As I posted previously, yesterday I spoke at the local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) group meeting. The subject I discussed was the treatment of mentally ill people within the Montana criminal justice system.
For anyone who was not able to attend this meeting, I am posting the contents of the speech here. This speech is lengthy, but hopefully it will be able to posted in its entirety without too much trouble...
Note: this will actually be the second post for today, so if you are reading this, be sure to read the following entry as well for all of today's postings.
I would like to take a moment before I start to thank you all for having me speak to you today about what I have witnessed regarding the treatment of mentally ill people within the Montana criminal justice system. When Boyd first suggested that I speak with you about this, I felt that this was indeed an ideal forum to discuss this issue, as it provides the people most affected by this issue with information that you otherwise would not have access to. You are the people that need to know about this topic more than anyone else, and so I am extremely grateful to have this opportunity to share what I have learned over the last five years.
What I will be speaking of today is not something that you will hear about from any elected nor appointed official. This is not something that would be very politically acceptable and for liability reasons, I am certain that a direct inquiry about these issues would be flatly denied. But I assure you that everything I will be discussing today is absolutely true and anyone who attempts to deny that these things are happening has a motivated reason for lying to you.
First, let me tell you that I am not an extraordinary person by any means; I am simply an ordinary man that has lived through some extraordinary experiences. In the course of living through the last five years, I have witnessed first-hand how the mentally ill are really treated in this state once they are removed from the public eye, especially when they are committed to the criminal justice system. And I must tell you that that is publicly represented and what truly goes on behind closed doors is not the same. Mentally ill people are not afforded the protections allowed by law when your government officials believe they can deprive them such rights in the interest of their own profit margin.
The way mentally ill are treated in our society, within our city, our county, our State, and even in our country as a whole, is a great to everyone in this room, I am certain. And it needs to be a great concern to our society as a whole, since whenever any group can be summarily denied their legal rights, it only makes it that much easier to deprive others of their rights later on.
Reverend Martin Niemoller wrote about this once in a very poignant way. He wrote, “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.” By saying these words, Rev. Niemoller made it clear that when people do not stand together, even when it is others’ rights who are being infringed upon, that sooner or later when it comes time for your own rights to be defended, that no one else would be around to aid if one did not first help in defending those first down-trodden.
Then of course, there is a quote from Benjamin Franklin that said this even clearer: “Let us all hang together, or surely we shall all hang separately.” In this, he was quite literal in that he meant that one would be hung by the neck until dead if they were convicted of treason against England, and that only together could the colonists hope to stand against the tyranny of the English Empire. But regardless which statement you rely upon, both say the same thing: if we do not stand united against this deprivation of rights, we only leave ourselves vulnerable to the loss of more rights in due time.
My own mental illness is minor compared to what most mentally ill people must face each and every day. But though my own limitations are minor by comparison, the fact that I do suffer from a mental illness at all provided me a window of opportunity through which to observe the treatment of mentally ill individuals as a whole as I sought treatment for my own condition.
Personally, I am a claustrophobic, this condition stemming from a childhood trauma of being trapped under a house when I was around ten years old. My arachnophobia also stems from this same event, but that particular phobia has never been debilitating for me. A few years ago I found out that I suffered from claustrophobic anxiety when I was forcefully detained in an enclosed environment. Prior to the first anxiety attack, I was not even aware that I was claustrophobic. But when I was incarcerated for a crime I did not commit, I found that the constant confinement had a progressively detrimental impact upon me to the point that I did become debilitated. The first anxiety attack involved an episode where I could not even breathe, and later attacks had even further effects upon me, including my inability to sleep, a constant fear sensation, excessive nervousness, and more. Worse still, I learned that when my freedom was taken from permanently, that my disease could be used against me as a weapon.
And yet I was not alone in any of this. As I was made to suffer for five years, I also witnessed others suffering from various mental illnesses also being mistreated in this way. I observed both directly and learned through stories told to me by other sufferers how negligently the State of Montana treated individuals with mental illnesses. During my incarceration, I met countless people whose only “offense” (and I use this term with sarcasm) was to be mentally ill and incapable of fighting back against their mistreatment. Most of these people did not genuinely belong in prison – in a hospital perhaps, but not in prison. And yet they were committed to institutions as part of a faceless body count.
Today, I would like to share with you some of what I witnessed do that you can be properly informed of what really goes on within our State correctional system. This is not a minor issue but a chronic problem. I am hopeful that by providing this information to you that you will not only be made aware of this crisis but also provide you much needed ammunition to speak out against this abusive system.
Before I begin though, I would like to tell you something about myself and how I came to be incarcerated myself. I mention all of what follows as pretext to the subject of treatment of mentally ill people within the criminal justice system because I want express that your group is not alone in being mistreated by your government and that you should not have to face the challenges associated with fighting these improprieties alone. My example will show you that not only is such abuse of the law widespread, but that if you are isolated from each other, that you will be far less effective in your struggle.
For five years I was committed to the Montana State Prison for a crime I did not commit. My entire adult life, I have been committed to working with one form or community benefit nonprofit enterprise or another, just as the better part of my adult life has been plagued by medical problems in one form or another. After high school, I attempted to go to college, taking a curriculum in English-Creative Writing as a major with a history minor but could not continue due to lack of finances and for having developed a sleeping disorder. I left college and began working in retail, but did a lot of work with crisis counseling and as a sponsor for Alcoholics Anonymous. Having been raised in a dysfunctional home with an alcoholic step-father who abused the family for over sixteen years, I felt drawn to helping others overcome these kinds of problems.
When at twenty-two, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid variant disease, I turned my efforts to providing nonprofit services within my personal area of expertise, collectible genre, specifically by providing a trading card service that eventually exposed me to the area of collectible card games, or CCGs. This was significant because, after moving to Montana in 1996, I turned my interest in these kinds of games into a youth recreations program that promoted these kinds of games as educational activities for youth. With these games, I helped inspire such worthwhile traits as problem solving, goal setting and positive social interaction into financially challenged youth in first Polson and the Kalispell.
In 2003, following some severe harassments and defamations from officers with Kalispell Police Department, I filed a lawsuit against the City of Kalispell. In retaliation, local authorities abducted my step-daughters and had myself and my girlfriend arrested on manufactured charges. My girlfriend was released upon threat of being rearrested if she provided me aid or even access to my business or personal assets, but I remained incarcerated while the authorities ultimately railroaded me into a false conviction, sentencing me to twenty years, five of which I was forced to serve within the state penal system because I refused to “confess” to a crime I did not commit. Though I am no longer in prison, having been released only last month, I remain a prisoner in this State, my civil liberties restricted and the threat of being returned to prison for another fifteen years constantly hovering over my head.
What happened to me happened largely because local authorities were given free reign to terrorize people in my life – first my step-daughters, then my girlfriend and through her everyone else in my life. The message was delivered that anyone supporting me could be arrested and it was a successful enough threat to isolate me from any support outside of jail. I urge you then that if you do choose to stand against the wrongs perpetuated against mentally ill persons in this State, to stand together and remain together. You all stand a far better chance of succeeding if you remain united than if you permit others to divide you.
In spite of all of that has happened to me, or perhaps more because of it, I have become a vocal advocate against the widespread official misconduct perpetuated against the citizens of this State by its own government. As such, I have become (not by personal choice, I assure you) an enemy of the state and been mistreated, abused and deprived of even greater civil rights simply because the powers-that-be do not wish my voice to be heard. I cannot even get simple due process is a separate legal action trying to secure my business assets because the local court clerk will not issue a summons nor will the court itself issue simple default judgments to which I am entitled. This is one reason why I am so grateful for this opportunity today – because it gives me a chance to share at least some of what I have learned with a group of people who are at risk of very real dangers posed to their own liberties.
It was during this five year period of time that, though I was sentenced to the Montana State Prison, I was actually confined between all four state operated male prison facilities and had the opportunity to witness the treatment of inmates in every such institution within the State. The only state facility I have not been in has been the Montana Women’s Prison, for obvious reasons. This has provided me a unique perspective from which to view how inmates, mentally ill amongst them, are treated in this State. In fact, I have a class action lawsuit filed against the state corrections system in the U.S. District Court even to this day, addressing innumerable civil liberty violations including deliberate indifference to inmate medical care. So as you can see, this issue is close to my heart, as I continue to challenge the State on this very issue.
In an ideal world, every individual would be accepted, regardless of differences or limitations. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, and too often those in positions of authority take advantage of the weaknesses of those below them on the societal rungs. Though laws have been passed to try to bring us closer to an idealic world, laws must first be followed before their purpose can be honored. And in Montana, too many government officials are committed to working around these laws, believing themselves above the laws of our society in general simply by virtue of their positions of authority, for these laws to have any genuine impact. You must learn to speak out against those who abuse their positions of power to advance their own agendas. Public officials are servants of the people and they must follow the laws that have been passed down just as any other citizen must. And they must be made aware that treatment of the mentally ill in this State in anything other than humane and compassionate ways will not be silently conceded to, or that the mentally ill as a group can be stripped of their rights indiscriminately.
As I mentioned, there are laws designed to protect the mentally ill from abuse. These laws, amongst other things, require that mental competency be a factor in defense of a crime, that a person with a mental illness be provided adequate medical care if incarcerated and that officials in charge of mentally ill persons not be permitted to abuse them. Yet in spite of these laws, which stem from the United States Constitution, each and every one of these issues is ignored in our State when it comes to practical application to those who are entitled to these rights. People with mental illnesses are routinely taken advantage of and too often treated as violent, uncontrollable offenders as an excuse to deny them the treatment and respect they deserve. Prison and jail officials torment, harass and intimidate people with mental illnesses as means by which they can dominate and control these people. And far too often, genuine medical needs are simply outright ignored.
This kind of treatment of mentally ill persons goes beyond being inhumane, beyond subjugation to cruel and unusual punishment; this kind of abuse is, simply put, sadistic and obscene. When helpless and confused individuals can so brazenly have their helplessness and confusion turned against them simply to permit the State to gain advantage over them, the very State that by law is supposed to be protecting these individuals in the first place, it becomes simply inconceivable that such a perverted system could remain empowered. And yet it is and it continues to flourish because no one outside the system in normal society is aware what is really going on behind the prison walls, because the people who are perpetuating the abuse are the same ones who have the power to hide the abuse. The walls of a prison may well exist to protect society from the offenders contained therein, but Montana has used those same walls to hide their criminal mistreatment of their inmates from the outside world as well.
This kind of abuse happens every single day behind the walls of not only prisons, but jails as well. And because no one on the outside of these facilities can actually see these wrongs being perpetrated, they continue unabated. “If it is not seen, it does not exist” seems to be the maxim of our government. Well, I am here today to tell you that I have seen it and that this abuse does exist. And I hope that after today it will not be my voice alone raised up in protest against it.
So far, I have spoken in generalities. Let me now speak of specifics. I will forego using the names of the people I have met simply because I do not have their permission to publicize their circumstances. And I would not intentionally draw more attention to them without their consent. But I assure you that the people I will speak of are real with very real mental illnesses, and that each and every one was committed to a state prison in lieu of a medical hospital where they could have received treatment for their needs.
I mentioned earlier that mental competency was often disregarded when people with mental illness are accused of crimes. It is worse than just this simple statement suggests though. Public defenders, attorneys assigned to assist indigent defendants, often take advantage of people’s weaknesses to maneuver them into convictions that assist not their clients, but instead the State that is prosecuting them. In the case of the mentally ill, far too often public defenders will take advantage of their clients’ confusion and dependency upon authority to deceive them into circumstances that are designed not to defend the person with mental illness, but to streamline an easy conviction.
This specific situation is created by multiple factors, from the overwhelming caseload public defenders are assigned, making the attorney inclined to rush through the cases assigned to him, to cooperative efforts with the individual courts to keep from overloading the system and creating a larger workload for the courts, which serves to keep the attorney in favor with the seated judge, since a judge’s political career is based upon the number of successful prosecutions he oversees, not by the number that are successfully defended. There is also the factor that a public defender is under no genuine obligation to succeed or fail at his representation – win or lose, he will always have new clients.
One instance where this kind of neglect happened was in the case of a young man, whom I will call Noah for purposes of anonymity, who suffered from hallucinations, schizophrenia and paranoia. Noah’s mental illnesses had been well documented and he was taking his medications for his conditions. However, he became resistant to his medications and suffered a serious episode where he witnessed an old lady “transform” into a demon. Believing himself in danger, he attacked the “demon” and was subsequently charged with a felony assault upon the woman.
Typically, Noah should have had a solid defense: he had not willfully or purposely harmed the victim of his assault – he had suffered an episode that rendered his ability to distinguish between his hallucinations and reality impossible. For Noah, the transformation and subsequent danger he felt were very real. In his mind, he was under threat f harm and acted accordingly. But the reason for this was not because he intended harm to the woman; it was because he thought he was going to be attacked by a demon. He did not commit a crime, he suffered from a medical attack and should have been treated accordingly. Instead, he was convicted of a felony crime of which he shuld not have been.
In any other State, Noah would have been found innocent by reason of mental illness and probably remanded to a state hospital until his medications could be properly adjusted. In this case though, his public defender, taking advantage of Noah’s mental state to convince Noah to waive his rights to a jury trial and just permit the judge to decide his case, what is known as a bench trial. Noah trusted his attorney as an authority figure over him and put trust in him to be honest with him. However, the public defender only wanted to play to the whim of the court. A true jury trial would have found Noah innocent because there was no escaping the fact that Noah had a well documented history of mental illness. And so Noah was manipulated into foregoing his jury trial and to place his fate into the hands of someone who had already made up his mind about the case. The judge was not inclined to let a young man who had assaulted an elderly woman be found innocent and instead found Noah guilty of the assault and sentenced him to a sixty year prison sentence!
And yet this was not the end of the abuse heaped upon Noah, either. Though the judge in his case disregarded his defense of mental incompetency, he did at least acknowledge the existence of Noah’s mental health history. Though the judge sentenced Noah to the state prison, he also decreed that he could be transferred to a mental hospital if a treatment counselor at his prison facility believed it appropriate, and even allowed for the possibility of reducing the committed portion of his sentence upon recommendation of the counselor.
The problem with this decree was that it required the prison facility to provide Noah access to such a treatment counselor. One would think that this provision within Noah’s sentencing order would make such access mandatory. However, the Montana Department of Corrections has adopted the policy that unless a medical need is life-threatening, it becomes discretionary treatment that the State does not have to provide. In Noah’s case, because access to a treatment counselor did not meet this criteria, that not being provided access to a treatment counselor did not endanger his life, Noah was not allowed to seek the recommendation that could have transferred him to a medical hospital or to subsequent release.
Individual medical facilities interpret the Department of Corrections’ policy differently on specific issues, the underlying allowance of this policy is to reduce medical costs to the State. There are a plethora of federal cases mandating that inmates not be denied medical treatment that would make them suffer in any way, defining such deliberate indifference to medical care as a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. To disallow any medical treatment that is not simply “life threatening” violates this standard. And yet no authority within Montana’s borders will compel prison officials to rescind this policy.
As a result of this policy, Noah could likely find himself committed to prison conceivably for the rest of his natural life. All because he was firstly deprived his lawful defense based upon his medical history and secondly that the State has taken the position that Noah is not “entitled” to receive mental health services to which he is constitutionally mandated to receive.
This latter example of being deprived access to mental health services is true in most cases within both the jails and prisons of the State. Montana operates its penal system as a for-profit enterprise more than anything else. In the national media, this kind of system has been called “prison for profit”. It represents a growing movement within our nation of the federal government supplementing penal costs to States and private companies to insure that federal corrections guidelines are followed. However, what this does is provide a well from which to draw unprecedented funds into the States’ coffers just for housing inmates within their jails. In other words, despite politicians claiming record costs being spent on corrections, the truth is that the States receives far more every year through federal grants than it actually spends. There is a reason why private prisons are ranked within the Fortune 500 standard and are such successful stock investments – there is a great deal of profit to be made in corrections and the States are reaping the benefits as much, if not more so, than the private corporations!
In Montana, this measure has been taken even further though – the State is not only concerned about using the prison system to profit off of, it is also doing everything in its power to maximize these profits. The system in Montana is designed not only to incarcerate people in need of corrections, but seeks out any excuse to fill beds within their institutions. From simply depriving accused individuals of their initial defenses as I discussed earlier to a sophisticated scheme of double jeopardy involving imposition of simultaneous suspended and probation sentences, Montana’s justice system is designed to keep as many people incarcerated at any given time as possible – after all, the more inmates it can report housing, the greater the funding it receives from the federal government. And with one of the most expensive portions of incarceration being medical care, this is also an area ripe for cutbacks to even further maximize profits if the standards of care are lessened.
In a nutshell, Montana’s prison system is a calculated equation of profitability. By maximizing the number of individuals incarcerated and reducing overhead costs such as medical care, the State views the corrections system as a source of never-ending revenue. In the process though, civil liberties are discarded and any method that can place a living body within the prison system to add to the profit margin is seen as a justifiable trade-off. Unfortunately, this also makes underprivileged classes of people like the mentally ill easy victims for this kind of duplicity, both as they initially fall into the system, and as they try to survive it from behind the prison walls.
A prime example of what I have been talking about is when a prison facility will hire a mental health counselor as a pretense to meeting medical needs, but who actually has no authority to actually provide more than basic mental health services. Essentially, the facility caps the mental health expenses by hiring a professional on retainer, but then discourages that professional from providing more than the most generic form of counseling. No expenditures on medications above the most basic prescriptions and no actual authority to provide medical care beyond simply meeting with inmates to “talk out” their issues. Unfortunately, as I am sure you all well know, mental illness is not always treatable by just “talking it out”.
To illustrate this point, let me tell you about another inmate I knew, whom I will call Avery. In this case, Avery was actually a cellmate of mine for awhile so I was privy to many of his struggles to receive mental health services, even when Avery himself did not believe the issues were of that nature. For example, among several issues Avery had was that he was subject to hallucinations. He had told me about seeing unicorns, sphinxes and other fantasy-based creatures, about seeing people appear and disappear and hearing voices. One of the more disturbing hallucinations he had was that of something crawling beneath his skin, which he was convinced were actually parasitic worms. He had shown me scars under his arms where he had previously tried digging out the worms; Though he insisted the scars were from cysts the worms made, the scars were clearly from more than sub-dermal cysts.
When Avery began talking to me of digging the worms out again, I convinced him instead to seek medical treatment. I did my best of course to not enable his delusions by agreeing that the worms were real – in fact, I told him that I believed they were not, but that if he believed he were that he should seek medical help in removing them. The end result was that Avery sent a request for medical care.
Avery saw the mental health counselor on three separate occasions, but the only thing the counselor would do would be to placate Avery. The counselor admitted to Avery that there was nothing they could really do, but she did play along and agree with Avery when he insisted the worms were real. Clearly, if the counselor believed the worms were real, she would have sent him to medical for treatment. But instead, Avery kept seeing the mental health counselor. And all the while I was left to try to convince Avery not to dig out the worms once he returned to the cell!
In other words, faced with an inmate who suffered from sensory, visual and auditory hallucinations and who was contemplating self-mutilation to “cure” himself of phantom sensations, the mental health counselor did absolutely nothing to treat Avery because it was not considered a “life threatening” condition!
This was very similar to how I was treated when I saw care for my claustrophobic anxiety. Initially, I was given a so-called anti-anxiety medication, but when that had no effect, I was taken off that medication and essentially just told to “wait it out”. I really had no serious problems with my anxiety until I began being transferred to regional state facilities other than Montana State Prison, since all of the regional facilities are completely self-enclosed. I began doing the regional shuffle in early 2007, in response to my beginning to protest civil liberty deprivations within the prison system. Basically, since I had a “limited” amount of time left on my sentence (less than two years remaining when I first began being moved between facilities), the prison medical staff determined that I was not really in need of mental health care. I literally had a doctor, at my eleven month marker, tell me that I only had a little while left and that I could “tough it out” for the remaining time.
This is hardly adequate medical care, but it is consistent conduct throughout the State. I have witnessed similar atrocities in every facility that I have been in within the State. In fact, this treatment constitutes willful infliction of harm and is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. And yet the abuse continues.
None of this is meant to suggest that no one in the Montana penal system receives any form of treatment at all. Many inmates are actually prescribed medications for varying mental and physical conditions. However, actually obtaining such medications can take years and there are far too many inmates that remain untreated altogether. And many others, like myself, are given only one chance at medication and if that prescription is not effective, no other alternative treatment is provided.
Also, this is not meant to deny that there are actually inmates who try to defraud the medical system to gain access to medications to satisfy their addiction needs. However, this kind of abuse can be screened like in any other medical provider environment without depriving inmates with genuine medical needs from receiving treatment that they actually need.
In my time within Montana’s penal system, I have met inmates who suffer from hallucinations to anxiety, from paranoid delusions to schizophrenia, even in one case to an inmate who displayed symptoms of a multiple personality disorder. And I can honestly say that only a small percentage of these people actually receive the mental health treatment that they need.
As I have said, most of these individuals belong in medical facilities, not prisons. Even those guilty of actual crimes not related to their illnesses deserve treatment for their conditions. However, the State does not receive federal grants to treat the mentally ill, at least not enough to rival the profit they gain through the prison system. So if an individual can be routed to prison instead if a mental hospital, it is to the prison that that individual will be sent, regardless of his underlying medical needs.
And even when the State goes through the pretense of “screening” an individual for mental illness, the doctors at the state hospital at Warm Springs still turn away people with genuine mental health issues. Avery, who I mentioned earlier, had this very thing happen to him. The doctors at Warm Springs determined that Avery was just making up his symptoms for attention because he suffered from narcissism, and discharged him without treatment. In other words, the doctors found an excuse not to treat him and sent him on to prison. And Avery was not the only inmate I met with a similar story, either. Apparently, even the doctors at Warm Springs are under directives to not treat individuals destined for prison.
Finally, State officials are also prone to using an inmate’s mental illness against them. I have seen officials provoke inmates who are prone to instability, play up to an inmates paranoid delusions, even play mind games with mentally ill inmates. This may seem like a kind of sadistic game, but it actually serves a purpose – it gives the prison officials to dominate and exert control over the mentally ill inmate. By being in command of the inmate’s environment and having absolute authority over the inmate, the official gains the ability to subjugate the mentally ill inmate to his will by essentially turning on and off the circumstances that agitate the inmate’s mental condition.
This was even done to me. I was initially moved between facilities as a means of punishment for my challenges to raising complaints against the prison system. But when it became clear that moving me to the enclosed facilities had triggered my claustrophobic anxiety, and I had not stopped pursuing claims (in fact, it was only after being retaliated against by being moved between facilities that I actually filed the class action I mentioned earlier), prison officials began taking steps to raise my anxiety levels. Their actions included everything from provoking other inmates against e through spreading of false rumors, to deprivation of privileges without cause and punishments for offenses that I had not deserved. At one point, I was even confined solitary confinement for “protection” for over a month, deprived of all but the most basic things to keep my mind occupied. The prison officials were well informed of my claustrophobia, yet still confined me to an environment that was intentionally harmful to me. In my case, I did not break and provide the control over my personal self that the prison staff desired, but it did in the end make my life incredibly hard and painful to endure.
All of these issues are serious and they need to be addressed. But what can be done about this crisis? If the laws protecting the mentally ill from this kind of abuse are already in place, what else can be done? Well, I believe that the first thing that needs to be done is to establish some kind of independent oversight, whether through an existing organization or some new state-wide initiative. What is not needed though is to permit the State government to continue to oversee itself. It is clear that government officials are not going to hold each other accountable under the law – otherwise these abuses would not be continuing. It will take citizen-based review to hold these officials accountable to the standards of law.
We must all remember that this country was founded as a government of the people and for the people. It was not designed to be run by an elite few who would sit above the law, but by elected and appointed representatives answerable to the citizens of this country. It is time for each of us to make these representatives answer to us for their misdeeds. And as far as I am concerned, it could not happen soon enough.
Thank you for your time and attention.
Hope this helped, people. Wish me luck that I don't get repercussions for making such a public stand... If I suddenly go silent, you will know why...
Political Prisoner since 2004