[28 April 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I got big plans. Me and God got big plans.
“I’ve been a mental patient since 1974. I know what make me paranoid and what don’t, you know. If I get paranoid, I just go somewhere and think it out. I handle it pretty good.” It appears, as Benny Anthony speaks, that he knows himself, that he understands his demons, and appreciates what’s at stake in his decades-long battle with paranoid schizophrenia. As he speaks, however, Benny has been on his medication and in treatment. What happens when he stops is another story. It’s the story of the cyclical incarcerations afflicting severely mentally ill convicts.
Benny appears in Karen O’Connor and Miri Navasky’s The Released, a study of these incarcerations that brings the Frontline filmmakers back to Ohio. Here, they also shot The New Asylums, documenting the use of state prisons to hold the severely mentally ill following the closing of state mental hospitals in the late 1970s. The new film revisits inmates featured in the 2004 documentary, finding that “almost all the inmates we met five years ago had been released and rearrested.”
Among these is Michael Grissett, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and newly released following a 21-year sentence for murder. “The parole board let me go,” he says, “The parole board said, ‘Well, we think you’re rehabilitated, honest, abiding citizen, hard working class person.” Earnestly looking at his interviewers, he explains how his voices work. “They don’t talk all the time, they listen,” he assures the filmmakers. “They can hear y’all but y’all can’t hear them.” Asked what they voices will say once he’s left on his own, Grissett says frankly, “They say, ‘Mr. Michael Grissett, you know you’re the father of God.’ They say, “Where our cornbread? You gonna feed us today?’”
Grissett’s doctor, James Rodio, explains that he and many other severely mentally ill inmates require anti-psychotic medication in order to function. The pattern is repeated throughout the film: the inmate, preparing for release, meets with a doctor or treatment team, agrees with assessments that he must remain “in compliance” with medication. When an inmate serves his full sentence, he is typically released with a two-week supply of meds, some small amount of cash (say, $75), but without parole or supervision. Some very few are fortunate enough to live in a residence like Canton’s Refuge of Hope. Program director Scott Schnyders observes, “Generally there’s no support or buffer there to kind of like cushion their fall. It’s just kind of a hard drop in reality, you know, they’ve kind of broken down every other relationship in their life… so they fall here.”
If, like Lynn Moore, a released prisoner fails a breathalyzer test one evening, he is turned away from the residence and urged to come back in a month. In Moore’s case, he was unable to keep sober following the news that hoped-for housing would be unavailable. Convinced that he was battling Osama bin Laden and Satan, a chronic delusion that leads him to break into people’s homes or damage property. As the camera watches him behind bars, the filmmakers ask if he understands that “this could all be part of your illness.” Moore nods. “Knowing the spirits and knowing where they going,” he affirms, “That’s the delusion, knowing exactly where he’s at.”
The system is fundamentally unequipped to deal with such deep and ongoing issues. Alan Holland, owner of Gibbs Residential Home, notes the limits of treatment. “We can talk to them about what happens if they decompensate,” he says, “But they have a right to refuse their medications.” When that happens, a relapse almost inevitably follows.
The film follows a number of cases. William Stokes first appears as he violently assaults officers trying to get him into a cell. “Unmedicated and out of control,” Stokes admits, “I can be a real jerk.” But, he says, “I’m a totally different person on Clozaril,” which he calls a miracle drug. Luckily, he’s released to Bridgeview Manor, the only home in Ohio that accepts indigent mentally ill. Here he lives with 15 other residents, works daily with staff and case workers. Executive director Jonathan Lee explains that the home was born out of frustration. People in this home, says Sherri Sullivan, “will need care for the rest of their lifetime.” If for some reason they lose access to such care, she adds, they are “rehospitalized and reincarcerated, the cycle kind of starts all over again.” Anyone who makes it out, Schnyders says, is “the exception rather than the rule.”
The numbers are staggering. The documentary notes that some 700,000 inmates will be released this year, more than half mentally ill. The consequences can be dire, whether directed at others or themselves. “I’m like my own worst enemy,” says Jerry Tharpe, “I’m in a sense destroying myself psychologically and physically.” He’s not exaggerating. Diagnosed as schizophrenic at age 16, Jerry has been known to ingest “bed hooks, razor blades, ink pens, pencils, and toothbrushes.” Off his Thorazine, he says, he once swallowed “a cassette walkman am-fm radio,” which he crushed into “chunks and slivers” and chased with gulps of water.
Such lucid self-appraisal tends to be fleeting. Keith Williams, the film narrates, “More than anyone we met, represented the failures of deinstitutionalization.” They tracked him five years ago, and now, he is being discharged from a state hospital for the 18th time. The filmmakers ask where he’s headed after release. No longer in touch with family, he says he’s going to Toledo, where he hopes to find his people. “Who are your people?” the interviewer wonders. “My mother’s angels,” he says. “Cats.” Asked where these people live, he answers, “They live all over the world, if I’m not mistaken.”
Good-natured and intermittently coherent, Williams is headed back into “the community.” His treatment team meets to discuss his imminent departure, agreeing that his chances for success are slim. Michelle Istler-Perry, a nurse at Northcoast Behavioral Healthcare, says, “The good news is that Keith is getting better and he’s more stable, and in a sense, the bad news is, as well, that because of this, he’ll be sent back into the community in Toledo. He’ll be back within three months.” In fact, he is arrested for assaulting a police officer just four days after his release.
Heartbreaking and clear-eyed, The Released submits that this system is obviously unsustainable—for inmates, health workers, and law enforcement officials. That it goes on nonetheless, when everyone inside it can see the problems very day, is tragic, but also deplorable.