Mental Illness and Criminal Justice Reform

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Things are quiet on the TV news since we heard Lester Holt do his series “Justice for All” on NBC Nightly News in September 2019. No more word of criminal justice reform. Why? Did the problem go away?

No, the problem has definitely not gone away because the TV news shows us in abundance that murders still happen in spades, and their only solution is to incarcerate the perpetrators. We know that doesn’t work. They show us that every night. This is where SARDAA comes in. They recognize that there are people who have brain illness problems and, because they don’t receive any treatment, their problem gets worse to the point where the result is catastrophic. People die. According to Linda Stalters, CEO of SARDAA, “There are fewer murders by people with brain illness than people who ARE criminals. However, substance use disorder is also a brain illness.  Most of the time it’s domestic, gang or theft related.”

SARDAA and I work together on educating the public about this. SARDAA is also working with the CDC and other organizations to reclassify schizophrenia and related disorders so that there will be more money for research and beds for treatment. As I quoted Alisa Roth, author of Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness, several times before, “The country’s three largest providers of mental health care are not hospitals but jails” (LA County Jail, Cook County Jail, Riker’s Island).

Sometimes we are not able to stop a crime from happening, and people end up in jail. This is where my book comes in: Once they are in there, what do we do with them? My book gives answers. And it has been studied and documented that these things work, for example, the Prisoner Re-entry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC has researched education and mentoring and found that they work. I recommended these back in May 1998.

 

Letter to The President of the US

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By Linda Stalters, MSN, APRN (ret)
Founder and Chief Executive Officer
Schizophrenia And Related Disorders Alliance of America
2308 Mount Vernon Ave, suite 207 | Alexandria, VA 22301
(240) 423-9432 | www.sardaa.org

Submitted to POTUS on August 8, 2019 in response to his announcement that he wants to work to improve treatment for people with severe mental illness.

SARDAA - Improving lives affected by psychosis

Dear President Trump:

The Schizophrenia And Related Disorders Alliance of America represents eleven million Americans suffering from serious mental illness (SMI). On behalf of these Americans, thank you for your recent public commitment to help those with severe mental illness. We applaud your courageous leadership to address the problems directly.

Like you, we believe many tragedies can be avoided if we provide qualified and timely professional care. You have our commitment and ongoing support in achieving your goals of better prevention and treatment. Along with other supportive organizations, we respectfully request an opportunity to meet with you and/or the Vice President to help you achieve realistic and appropriate actions for preventing these tragedies.

With more accessible qualified professional care for those in need, we believe many tragedies could be avoided. More than twenty percent of Americans have a diagnosable neuropsychiatric brain illness (ranging from mild to severe) in any given year, essentially touching almost every American family. The vast majority of the affected Americans who receive treatment have no more propensity for violence than anyone else, indeed, they are more likely to be the victim of violence than others. However, at least 40%-50% of those with a serious neuropsychiatric brain illness are NOT receiving appropriate care.

Getting help is very difficult due to a critical shortage of providers (Half of the counties in the USA have no psychiatrist, no psychiatric nurse practitioner, nor psychologist), and a person with a serious neuropsychiatric brain illness is ten times more likely to be in jail instead of receiving treatment in a hospital or dies by suicide. Even where help is available, our HIPAA laws prevent communication between family members and providers, blocking valuable information from being shared about a patient’s risk or critical treatment needs.

It is a horrible commentary on our nation that the majority of those in our prisons have a brain illness, often remaining untreated, abused, and increasingly ill while incarcerated. Had these people received appropriate treatment, most would never be in jail, would be in the workforce and living with their families. Unfortunately, even when the family members beg to get their loved ones help, current laws tie the hands of providers. Doctors, police, and the courts cannot compel someone to be in treatment until they are an “imminent danger” to harm themselves or someone else. Opponents of compelled treatment argue for their “right” to refuse treatment, rather than to protect their “right” to get well. But when someone with a brain disease (serious mental illness) has committed a crime, they have no rights once put in jail. It is far more compassionate to treat them early rather than to wait for harm.

We need treatment to avert tragedy.

We suggest several clear paths of action directly helping millions of Americans who are impacted by severe neuropsychiatric brain illness:

1.     Fund access to quality brain (mental) health care.

2.     Build the psychiatrist, psychiatric nurse practitioner, and psychologist workforce by forgiving student loans for those working in underserved areas.

3.     Support school efforts to identify children at risk, get them professional help, and maintain community-based treatment after graduation. (NOTE: Half of serious neuropsychiatric brain illness appears by age 14, and 75% by age 24. Many suicides are in this age range when symptoms are first emerging, and early care is absolutely essential during this time.

4.     Support court-ordered Assisted Outpatient Treatment for those not ill enough to be hospitalized but who still benefit from remaining in treatment.

5.     Require more police to receive Crisis Intervention Training so they have the tools to de-escalate a crisis before it turns harmful.

6.     Increase support for criminal justice system diversion programs that facilitate patients to receive evaluation and treatment rather than be incarcerated with poor or no attention to their brain illness.

7.     Increase programs to prevent and address homelessness for individuals with a brain illness.

8.     Suicide rates among police are climbing. Funds are needed for first responders to receive counseling for their own post-traumatic stress.

9.     Reform HIPAA laws to allow very selective, compassionate communication between providers and responsible family members for those adult patients clinically unaware of their illness or are not following up on their own care.

Thank you again for your leadership and compassion for America’s families dealing with neurological brain illnesses referred to as severe mental illness.

With sincere gratitude,
Linda Stalters, MSN, APRN (ret.)
Chief Executive and Founder
SARDAA
Mobile: 240-500-6131

Linda.stalters@sardaa.org
www.sardaa.org

Is Slavery Still An Issue?

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Since I touched upon the subjects in May 1998, my emphasis has been on education and mentoring for the incarcerated and those with brain illness. But will they work? They seem to be working now, but that is the question that I ask now. Why? Because news sources such as the New York Times point out to us that slavery still exists in the US, and, to my mind, it is easy to come up with a crime – such as driving while black, walking while black, or just being black (Wikipedia) – to grab these guys off the street and put them into prison, mentored and educated or not. Even in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution which abolished slavery in 1865 put in wording that said, essentially, that slavery is abolished unless the person is in prison:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Lester Holt recently did a piece on Angola Prison on NBC Nightly News where these things could be seen for themselves. He spent two nights in the prison and worked the fields harvesting carrots while doing research for his report called “Justice for All.”

So, where do those with brain illness fit in? Alisa Roth, a journalist and author of Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness (2018), says they were moved back and forth from prison to hospital and back again throughout US history. Offenders were called “miscreants” meaning wrongdoers, villains. During my time in the hospital (1970s – 1980s), violent patients were released with no support or preparation to live on their own. At Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, a judge would just have the hospital open the door – to the maximum-security facility – and set them free. So, inevitably, they committed crimes and were then arrested and put into prison. I was fortunate to have a support system.

Wikipedia tells of the early days of Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, NJ (circa 1876).

“Patients worked on the farms growing and raising food and performed hard labor tasks in the clearing away of building debris, excavating for roads, and sodding grounds… It was a widely popular belief that putting the insane to work in certain circumstances was beneficial to both the patient and the institution.”

Nowadays patients no longer do back-breaking work and are paid minimal amounts for their work to avoid the issue of slavery, but their families, children are taken away from them in more than one case.

All of this needs to be addressed.

A Melding of Brain Health and Criminal Justice

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Today I want to write about the need for a consolidation of mental health organizations and the criminal justice system.

I have been in the courts for 40 years, and my current experience makes me angry. Last year the doctor recommended my release, and this year he reported there was no change. The order this year says that if it were not for the court and its supervision, I could very well have a breakdown. That is the court speaking, not the doctor.

The court treats me as though I am a felon. Instead of taking my children away from me by an order because I am sending them Hallmark cards, the court could have said to them (now 30 and 40 years old and on their own) that their father is experiencing signs of brain illness. Then we could argue about her qualifications to determine and treat brain illness. Several years ago, I was without a job, and I lost a job opportunity in New England because of the court’s unwillingness to decide. Of course, if I say too much the court will cite me for contempt, but something must be said. This is America.

I wrote to Alex Keoskey, an attorney familiar with my case and with brain illness in his own family, and this is what he had to say.

“I agree. I’m happy to say that the stigma of mental illness is finally being addressed by the public at large, mostly coupled up with addiction and the current problem we have with opioids. But more needs to be done and the criminal justice system is way behind. A judge should never substitute their opinion in place of someone with expertise. A consulting psychiatrist should be the only one who makes any determination regarding danger or no danger. A judge should always defer to that opinion, or at least ask for a second opinion. You are correct, the judge is treating you like a common criminal. How many years has it been that you have been stable and productive, not the slightest bit of harm to anyone? I don’t understand why she doesn’t take this into account.”

So much about me. I have already begun efforts in starting to get the two sides to talk with each other. I make efforts to keep both SARDAA and the Prisoner Re-entry Institute (PRI) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice aware of what the other is doing through my blogs, through our emails, and through our newsletters. My point is that there is a need for a third party to take part in the conversation, and that third party does not yet exist.

Special Message from SARDAA 

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By Linda Stalters, MSN, APRN (ret)
Founder and Chief Executive Officer
Schizophrenia And Related Disorders Alliance of America

The past few days at El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio have brought an enormous amount of suffering and grief. We at SARDAA extend our sincerest heartfelt compassion and caring to all who have been affected in these and similar situations. Indeed, the families of the murdered and injured are profoundly suffering and the entire community and country are struggling with these horrific tragedies.  

There have been speculations that the shooters were “mentally ill”. Yet, we do not know that to be a fact. If that is the case, they too are victims, as are their families because they did not receive the care and treatment they required and now the consequences are catastrophic.

People with brain illnesses, “mental illness”, are NOT monsters or evil, they do not elect to have a brain illness any more than a person with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases. People who have schizophrenia, schizoaffective and bipolar illnesses are amazing people and must not be labeled and feared, especially if they are receiving treatment. Without treatment people can be dangerous if they have certain delusions and hallucinations, thus, treatment is vitally important. Most people are amazing, kind, gentle, vulnerable and altruistic.

We MUST start providing appropriate care and treatment as soon as there are any signs or symptoms of “mental illness”, even if the person, due to their brain illness, is unaware of their illness. There are effective treatments for most people. People deserve to live!

We are working aggressively to drive reclassification of schizophrenia spectrum brain illnesses. NOW is the time for us all to come together to work on this. We can make a REAL change – contact us to learn how you can help: Info@sardaa.org

Submitted by David E. Geiger, MEE, PE

Making the Grade in Education

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I reach about 2400 people with my blogs and newsletters. I take this responsibility seriously. Back in May 1998, I first advocated for education and mentoring for those in prison, before anyone else was doing it, and it is beginning to work. You may have seen the recent TV news advertisements regarding criminal justice reform and the positive results of education and mentoring for those incarcerated.

Back in 2013, I reached out to Ann Jacobs who is the Director of the Prisoner Re-entry Institute, a research organization at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and I offered her some of my opinions that you read in my blogs. They have been successful. From the PRI July 2019 newsletter: 

On June 27th [2019] PRI celebrated the accomplishments of 31 College Initiative (CI) students who recently completed post-secondary degrees, including 9 associate degrees, 12 bachelor's degrees, seven master's degrees, one law degree, and one doctorate degree. CI supports formerly-incarcerated and court-involved men and women in enrolling and succeeding in college. 2019 was the largest class of degree-earning graduates since CI joined PRI, with CI students earning degrees at ten CUNY schools, four private colleges, and two SUNY schools. 

John Jay College President Karol Mason spoke at the graduation about the obstacles these graduates have already surmounted and the doors that a college degree will open. "Through their determination and hard work," said President Mason, "these students demonstrate the importance and value behind the pathways that College Initiative creates for individuals with prior criminal justice involvement.... with training, mentorship, knowledge, and support, the sky is the limit for these talented individuals."

Two of this year's CI graduates also previously took classes in PRI's Prison-to-College Pipeline (P2CP) at Otisville Correctional Facility with NYS Secretary of State Rossana Rosado, who provided the keynote address at the June 27th event. “Working with my guys—that’s what I call P2CP students—gives me a unique perspective on the strength and potential of people who have experienced the worst in our criminal justice system, and yet, they still rise," said Secretary Rosado. 

Prison Reform in Alabama

Prison Reform in Alabama

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Back in February of 2019, I posted an article on SARDAA’s website regarding criminal justice reform in Alabama (“Finding Jobs After Life in Prison”). At that time, Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) was sponsoring a bill that would remove more than 700 sections of code from the Alabama constitution that restricts jobs that people can get after being released from prison. The idea was to make the individual a productive citizen and not a public safety risk. In April 2019, the Department of Justice released a report stating that Alabama’s prisons were violating the Eighth Amendment. (WHNT News 19; June 19, 2019)

Although Alabama has experienced tremendous economic growth during her tenure, Governor Kay Ivey “indicated she was preparing a plan to build three large men’s prisons” to address Alabama’s failing prison system. Alabama’s House Minority leader Anthony Daniels indicates “he will not vote for a plan that does not include comprehensive prison reform.”

“Brick and mortar do not solve the problem,” said Daniels. “I will not go into a special session focusing on construction. My focus will be on reform.”

“Daniels says he wants to see more programs like mental health for the incarcerated to help them get back into society after their release.”

There’s an App for That – Maybe

There’s an App for That – Maybe

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I read an article in the June 18, 2019 New York Times’s Science Times regarding a smartphone app that will gauge mental stress and “flag the user when an emotional crisis seemed imminent.” It “promised something that no drug or talk therapy can provide.” The venture is co-founded by a former director of NIMH and is in the experimental stage in Silicon Valley. It is to benefit those with suicidal urges and bouts of intense emotion by evaluating their screen activity.

As a professional and as someone who lived through attempted suicide, I don’t believe this hype. How are we going to program the app to do something that we ourselves don’t do so well apparently, “something no drug or talk therapy can provide”? When I attempted suicide 40 years ago, there were bigger things on my mind than typing on a keyboard. I was suffering from schizophrenia as well as paranoia. I couldn’t trust what I was seeing and hearing, and I certainly would not trust entering information into a smartphone when there is the possibility that people are listening, real or imagined. I doubt very much that an app would have changed the course of my life, and I am saying that a person who is suffering from paranoia as a major influence on his choice to commit suicide is not going to use the app.  

Be careful out there.

Ban-the-Box Update (2019)

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If my research is right, I wrote my first ban-the-box article back on December 18, 2016. I did not invent the idea of banning the box, but the article is available.

Banning the box has to do with job applications, that is, there is a question on the application that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” and there is a box to check if the answer is yes. Those who were convicted must check the box, otherwise they would be lying on the application – another reason they would be denied the job. So, either way, yes or no, a justice-involved individual cannot win, and they must turn to crime to support themselves and their families. Hence the laws that deny employers the opportunity to put the question on their employment applications are necessary. I was fortunate that I was not convicted of a crime. It was because of my illness.

A friend of mine from the Baltimore area sent me a May 29, 2019 article from The Washington Post by Justin Wm Moyer titled “DC employers pay nearly $500,000 under ‘ban the box’ law since 2014.” Our legislators are getting serious. They are beginning to learn that if a justice-involved person cannot get a job they must – again – turn to crime to support themselves and their families. From the article:

“The District government has filed more than 1,100 administrative charges against employers who continue to ask about criminal histories on job applications despite a 2014 law that banned the practice. Those charges have netted the city more than $500,000 in fines for failing to ‘ban the box,’ according to a report by the DC Office of Human Rights… More than 90 percent of the administrative charges against employers were related to criminal background questions that appeared on job applications, the report said, while less than 5 percent involved questions an employer asked during an interview.”

Our city officials are beginning to see the implications:

“Brian Ferguson, director of the city’s Office of Returning Citizen Affairs, said questions about criminal records were ‘ubiquitous’ on job applications before the law, often stopping those returning from prison from ‘getting a foot in the door’ with possible employers.

“Today, it’s a much different landscape, much more favorable to returning citizens… They can show their value.”

Trying to Get Ahead with Schizophrenia is Not Easy

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“Aw, you want us to feel sorry for you after what you done?” 

“But it was an illness. The brain gets sick!” There is medical evidence for this.

I must live with the guilt of taking a life – 40 years this far and more to come. But the jury gave me my freedom, my life, so I must do my best. I want my book to be a success. I want people to understand and take action.

It’s hard. Family doesn’t always support the person who has mental illness. I was fortunate for the most part, but I saw it myself in the hospital that patients were abandoned by family and friends. Some guys never got visits. I, myself, was abandoned by my “friends” and adult mentors. I learned to live alone and be comfortable with it. I found in my dating years that the ones who were most unforgiving were those who had mental illness in their families. In general, others, the court among them, see you as a behavioral problem, as one who is mentally retarded, or a felon. Those who don’t have any understanding of the illness are afraid you will come sneaking through their bedroom window to kill them on some dark and stormy night.

There is other discrimination against those with mental illness. I can’t seem to get a good-paying job despite the credentials I have. Of course, that may be complicated further by age discrimination.

Talking about being mentally retarded – or intellectually challenged – I was always at the top of my class throughout my school years. I earned an Eagle Award in Boy Scouts. I graduated second in my high school class by less than a point. In engineering school, I graduated “with honor” or cum laude. Today I have a master’s degree in engineering and am a Professional Engineer licensed by the State of NJ. (Yes, they know about it). At the job, my team at Con Edison won a Team Award for completing an important $4 million project on time and on budget. We were all chosen for our superior performances on previous projects. I ran the project. I belong to Mensa and qualify for an organization called “Triple Nine Society” which is a high-IQ organization like Mensa but has a higher entrance requirement. I wrote a book called In the Matter of Edwin Potter: Mental Illness and Criminal Justice Reform. For a time there, I was homeless, and, just last year, I won the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award from Marquis Who’s Who.

As it was said in Jersey Boys, “If you want to get a hit record, it’s like the stations of the cross. You have to get past the record companies, the Program Directors, the DJs, and, if you’re lucky, you get to the people.” The same is true for those like me who want to make something of themselves. You have to get to the people.

A Suggestion to End Mass Shooting

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Something should be done about mass shooters. Everyone says so. But the recommendations seem to be to take the guns away from the NRA. Apparently, this is not going to go anywhere, so more people will die as schoolkids did again in Colorado just a few days ago and again today as I write this. Something must give.

Let’s try this suggestion. This is my idea from a hard lesson learned. I had a schizophrenic breakdown resulting in the death of my wife back in the summer of 1979. My parents – my mother especially – saw there was something wrong with me, but they did not know where to go to get help or report the matter until it was too late. So, this is what I have to say: People can see when something is going wrong. If they see that someone is experiencing psychosis by collecting guns and saying that he is going to kill people, they should be able to report that with the result that he should be taken off the streets for a 30-day observation and evaluation.

 This is not a gun issue. The news reports following the shooting always indicate that the shooter has mental illness. Why, oh, why couldn’t we get him the help that he needed?

I was emailing a member of the Court just recently about this, and his remark was, “You are on point, but until this country is ready to seriously address the issue of mental health and provide the necessary resources to do so, things will not change.” 

Write to your legislator.

 

Pell Grants to be Reintroduced for Prisoners

Pell Grants to be Reintroduced for Prisoners

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Things are starting to happen quickly now on the vanguard of criminal justice reform, namely, educational opportunities for inmates. On April 20, 2019, National Public Radio reported “Congress Considers Making College More Accessible to People in Prison” by restoring Pell Grants to them. “Inmates are among the least-educated people in America. That’s despite research that shows education is one of the most effective ways to keep people from coming back to prison.” This will be done through the REAL Act (Restoring Education And Learning). The legislation was introduced by US Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill).

From Schatz’s April 9, 2019 website, “The REAL Act would restore a program we know already works and give people a real chance to rebuild their lives.”

Justice-involved people lost access to Pell Grant assistance in 1994 during the President Bill Clinton era when the policy was to “get tough on crime.” As one involved with the law at that time because of my illness, I remember those days. We now have over 2 million people in prison who have no hope and no future. President Obama’s Education Department announced an experiment in 2015 called Second Chance Pell. This current legislation is meant to rectify the problem with the statistic being (from Schatz) “that people who participate in correctional education while in prison were 43% less likely to recidivate… [S]tudies have shown that each dollar spent on secondary education programs for prisoners reduces incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years after an individual is released.”

In late 2018 (when he wrote to me and told me he was going to do it) President Trump signed a criminal justice reform bill called the First Step Act.

This is good. Let’s hope to see the results we want.

Mentoring the Justice-Involved

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Back in the late 1990s I began to write about criminal justice reform and what I thought would work based upon my own experiences. In May 1998 I wrote an article for IMprint – a Mensa newsletter – titled “How Do We Get to Peace?” I slogged it alone, but it is starting to work. Let me tell you this part of the story.

I had visited Northern State Prison in Newark, NJ with the Paterson Chamber of Commerce in 1997 as part of a training program. We walked among the inmates, and in that May 1998 article I wrote, “It is our belief that life as an incarcerated individual is a dead-end street…” Is it? I listed some items that I thought would help to change the situation, and two of the most important were education and mentoring. It has taken 21 years, but people are beginning to catch on. Read on.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice held two symposiums on the topic of mentoring justice-involved youth, one back in October of 2017 and a follow-up in April of 2018. (I wrote about both in IMprint – March 2018 and August 2018.) What they found in conjunction with the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, DC is that education is unparalleled in helping justice-involved youth succeed in society, and mentoring works best when the mentors are people who have gone through the system and hard times themselves and now want to share their experiences with the youths to keep them out of trouble. What they did not mention at the time is the need for a change in the laws that discriminate against or prevent a formerly justice-involved individual from getting a job.

Founder and CEO of Schizophrenia And Related Disorders Alliance of America, Linda Stalters, says the same is said to be true by those with serious brain illness who have been caught in the criminal justice system. Attending Schizophrenic Alliance support group meetings “while incarcerated was their most important help.”

John Jay College sent me a newsletter this past April 2019 called “The Lens: News and Views from PRI” with an article regarding a program at a maximum-security prison facility known as “The Rock” in Connecticut. It included video clips from 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes Overtime and aired March 31, 2019 where they found these things are true. Here is the link:

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/german-style-true-program-at-cheshire-correctional-institution-emphasizes-rehab-for-inmates-60-minutes/

SARDAA and Reclassification of Schizophrenia

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Back in October 1999, I wrote an article for IMprint – a Mensa newsletter – titled “The Crime Solution” where I gave specific suggestions and insights to how crime can be reduced including a mention of mental illness. Those suggestions are being studied today.

I rewrote the article and renamed it “Reducing Recidivism” and included it as chapter 104 in my book In the Matter of Edwin Potter: Mental Illness and Criminal Justice Reform. In it I wrote, in part, “As for the one with mental illness, there can be no real progress until his illness is addressed.” In this regard, Schizophrenia And Related Disorders Alliance of America is taking action. (As a note, I was asked to write a blog for them.) SARDAA was founded about a decade ago. I received an email this past March 2019 from the Founder and CEO, Linda Stalters, which states, in part:

Your urgent financial support is needed to support SARDAA’s efforts to reclassify schizophrenia as a neurological brain illness and re-galvanize the HIPAA "compassionate communication exception".

Why does this matter?

  • There is scientific consensus that the illness is a brain-based, highly heritable illness.

  • There is also overwhelming evidence that schizophrenia is a neurodevelopmental disorder.

  • Whether patients receive timely, appropriate treatment has great consequences. After the first episode of schizophrenia, not taking any regular antipsychotic medication is associated with a 12-fold increase in the relative risk of all-cause death and a 37-fold increase in death by suicide.

Reclassification has the best potential to dramatically reduce stigma in the illness and re-invigorate our orientation towards timely and appropriate treatments as well as making incarceration, homelessness and death unacceptable outcomes for schizophrenia…

With your support we can continue our work with other organizations, agencies, medical professionals, diagnosed individuals and families to change the way people are treated medically and socially.

Presently, people with schizophrenia are seen as behavioral problems or felons by the courts. This then carries over to the public who see them the same way. SARDAA wrote letters to see schizophrenia reclassified. These are to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee (ISMICC). From the letter to the CDC:

If schizophrenia having a neurological basis is such an obvious given for clinicians and scientists – people that are ‘in the know’ – why does this question remain in the general public? The answer is likely to be a complex mix of factors that includes a lack of proper education of the public and historical inertia in the systems of care that cater to the schizophrenia population (e.g. psychiatry vs. neurology), as well as how this care is paid for (e.g. structure of reimbursement codes by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services).

From the letter to the ISMICC:

Patients with psychosis are frequently exposed to negative stereotypes, stigma and social exclusion associated with their diagnosis. Unfortunately, patients and their families often engage in self-stigmatization, blaming themselves for the disorder and wondering what they could have done differently to prevent the illness. Understanding schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses as neurological disorders would help the community at large in viewing these illnesses as they do other medical illnesses such as cancer or diabetes.

In her book Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness, journalist Alisa Roth states on the jacket:

In America, having a mental illness has become a crime. One in four fatal police shootings involves a person with mental illness. The country’s three largest providers of mental health care are not hospital, but jails. [LA County jail, Cook County jail, and Rikers Island – DG] As many as half the people in US jails and prisons have a psychiatric disorder.

Again, from the letter to ISMICC:

We have general prevalence estimates indicating that 1.2% of all Americans – roughly 3.2 million people – have schizophrenia from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Beyond that broad approximation, we just do not know much more about this patient population. In particular, if we turn to public mental health agencies, who provide the vast majority of publicly financed inpatient hospital and community-based services for people living with schizophrenia, the lack of basic data is striking. For example, baseline demographic data on gender, average age of onset, race, religious affiliation, ethnic background and income are often completely absent. That lack of information often extends to the realm of service delivery. State mental health agencies often struggle to identify the specific type of care provided, the penetration rate for mental health and related support services in a given geographic area, the intensity of service delivery for each patient with schizophrenia and, most importantly, verifiable clinical outcomes. An amendment to the National Neurological Diseases Surveillance System could begin to help answer these baseline questions.

For more information see www.sardaa.org. Read and sign-on to the letters requesting that schizophrenia be reclassified.

Mapping the Educational Landscape in NYS Prisons

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Back in October 1999 I published an article in Imprint – a Mensa newsletter – that stated in part that education is one of the key factors in reducing recidivism. (The article is now part of chapter 104 in my book In the Matter of Edwin Potter: Mental Illness and Criminal Justice Reform.) There is currently a report titled “Mapping the Landscape of Higher Education in New York State Prisons” referenced in the March 2019 newsletter from the Prisoner Re-entry Institute (PRI) of John Jay College of Criminal Justice supporting what I wrote. From the newsletter:

“The efficacy of college-in-prison programs in reducing recidivism is well documented; a study by the Rand Corporation showed that those who participated in correctional education programs had a 43% lower rate of recidivating than those who did not. Mapping the Landscape explores other benefits of college-in-prison programs, such as improving incarcerated students’ relationships with their families and increasing safety in facilities for both students and correctional staff.”

 The full report includes an executive summary.

Being A Better Person

It is Lent 2019 as I write this, and I want to take part. The emphasis is to improve our relationship with God, to be a better person. But as someone with schizophrenia, I know that many others in that category with me are suicidal and have a very difficult time being a better person. We need to forgive ourselves, and that is the crux of the matter: We can’t. We live with the belief that we are among the worst, most unforgiveable people on the planet, and the reality is that only medication can resolve this. And the TV news doesn’t help.

Attempts at suicide are common among people with this illness. I saw this firsthand during my years at the hospital, and I tried it myself. Sadly, some succeed. I knew a man who carried through with it. I called him Frank Kirkland in my book. He was a drug addict with so much potential to do good. I still weep for him at times now 40 years later.

I can’t blame the Church for putting this weight on my shoulders. Its people are human, too, with their own failings and limitations, and we go through this walk together. But generally, they withdraw. As the young prosecutor asked during the “Just Prosecution” simulation exercise, “If the Church won’t help you, who will?” In the March 2019 issue of US Catholic there is an interview with Chicago deacon Tom Lambert. The online headline to the article is “Catholics must do more to accompany people with mental illness, says this deacon. Parishioners don’t have to be psychiatrists to support Catholics with mental illness.”

 There is hope in this season.

NYCHA Permanent Exclusion Policy Update

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is the largest public housing authority in the United States with nearly 180,000 units housing nearly 400,000 low-income individuals and families in 334 developments throughout the city.

You may remember my last article on NYCHA from back in October of 2018. In that I reported on NYCHA’s permanent exclusion policy that would not let anyone with the slightest involvement with the law live in their public housing. This destroys families and prevents justice-involved individuals from establishing a base to get themselves on their feet. From the February 2019 PRI website: “This policy has resulted in thousands of people who cannot live with, or even visit, their families who live in public housing, with harsh effects on the young and old alike. Youth under the age of 18 can be excluded from public housing even if their families – who are legally responsible for them – are still living in NYCHA, and even if they have nowhere else to go. Many elderly residents have also been forced to exclude family members who act as their caretakers, leaving them without the vital assistance they need to manage the tasks of daily living.” This includes the mentally ill.

Jarrett Murphy, editor of CityLimits.org newsletter, reported these things back on April 19, 2017. He also told us of an investigation done by New York City’s Dept. of Investigation (DOI) that criticized NYCHA’s “leniency” in evicting justice-involved individuals. “DOI recommended NYCHA prosecute these cases more aggressively, request evictions in more cases and consider letting armed law-enforcement officers – rather than NYCHA staff – inspect apartments for banned people.”

“NYCHA has an obligation to protect residents of its buildings,” DOI commissioner Mark Peters said in a statement that accompanied the report. The Daily News piled on with him against NYCHA.

From the CityLimits.org newsletter: “But advocates see a different reality, one in which NYCHA’s reluctance to evict families caught up in the criminal justice system is a lot more sensible than creating hundreds of new clients for the homeless shelter system.” Advocacy groups urged NYCHA and the City Council to reject the “misguided and irresponsible approach to safety” espoused by DOI.

Fast forward. There was a panel on this matter titled “Locked Out” held February 6, 2019. From the PRI February 2019 newsletter: “The panel explored the legal aspects of the policy, the broader context of policing in NYCHA, and the perspectives of the NYCHA residents.”

More to come.

View From The Top

These articles that I write should give you some insight to what is going on in criminal justice reform, but there are some behind the scenes actions as well. Some of it I may have had a part in, for example, in May 2013 I sent my recidivism article to NJ Gov. Chris Christie. I heard nothing, so in May 2014 I sent it again. Later in that year Martin’s Place opened in Jersey City, NJ to much fanfare to help justice-involved individuals make the transition from prison to the community. Former NJ Governor Jim McGreevey was appointed as Executive Director, and he made some real efforts to advocate for these justice-involved individuals. My wife and I met him at a rest stop on the NJ Turnpike during the summer of 2017 while we were on our way to a friend’s home in Maryland. I had also sent him a copy of my book, In the Matter of Edwin Potter, and he recognized me straight away – coming around the car to shake my hand 5 or 6 times. We had a brief conversation, then we went our separate ways. In January 2019 he lost his job as Executive Director at Martin’s Place. (The Star Ledger, January 8, 2019) It was said to have been political.

I sent US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) a copy of my recidivism article back in August of 2015 and the book in December 2016. I never heard from him, but in December of 2018 he submitted a significant bill to the US Senate for criminal justice reform. (The Star Ledger, Dec. 20, 2018) Did he read the book? I also never heard from current NJ Governor Phil Murphy after I sent him the book in January 2018, but I did hear from NY Governor Andrew Cuomo after I sent him a copy of the recidivism article back in 2014!

There are several other elected NJ officials who I sent my book to, but there is one who is much maligned, and one would never expect a response from: President Donald Trump. In March 2017 I sent him a copy of my book along with a letter, and I did not hear from him for the longest time. Then I was surprised to receive a letter from him dated Nov. 6, 2018 expressing his intent and commitment “to [help] former inmates become productive, law-abiding members of society.” I thanked him and in January 2019 reminded him that there was no mention of the mentally ill who are incarcerated. I’ve been told by people who deal with the mentally ill that my book provides them with hope. I am hoping for a positive response from the President.

If It Can Be Done Wrong

“My job description was written at the signing of the Magna Carta… If I walked into a courtroom tomorrow and you asked me to prosecute a case, my job would be to investigate that crime, produce that evidence to a finder of fact to determine guilt or innocence. Nothing has changed since then. And unlike medicine, which changed with times and culture and advances in understanding about people in our communities, the criminal justice system functions the exact same way that it was invented.”

            --Adam Foss, Founder and President of Prosecutor Impact

 

(Today’s article relies heavily on Alisa Roth’s book Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness.)

 

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin asked the Pennsylvania Assembly for some money to set up the first hospital in America with a separate ward for treating mental illness. Prior to that the latter were “treated” at the House of Correction and “that House was by no Means fitted for such Purposes.” (pg. 77) Conditions were grim. Patients lived in cold, smelly basement cells and were often put in hand irons, leg locks, and straitjackets. People would come to ogle them and were charged four pence for the hassle. Arguments ensued over the centuries up to this day whether the mentally ill should be treated as felons. See LA County Jail, Cook County Jail, and Riker’s Island.

 

“Over the course of our [American] history, punishment by incarceration has been our standard response to crime. But by the 1970s, as jails and prisons were beginning to grow dramatically, we had largely given up on the idea that incarceration should be rehabilitative. Lost with the notion of rehabilitation have been things like education programs, which made it possible. Instead, we have been left with an almost single-minded focus on punishment and retribution.” (pg. 93)

 

I’ve been in horrible places by today’s standards. This is not how people should be treated.

Finding Jobs After Life in Prison

One of the major issues in criminal justice reform – if not THE major issue – is prisoner re-entry, that is, the entry of the justice-involved individual back into society as a contributing citizen. It sounds like a joke right now because we have been trained to believe in the revolving door. Cam Ward, a Senator from Alabama (R-Alabaster), sees it differently. He is sponsoring a bill that would remove more than 700 sections of code from the Alabama constitution that restricts jobs that people can get after being released from prison.

 

“The whole idea when someone gets out of prison- we want them to get a job,” Ward said. “We want them to pay taxes. We want them to be productive citizens and not a public safety risk.”

 

Basically, it addresses the question: How can a person freed from prison become a contributing member of society if the law bars him from getting a job? Currently, a justice-involved individual is discouraged from getting the training he needs to get a job – even reading and writing.

 

Said Fredrick Sherill who was released from prison this past September after 15 years for armed robbery as a teenager, “It’s hard when you being released from prison after doing a lot of time and you’re trying to do the right thing in society and being a law abiding citizen and there’s constant road blocks.”

 

As you read my articles, there has been a lot of talk, but there have also been real-life situations that prove the point. It is important that we go on to the next step which is to implement new laws that will help the person coming out of prison. It will take a few years to see significant results, but this is where it starts.