Saturday, May 14, 2005

PBS Rocks (Sorry Neocons)

frontline: the new asylums | PBS

Just watched the Frontline feature on the Ohio state prison system, and how the nation's prisons are substituting for mental health systems.

This is a complicated issue, and while it is tragic to see such a sad state of affairs, it is not easily solved or simple to place blame. Here in Arizona, for instance, a ground-breaking lawsuit years ago helped obtain freedom for thousands of patients who found themselves with no way to escape the state asylums. On behalf of those people, the class action lawsuit mandated freedom for patients who had been made healthy with therapy and medication.

However, this did not result in a completely happy ending. Faced with the prospect of determining which of the thousands of patients were qualified for release, the state (and the nation) punted and basically released them all.

There was no downside, in their minds. Someone too sick for release probably wouldn't sue when they released too soon, and dumping the mentally ill could free up millions of dollars when the state hospitals were closed for lack of patients.

Of course, there is no universal health care in the United States. These people became homeless, had no access to health care and most importantly no access to the medication they required to remain coherent.

It is absolutely predictable that these people ended up in our prison systems, unable to function in society as their illness went untreated.

It will take strong leadership, committed private and public resources, and a lot of money to fix this mess. (A few billion of the money we spent on the optional Iraq war could have done wonders, for instance.) I don't find fault with the Ohio prison system; I am optimistic that the warden seems to truly understand the problem and is doing what he can to improve the situation that has landed in his lap. It shouldn't be his problem, it just is.

Where I find outrage in this story, however, is this: knowing the thousands of theocons and faith-based hypocrites that will not only ignore this problem, but also wail and teeth-gnash about the money "wasted" on these criminals. Unlike the Jesus they worship, there is no mercy for these people whose true crime is being mentally ill.

In my own state, I shudder at the thought of these unfortunate souls in the hands of Joe "Media Whore" Arpaio. The Maricopa county sheriff has killed many perfectly healthy inmates by encouraging his minions to think of inmates as less than human.

It's a genius move for greedy, evil politician. Claim that inmates are being coddled, they enjoy jail, they're guilty (70% of his jail inmates are awaiting trial and not convicted of a crime,) the usual right wing bullshit. Follow up with claims you'll be "tough" by feeding them green bologna and making them dress up in pink underwear.

Once the dim-witted masses have applauded such obvious seventh-grade spin, steal the treasury blind. Institute brutal discipline policies and maybe kill and maim a few inmates. Lose a few lawsuits. Make sure your people know, however, that you expect continued inhumane treatment of prisoners is required.

If a few media reports make a stink, put the inmates in tents and chain gangs and stage a few media events. Sun City retirees will achieve orgasmic release, local news hacks will love the ratings boost, and you will maintain high approval ratings.

All this is disgusting enough, but imagine what such a culture would do to a mental patient. I can't even imagine. Perhaps the reality they would exist in would be even worse than the perils they imagine.

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