiatry, and they have specific referents: to individuals whose brains have been severely damaged by malign genes acting in harmony with environmental stressors.

Among the many burdens endured by the chronically mentally ill and those committed to safeguarding them is the misuse of “paranoid schizophrenic,” “paranoiac,” and a several other medically descriptive words: their misuse as hateful epithets, with the implication that those who answer to such descriptions are somehow morally inferior. The widespread acceptance of this misuse is part of the lifeblood of stigma, the uninformed and biased contempt for the mentally ill that still stands in the path of enlightened, and necessary, reforms.

In attempting to smear Reince Priebus with the labels “paranoid schizophrenic” and “paranoiac,” White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci has given para-official legitimization to the ongoing stigma and to the destruction it causes. He has gratuitously dishonored the mentally ill of this country and wounded their protectors. He has almost surely articulated the unfeeling, uncaring, irresponsible attitude of the Administration toward “crazy people.”

And the dark ugliness of his rhetoric has robbed the celebratory day of July 28, 2017, of some of its celebratory luster over a rare victory for the mentally ill.

I have no way of knowing, of course, how Anthony Scaramucci himself feels about his rash outburst of schoolyard invective, or whether he plans to apologize for it, as he should, instead of dismissing it as “colorful language,” as he dids.

I do know this, though: he has no reason to flush with pride.

 

Two Police Officers Are Charged in Assault of Mentally Ill Man

“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.”

Thanks to Dj Jaffe for originally posting this.

via The New York Times

Photo

Ryan McClarty, left, and Scotty Payne, former Omaha police officers, were charged. CreditOmaha Police Department

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 officers Video 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.

Photo

The funeral of Zachary Bear-heels in Apache, Oklahoma, in June.

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.

Photo

Zachary Bear-heels, who died after an encounter with Omaha police officers. CreditKETV NewsWatch 7, via YouTube 

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.

Photo

Mr. Bear-heels’s grave in Apache, Okla. CreditKent Sievers/The World-Herald

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.

Watchman, what of the night? Strike that. What of the Watchman?

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.

Albuquerque TV station KOAT published a transcript that has Sandy promising his partner: “This lunatic—I’m gonna shoot him with a Taser shotgun.” http://www.koat.com/article/james-boyd-shooting-officer-keith-sandy-to-retire/4467732. The Free Thought Project, an alternative public-policy watchdog organization http://thefreethoughtproject.com/officer-sandy-murderer-james-boyd-stated-shoot-penis-hours-killing/, published an even darker version: “For this f***ing lunatic?  I’m going to shoot him in the penis with a shotgun here in a second.”

 

 

THE CRISIS BEGINS

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.

 

DENOUEMENT

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 IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH

The expeditionary force’s successful neutralization of the menace that had been James Boyd provided a marker in the annals of police violence in America. It ignited two days of street protest in Albuquerque (police resorted to tear gas on the demonstrators) and briefly seized the attention of the national news media. http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/when-cops-break-bad-albuquerque-police-force-gone-wild-20150129

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.

Ho.

 

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.

 

OF PICTURES AND WORDS

A pivotal element in the trial was the testimony of an expert witness: specifically, a “policing expert” named Ronald McCarthy. McCarthy screened the body-cam footage, commenting on it as it ran. He testified that the officers had used the right tactics and followed standard training during the standoff. http://www.mybendbroadband.com/news/read/category/us/article/the_associated_press-defense_witness_police_did_everything_right_in_sho-ap

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.

________________

Justice for James Boyd: https://www.facebook.com/Justice-for-James-Boyd-1451885931714544/

O for the honor we did blow When we empowered Sheriff Joe!

Jail reform must address mental health, substance dependence

via Arizona Capitol Times.

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.”

Read the full story here: http://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2017/07/13/jail-reform-must-address-mental-health-substance-dependence/

The Slaughter Goes On

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!)

Links

http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/07/15/his-parents-said-just-needed-sleep-swat-team-came-instead/1sTWdBw2MNqqFGCOUfLnHL/story.html?s_campaign=breakingnews%3Anewsletter

http://www.rgj.com/story/news/2017/05/03/released-video-depicts-fatal-struggle-washoe-jail/309046001/

https://www.hopexchangenonprofit.org/blog/our-minds-are-not-our-only-prison-where-is-the-social-justice-for-the-mentally-ill-when-far-too-many-are-coming-out-of-jail-in-body-bags-or-receiving-humane-treatment

http://www.wbrc.com/story/35819522/what-happened-to-jamie-lee-wallace#.WWJPUm5TXw8.facebook

https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/bj8gy4/the-prison-system-is-designed-to-ignore-mental-illness

NEW CBS WEB SERIES ON MENTAL HEALTHCARE

The crisis in mental health care is rapidly becoming a featured topic of mainstream journalism.

CBS News has commendably chosen to spotlight this subject as the launch-point of its new experiment in long(er)-form video journalism, making use of its online digital resources. To quote from the network’s announcement: 

CBS Evening News Uncharted: State of Mind” is a new five-part digital series airing in May with new episodes released every Wednesday. The series will examine the state of mental health care in America in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month. More than 43 million Americans suffer from mental illness.”

The first episode aired last night, and I repost it here. I was among the contributors, along with Congressman Tim Murphy, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, and Dr. Glenda Wrenn, the psychiatrist and the director of behavioral health for the Satcher Health Leadership Institute.

Rep. Tim Murphy
Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy
Dr. Glenda Wrenn

 

 

 

 

Not surprisingly, the most compelling figure in this episode is an embattled mother: Rocky Schwartz, whose two sons are afflicted with chronic mental illness.  (The National Alliance on Mental Illness has estimated that 60 percent of Americans suffering from mental illness don’t receive the care they need.)

Rocky Schwartz

Battles with un-cooperative health insurance companies have cost Ms. Schwartz and her husband more than $300,000, draining their retirement, college savings, home equity loans, and other personal savings.

Roman Feeser

 

The series was assembled by a young production team headed by the gifted and determined associate producer Roman Feeser. I am honored to have been a part of the first and some of the succeeding installments in this bellwether experiment in immersive journalism.

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mental-health-where-are-we-uncharted-state-of-mind-episode-1/

NIKKI’s AND KEVIN’s STORY

Here is another look into the frantic “sub-universe” of families whose lives have been deformed by the presence of mental illness. It is a story of what can happen to a patriotic veteran who returns home to find himself overwhelmed not only by psychotic tendencies, but also by the bumbling ineptitude and bureaucratic rigidity of hospitals–in particular, in this case, a Veterans Administration medical center in Ohio. The story is told by Kevin Landis’s devoted wife Nikki.

NIKKI’S STORY

Nikki and Kevin Landis

I’m in that terrible place where I’m watching him fall apart, completely lost and separated from reality, and nobody seems to believe me.”

This is Nikki Landis speaking. Nikki Landis is a 37-year-old wife and mother of 16-year-old twins and three younger children. In her Facebook postings and in her communications with me, she comes across as a blithe spirit: bright, vital, endearing, fond of travel and books, an embracer of life, and devoted to her family.

I’m married to the most amazing, intelligent, strong, caring man in the world,” she has told me.

And yet her marriage has pulled Nikki Landis into a grotesque and broken realm: a parallel universe that that entraps people at random and imprisons them in a morass of nightmarish cruelty and suffering, and muffles the sound of their voices when they try to call for help. It is a universe mostly invisible to the mass of “normal” people who brush against it every day, and yet one that diminishes the “normal” as well, in insidious ways they seldom notice or suspect.

It is the parallel universe of the mentally ill, and, too often, of the loving relatives who try to help them.

“Why does nobody listen?” Nikki Landis asks. “Why does everybody insist, ‘It will be OK’?”

Nikki’s husband Kevin, who’s 39, is in the grip of psychotic behavior. He has suffered psychotic episodes for the past ten years. None of the support or treatment systems designed to help people such as Kevin seem able to do anything for him. In Nikki’s view, no one cares.

“I don’t understand why it is so difficult after 10 years of this for people to understand that I’m not being dramatic or exaggerating. But these same people will question, two weeks from now, why I didn’t do more. Why I didn’t react differently. Why I didn’t say the right thing that could have stopped all of this.

“Even the doctors act oblivious. ‘Why didn’t you tell us he was doing this or that?’ they will say. And I do. I tell them, and nobody hears the words coming out of my mouth. Then somehow everyone finds a way to blame me.”

Adding to Nikki’s burdens is the fact that her twins suffer from autism.

 

Kevin was Nikki’s high-school crush in Germantown, Ohio (pop. 5547), but Kevin, two years ahead of her, didn’t notice. He joined the a police department after he graduated. Nikki went off to college. A day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Kevin showed up at the town recruitment center to enlist in the Army. After basic training, he was deployed to Kuwait as a machine gunner in February 2003 with the elite 101st Army Airborne Division, the “Screaming Eagles.” A month later he was in Iraq.

Near the city of Al Hillah in Babylon Province, Kevin’s company was ambushed. Enemy soldiers were firing at him from 30 feet away. “He can still feel the bullets zinging past his head,” Nikki told me. “A grenade rolled right past him.”

Somehow Kevin escaped injury—combat injury Other enemies were attacking him more subtly. Iraq is a sub-tropical region, and, like many combat troops in Iraq, he was issued a weekly dose of Mefloquine, a drug in tablet form that acts to prevent malaria transmitted by mosquito bites. Mefloquine can trigger side effects in some users, such as depression, severe anxiety, and psychotic symptoms associated with schizophrenia. 

After his three-year tour was up, Kevin returned to Germantown, where he and Nikki began dating in 2006. Kevin resumed his career as a policeman in another department. The two were married a year later. They started their family. Along the way, Kevin began behaving erratically. Sometimes his words and behavior terrified the children, and his wife as well. The assumption at first was that the young veteran was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kevin has never been violent toward Nikki or the children. But his paranoia induced him to scream terrible things at his wife. “I’m the bad guy,” Nikki told me. “He shouts at me all of the things he wanted to scream at his parents thirty years ago. He mixes me up with his mom in his mind. He has left the house to live in his car more than a hundred times in the past ten years. Right now he is living at his parents’ house because I can’t do this anymore. I can’t watch.”

And, in Nikki’s view at least, the agencies of therapy and restoration have refused—or have been ill-equipped—to help Kevin, or her.

 

In April 2016, after years of resisting treatment, Kevin agreed to be examined at the Lindner Center of Hope, a leading private treatment center in Ohio. There, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder—one of the “family” of brain diseases that include schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.

The doctors prescribed Depakote, a sodium-based medication used to treat seizures and bipolarity, and the couple returned home. The Depakote worked well for a while, then began losing its efficacy. By October, Nikki said, her husband was out of control. He had been ramping up to a big dysphoric mania, and the second week of October he blew. He raged like I’d never seen. He was sweating so badly that he looked like he had just stepped out of the shower fully dressed. He was raging and panting and very scary. I knew he was suicidal.”

 

By now, Kevin was off the police department and out of work. The Landises, fearful that their medical plan would not cover inpatient stays (they later learned that it would) turned to the federal agency created precisely to protect and restore combat veterans such as Kevin Landis: young patriots who would not hesitate to risk their lives when their country was under attack. This was the Veterans Administration—specifically its medical center in Dayton, Ohio.

 

The couple had avoided the VA because they had heard the horror stories that reached scandal proportions just a few years ago: waiting periods so lengthy that some patients died before they could receive treatment (the average backlog at one point reached 115 days); falsified documents; negligent care. But now they felt they had no choice. At least Nikki did. She called upon a desperate tactic to persuade her husband. “I told him if he didn’t go to the hospital, I would have to divorce him. I’d said this before, but this time it worked.”

It turned out that the stories they’d heard about the VA were a little on the rosy side.

 

“The Veterans Administration has been nothing short of evil in helping him,” Nikki says. “worse than I can describe. I have a hard time talking about it still.”

Kevin Landis entered the VA hospital on a Friday night in late October and remained there for eighteen days. During that time, Nikki said, psychiatric doctors refused to allow Kevin to discuss his combat experiences in Iraq. Given that most combat veterans have to be coaxed and cajoled to break their silence about what happened to them—a necessary “first step” on the road to recovery—this doctor-enforced gag imposed on Kevin seems to defy reason.

As for his diagnosis of bipolar disorder from the private hospital, it cut no ice with the VA, Nikki told me. “The VA has a policy that they don’t accept outside diagnosis.”

(My online check of Nikki’s assertion led me to an NBC News story filed on May 22, 2012. It detailed the frustrations of a veteran of the Afghanistan war named Daniel Hibbard, and contained this passage: “Hibbard, who lives in Louisville, Ky., has been twice diagnosed at Veterans Affairs facilities with post-traumatic stress disorder since 2010. But something unexpected happened last month: Hibbard received a letter reversing his PTSD diagnosis. His new diagnosis, which was assigned without an in-person examination or assessment, is personality disorder.”)

(“‘It makes me feel like I’m being called a fraud, a fake,’ Hibbard said of the diagnosis. ‘You might as well go ahead and burn my record and say I was never in the military.’”)

On the following Tuesday morning, Nikki received shocking news. “The doctor met with him for about ten minutes. He was in a paranoid state and told her that I had been researching bipolarity for years, and had a shelf full of bipolar books so that I could convince doctors he was bipolar and drug him up to control him and ruin his career.”

Kevin swore to his wife that he didn’t say this. “But to be honest, he very well may have.” Whatever the case, “she ‘undiagnosed’ him. She then spent days defending her actions, refusing to look at his chart from his outpatient doctor, and accusing me of terrible things.”

Nikki sensed that something was not right. “A nurse told me that this doctor went out of her way to make sure patients were labeled ‘malingerers’ so that they couldn’t get VA benefits. This doctor started saying he didn’t have PTSD or bipolar; he had a ‘personality disorder.’ On his chart she wrote that she believed both of his parents had personality disorders (she never met either one), and that I had a personality disorder as well.

“I googled ‘VA’ and ‘personality disorder’ and learned that there had been several VA scandals in which doctors were told to diagnose mentally ill veterans with personality disorders. If the VA says you have a personality disorder, it disqualifies you from VA benefits for mental health. When I brought this up to her, she accused me of being paranoid. And she wrote in his chart that he was doing all of this for money, and that his police pension would be big. In fact, Kevin just got approved for his police pension on Wednesday and it puts us below the poverty line.”

“In the end,” said Nikki of the doctor, “she sent him home on Effexor, which is one of the worst possible drugs for bipolar. It took four months and two more hospitalizations to detox him from the Effexor.

“It’s so hard for me to think about that time, how he was treated, the phone calls I got when he was crying, him not even knowing where he was or how long he’d been there. And the doctor treating both of us the way she did. It was exhausting and emotional, and just devastating. My kids saw me crying, my kids missed their dad, and my 8-year-old son said, “Mom, I’ll never be in the Army because they make the men fight and then don’t take care of them.”

 

Nikki Landis’s love and support for her troubled husband has never wavered. She does not deviate from her insistence that she is married to the most amazing, intelligent, strong, caring man in the world.

“But sometimes that man goes away. His body is there, but his ability to laugh, to be kind, to care—it’s gone. His ability to know who I am—it’s gone.

“His own kids don’t recognize him, and say things like, ‘Why is dad laughing so much when nothing is funny?’ Or, ‘Why does Dad think bad things about you?’ Or, ‘Dad doesn’t look like my dad.’ It’s heartbreaking. Literally, you feel the pain physically inside and it doesn’t go away.

“He hates me right now. It’s not the first time, but it never gets easier. And sometimes I hate him too. I hate the sick him, the illness that convinces him that I am hurting him or out to get him. I hate the part of him that can’t fight back.

“I’m pretty sure we are headed for another hospitalization but our insurance runs out in 20 days. I don’t know what I will do then. I’ve applied for Medicaid and we haven’t heard a word.

“It’s very lonely. I’m only 37. I loved to travel and explore and LIVE! I’m a fly-by-night, wild child, creative type, earthy sort of person. Kevin was the down to earth responsible one. I’m not cut out for this, but I’m doing the best I can. Most of all I miss my husband. My kids miss their dad.”

 

In January of this year, thanks to a generous extension of Kevin’s insurance coverage by a former police chief, the couple was able to return to the private hospital for a new diagnosis.

 

The psychiatric doctors found that Kevin was now suffering from schizoaffective disorder—the worst known variant of schizophrenia, combining this disease’s symptoms with the added ingredient of paranoia.

 

At this writing, the Landises are awaiting a hearing with the state agency that handles his disability pension. It has been postponed a time or two. Meanwhile, Kevin is on meds. Some sorts of meds.

 

On April 23, Nikki emailed me:

 

“He woke up today just fine. Completely the old Kevin. I won’t hold my breath, but I pray it lasts a few days. I cling to these brief respites.”

 

“This is torture.”