How Many Times Must We Say This? We Need To Stop Using Jails And Prisons As Mental Asylums

(4-6-18) In 2007, my book: CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, called attention to the inappropriate incarceration of individuals with mental illnesses. Several others have been published since mine, including No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers. Now there is yet another new alarm being sounded.  INSANE: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth.

I always welcome books, articles, and other media stories that call attention to the number of individuals with mental illnesses who are incarcerated. Whenever I am asked, I always stress that providing better mental care for prisoners is desirable, but creating a better mental care system in jails and prisons must never become our nation’s goal.

What should our goal be?

Ending the practice of warehousing individuals in our jails and prisons who are clearly sick. I am talking about Super Utilizers. (Read Judge Steven Liefman’s House testimony here.)

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Americans With Mental Illnesses: A Different Standard Of Justice? No Charges Filed In Alleged Scalding Death

Prisoner dies in shower, but no evidence of foul play. Huh?

(4-9-18) Who is telling the truth about the alleged scalding death of a Florida inmate with schizophrenia – a state prosecutor or two investigative reporters?

On June 23, 2012, Darren Rainey, who was serving time for cocaine possession, was placed in a prison shower at the Dade Correctional Institution. According to news reports, the water was turned up to 180 degrees — hot enough to steep tea or cook ramen noodles. He was allegedly being punished by four correctional officers who kept him in the shower two full hours. Rainey was heard screaming, “Please take me out! I can’t take it anymore!” and kicking the shower door.

Inmates said prison guards laughed at Rainey and shouted, “Is it hot enough?”

Rainey died inside that shower. He was found crumpled on the floor. When his body was pulled out, nurses said burns covered 90 percent of his body. A nurse said his body temperature was too high to register with a thermometer. And his skin fell off at the touch.

That how the horrific event was first described by the Miami Herald‘s Julie K. Brown, who won a George Polk Award, one of journalism’s most prestigious prizes, for her investigative work. Her account was collaborated by Eyal Press in a lengthy piece published in The New Yorker. Florida Department of Corrections emails discussing how to describe the death were discovered later, according to The Miami New Times. And prison counselor Harriet Krzykowski gave the New Yorker other damning evidence that seemed to confirm that Rainey had been brutally murdered — and that she had been pressured to cover up evidence.

Late last month, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced on a Friday afternoon that no charges would be filed because “the shower was itself neither dangerous nor unsafe…and the evidence does not show that Rainey’s well-being was grossly disregarded by the correctional staff.’’

News reports quoted Rundle saying, “Nobody can condone someone being thrown into a hot shower and killed. We read the same thing everyone else did, but it wasn’t until we really investigated that we learned that is not what happened.”

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THIS IS MY BRAVE: Northern Va. Performance Inspires As Non-Profit Group Flourishes. 20 Shows Planned In 2018

NAMI Northern Virginia President Jeanne Comeau, Fairfax Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr., and This Is My Brave originator Jennifer Marshall after performance.

“One day we will live in a world where we won’t have to call it “brave” when talking about mental illness. We’ll just call it talking.”

(4-6-18) NAMI Northern Virginia teamed up with This Is My Brave to stage a powerful performance yesterday (Thursday) evening in Sterling, Virginia.

If you haven’t heard about This Is My Brave – The Show, you soon will.

Thanks to the boundless enthusiasm and smarts of its co-founder, Jennifer Marshall, and her leadership team, the grass-roots non-profit is flourishing.

Last night’s performance was its 38th since its founders, Jennifer and Anne Marie Marklin Ames, decided in 2013 to launch a Kickstarter campaign to rent a theater and produce  a professional-quality, stigma-fighting show about mental illness. Each performance is different because cast members are area residents who use a variety of their talents – personal essays, poems, music – to tell their recovery stories and the “brave” moment when they made public their mental illnesses.

This Is My Brave will produce 20 shows – that’s right 20 shows – this year alone in the U.S.

(It already has done two in Australia and is considering requests from other foreign nations.) In addition, This Is My Brave is the subject of a coming documentary, has been featured in Oprah Winfrey’s Magazine, and has its own Youtube channel where you can watch previous shows.  (This weekend, a This Is My Brave production will be performed in Fort Lauderdale.)

Jennifer explained that last night’s performance was especially poignant because today would have been her co-founder’s 60th birthday. Ms. Ames died unexpectedly last fall. Her passing caused Jennifer, who has bipolar disorder, to suffer a mental break, which she “bravely” described before the performance – a reminder that many mental illnesses never go away even though their symptoms can be treated and controlled.

The 250 seat Waddell Theater was filled near capacity when Jeanne Comeau, the president and CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Northern Virginia chapter, welcomed everyone. Comeau has done an outstanding job building our local NAMI chapter into one of the nation’s best.

My son, Kevin, an original cast member of This Is My Brave, and I found ourselves sitting next to Fairfax Police Chief Colonel Edwin C. Roessler Jr, who has been a strong supporter of mental health reforms in the county, especially Crisis Intervention Team police training. I wish the entire Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and county officials engaged in implementing Diversion First  would watch a This Is My Brave performance. If they did, they would see proof of why jail diversion and strong community supports help change and save lives.

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Her Son Said She Was Homeless, Mentally Ill, Living In A Car. The Response: “Technically, She Has A Roof Over Her Head.”

 (4-2-18) For some time, Mike Gaeta, has been chronicling his attempts to help his mother, who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. He informed me his mother died recently, becoming yet another victim of untreated mental illness and our failed system. 

Tribute: My Beautiful Mom Showed Me What Strength and Courage Are

By Mike Gaeta  first published on his blog: Benevolent Neglect.

The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” –Michel Foucault

Despite my family’s best efforts to care for her and make sure she received adequate medical and mental health treatment, my beautiful mama passed away prematurely  at the age of 66.

My mom at around eleven years old

My mom was the daughter of Mexican immigrant farm workers and the youngest of eight children. She graduated from high-school and received her Associate’s Degree from Fresno City College, despite having to work in the fields with her family starting from a young age. She would marry her high-school sweetheart, my father, shortly after his return from the Vietnam War.

My mom was a devoted wife, mom, sister and aunt and would defend her family fiercely from all injustices and dangers. One of my earliest memories of her protecting me involves her confronting an older boy who was bullying me when I was in first grade. In talking with him, she convinced the older boy to act as a bodyguard for me against any further bullying from anybody.

When she was not busy working or advocating for us in our schools, my mom enjoyed hosting and feeding extended family and our friends. Whether with her lasagna or albondigas soup, my mom would regularly showcase her excellent cooking skills. Her menudo was particularly good. To this day, my dad adamantly says he has never had menudo as good as my mom’s. In recent weeks, my cousins have reminded me how central my mom’s love, charisma and generosity were to our larger family’s closeness and happiness.

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An Update: Frustrated Mother Is Skeptical, But Clinging to Hope For Her Ill Son

(3-29-18)  I posted a March 20th blog that received an unusually high number of hits and more than 150 shares.

I suspect this is because many of you identified with the impassioned plea for treatment from a mother trying to help her 22 year-old son. Frustrated Mother Outlines Son’s Mental Illness For Commitment Judge. When Will Our Leaders Do Something To End Our Children’s Suffering? 

I received so many emails asking about the outcome of the commitment hearing that I am posting an update. Again, I want to thank this mother for her courage in speaking out and praise her for the deep love that she has for her son.

Dear Pete

The judge ordered my son held for “up to 14 days.” Some friends and family tried to help us celebrate this as though it were a victory. To be clear, we were relieved. This hold was the only option available in that hospital court room that made any sense at all. But it’s hard to celebrate that indeed our son met criteria as an individual who is “an imminent danger to others” and who is “gravely disabled” because he is utterly incapable of managing himself in the world. Yes, this disabling brain illness finally got him the chance for maybe two weeks of treatment. If he shows signs that the treatment actually starts to work, the hospital will most likely release him before he’s even close to well or ready to manage this extreme impairment on his own.

Our son has been calling from the hospital phone, eager to share that he can’t wait to get out and that this was all a terrible misunderstanding: He was never going to hurt anyone. He believes this to be the truth because he has state-dependent memory. He has no idea where brain illness took him, and he still doesn’t really believe that he has an illness. And we know the hospital won’t teach him that, because they never have. And every sign that he is improving is a warning to us that this reprieve will be short and our ride through chaos will likely start again soon.

If the outcome is different and the hospital helps him learn to understand and sets him up in a program with housing and supports that are at least calculated to succeed we will be amazed and probably collapse with gratitude. We are not holding our breath.

Those of us who have walked down this road understand why this mom is skeptical. This is why we must continue speaking and demand meaningful reforms. No family should have to go through this and, yet, everyday someone does.

Everything Here Is Beautiful: A Unique Novel About Sisters, Immigrants & Mental Illness

(3-26-18) Ever since Bebe Moore Campbell’s death in 2006, the mental health community has  been desperately in need of a skilled novelist who can write a captivating story that offers readers a realistic portrait of mental illness while educating and entertaining them.

Such a novelist and a book are needed because novels reach a wide swath of Americans who would not be the slightest bit interested mental illnesses. Great novels can be timeless and speak to multiple generations.

The search has ended.

Mira T. Lee and her debut novel, Everything Here Is Beautiful, hits all the right marks.

First a word about Bebe Moore Campbell. Her first children’s book, Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry, established her as a creative and credible writer about mental illness. It won the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Outstanding Literature Award for 2003. As the title suggests, her children’s book is about a little girl who has to cope with her mentally ill mother.

A key reason why Ms. Campbell could write so authentically was because she had mental illness in her family, a topic she further explored in her fictional 72 Hour Hold. She was well-known and well-respected in the NAMI community, having helped found the NAMI-Inglewood chapter.

I greatly admired Ms. Campbell’s writing, courage, frankness and willingness to help others – including me. Before brain cancer ended her life, she wrote a complimentary blurb for the cover of my book CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.

To me, her’s were big shoes to fill. It isn’t easy to write about mental illness in fiction, especially if a seriously mentally ill character and the overall narrative does not fit nicely with the stereotypical, happy, redemptive ending that publishers and readers often prefer.

If writing about mental illness realistically isn’t enough of a challenge, try writing a book that doesn’t feature white, middle-class Americans as its main characters, but focuses on minorities and deals with such issues as immigration and how different cultures view mental disorders. Now consider that you have never before published a novel.

Mira T. Lee, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not only takes on all of these challenges, but conquers each with aplomb in Everything Here Is Beautiful. (Yes, I am repeating the title, because I don’t want you to forget it.)

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