When I posted this blog in May 2010 there were an estimated 350,000 persons with mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, in American jails and prisons. Incredibly, that number has nearly doubled now, with an estimated half million behind bars. The creation of Mental Health Courts, Intercept Programs, Jail Diversion and Re-Entry Programs has helped slow the tide, but our jails and prisons are still filling up with persons whose only real crime is that they became ill.
The first time I went into a prison as a reporter was in the mid- 1970s when I worked at the now closed Tulsa Tribune. The city editor, Windsor Ridenour, assigned me to cover a meeting at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary where the pardon and parole board was convening to decide who would remain behind bars and who would be freed.
I suspect Windsor wanted me to see a rougher side of life from what I had experienced as the son of a minister, but I doubt he had any idea how that visit would ultimately impact my life. I have never forgotten my first trip into the white knuckle hell that is McAlester and that experience is what ultimately caused me to return to prison a decade later and write The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, which recounts a year that I spent off-and-on inside a maximum security penitentiary.
The prison in McAlester is also where I first saw how persons with mental illness were being abused and warehoused. During the mid-1970s, psychotic inmates were shot with Thorazine that turned them into drooling zombies who rarely left their bunks.
I was so disgusted by what I saw inside the prison that I wrote an expose for the Tribune. I thought it would outrage the public and prompt reforms.
But my expose was greeted by silence. There was no community anger, no letters to the editors, not a single reaction from an elected official.
Shortly after my series was published, a cat crawled through a hole into a warm spot seeking shelter. What the cat didn’t realize was that she had taken refuge inside a hollow portion of a state landmark called The Golden Driller.
In 1953, Tulsa commemorated the importance that oil had played in the state and city’s history by erecting a statue of a “roustabout” – a barrel chested oil worker – on the Tulsa fairgrounds. The statue was such a hit that a permanent one built from iron and concrete was put into place in 1966.
Reputed to be the largest free-standing statue in the world, the Golden Driller is 76 feet tall, so high that the figure’s right hand rests atop an actual oil derrick.
A short time after that cat curled up inside the base of the statue, a workman repaired the hole sealing the feline inside. Fortunately, someone walking by the Golden Driller heard the cat meowing and The Tulsa Tribune got a call. I was sent to investigate and I wrote a story about the stranded animal’s plight.
All hell broke loose. Crowds congregated around the statue. A radio station did a play-by-play broadcast when the firemen arrived to free the cat. Syndicated commentator Paul Harvey telephoned for an update.
The cat was rescued.
For a young reporter, the contrast was shocking. I had exposed human suffering in prison and no one had blinked. But the cat had attracted national attention.
I have thought about this may times and I think I understand what happened. The public felt pity for the cat because it was innocent. Those in jails and prisons were not. They were getting what they deserved.
I’m not naive. I know that having a mental illness does not give someone a free pass when it comes to committing crimes and we all know there are criminals out there who are anti-social.
But the persons with mental illnesses I saw in the Oklahoma prison and thirty years later on the ninth floor of the Miami Dade County jail were not hardened criminals. They were men who had severe mental illnesses and had ended up behind bars because of our failed mental health system. Their only real crime was getting sick.
All one has to do to track the “trans-institutionalization” that has taken place in our nation is to compare the exodus of patients from state mental hospitals with the increase of inmates with mental disorders in our jails and prisons. Today there are 350,000 persons with severe mental disorders incarcerated and another 500,000 on probation.
So why is there so little sympathy for persons with mental disorders, who are in jail or are “frequent flyers” — caught in an endless cycle of homelessness and jails?
I believe one of the biggest reasons is fear.
We want to believe that a psychotic man who is in jail or is homeless deserves it because he is a bum, a drunk, a drug addict or simply a bad person. We want to believe that this individual got a mental illness because he was weak minded, had horrible parents, abused drugs, or for some other reason related to his own actions. Whatever he did, he brought it on himself.
We want to believe that because if we don’t – if we admit that these men have an illness that is beyond their control and is something that they got entirely by chance – then, well, that’s frightening because it means we could get it too. It could happen to us or someone we love.
That’s why its easier for us to close our eyes when it comes to the homeless and jailed psychotic men and women around us.
We are afraid.