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Crazy While Locked Up!

By       Message WILLIAM FISHER     Permalink
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  By William Fisher

Is it just part of the 99-1 percent formulation of post-compassion capitalism that people suffering from mental illnesses commit crimes and end up in prison are simply consigned to the landfills of decomposing humanity -- and become forgotten and invisible?

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Well, Adam Smith, generally thought to be the "father" of Capitalism, never subscribed to that construct. In an era when safety nets were for sissies [ 1723-1790] Smith saw an urgent need to help the least fortunate of our citizens. He dubbed it -- and many other characteristics of capitalism -- The Invisible Hand.

Here's what Smith wrote in his "Theory of Moral Sentiments":

"Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did and never can carry us beyond our own persons, and it is by the imagination only that we form any conception of what are his sensations...His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have this adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels."

But last week the Invisible Hand wasn't working for Warren Hill or Yokamon Hearn. Both were mentally retarded. Both were   executed. Despite a Supreme Court decision that the death penalty would violate the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.

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In Georgia, the State Board of Pardons and Parole denied Hill's request to commute his death sentence and on the same day the US Supreme Court turned down his request for a review. Previously a trial judge had ruled that Hill was indeed mentally retarded. But the Georgia Supreme Court later said Hill failed to prove his intellectual disability "beyond a reasonable doubt."   Legal experts have pointed out that this bar is so high that virtually no mentally ill person could scale it. So Georgia turned justice on its head: it is almost always the State, and not the Defense, that has to prove an inmate's deficiency.

While in prison between the age of 28 and 33, Hill tested at a grade level of approximately 6-7, and had an IQ within the range of mental retardation.

Texas death row inmate Yokamon Hearn , 33, was executed the same week in Huntsville for the 1998 carjacking and murder of a Dallas-area stockbroker.

If you trip and break a leg, you don't go to the supermarket to get it fixed. You go to a hospital. If you're suffering from a mental illness, you don't go to the county jail to make you better. You go to a mental illness hospital. But where? For the past twenty years or so, a large and growing population of mentally ill men and women have been discovering that they have virtually no place to go and that their future is homelessness followed by jail. Thousands are serving long sentences for relatively minor infractions.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has produced several landmark reports since 2000 on mental illness in prison. They report that some of the inmates commit serious crimes. Others commit non-violent or "victimless" crimes. Others simply "act out" to get themselves arrested. They can then go through all the due process steps afforded to defendants with no illnesses -- except that the nature of their illnesses often prevents them from being able to exercise those rights.

The HRW Reports go on: Sometimes they have intelligence deficits and can't explain themselves. Sometimes they lack judgmental skills -- they don't know how to make a plea bargain for a lighter sentence or they choose an inexperienced lawyer. Or sometimes, they're not taking their meds and they are at the dangerous end of their spectrum of peace vs. rage.

The grandson of a friend was convicted of murder in upstate New York. He had been diagnosed several times with schizophrenia and was on specialized psychotic drugs. Of course he wasn't allowed to bring these drugs into the jail -- which was a county jail, not a prison -- and so he was "off his meds." And he was off them for weeks, until a supply was ordered. In fact, this defendant was obliged to go through his entire trial without medication. When he finally saw a psychiatrist, it was on a TV monitor. There was no psychiatrist able to be physically in the jail.

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So here is a young schizophrenic, looking forward to spending the rest of his life in a jail rather than a mental hospital, arriving at what will be his new home for the rest of his life and finding no meds, no doctor, no nurse, no nothing.

Then there's the "supermax" issue. According to the HRW Report, when a mentally ill inmate of a supermax breaks a rule, he/she is punished in the same way as someone from the general population. A news story about the soon-to-be-closed Illinois Tamms supermax profiled one prisoner with a well-documented history of paranoid schizophrenia who was held in solitary for nearly six years, mutilating himself and smearing feces.

Other Tamms prisoners reportedly cut themselves, eat their own flesh, attempt suicide, and engage in other behaviors consistent with suffering from serious and untreated or poorly treated mental illness.

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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