December Column Winner

Unanswered cries for help

Ted Streuli, The Journal Record

In the silence of the cellblock, you hear the screaming of tortured souls.
A pair of ghostly eyes peered through a narrow window in the cell's steel door, vanished, then reappeared. Whatever he was thinking while looking at our group of 49 Leadership Oklahoma participants remains as mysterious as the look in his eyes: partly bafflement, partly anger, primarily vacant.
The Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester is the maximum-security home of 977 offenders who spend 23 hours per day in cells. Each gets one hour, alone in a cage, for exercising. Half suffer from serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or multiple personalities. The most disturbed are housed in a unit that allows doctors, guards and visitors to stand alone on a polished cement floor and catch glimpses of abandoned eyes that randomly appear in the 12- by 24-inch windows. There is an antiseptic, fearful smell, and the voices muffled behind the steel are nothing more than sporadic, unintelligible moans.
Standing there, watching the eyes come and go, I was overwhelmed with dread because the boy I adopted 20 years ago is likely to end up here, or a place like it, peering out a slit of reinforced glass. Colby began acting out in junior high at a private school affiliated with a Baptist church. He was expelled for threatening other students. By his late teens he'd had trouble at every social level and was unable to hold a minimum-wage job. He was shunned by friends and feared by family. Colby started smoking pot, taking pills and drinking. The marijuana got him arrested the first time. The second arrest was for fighting. He was in a coma two years ago after driving his car into a brick wall at 50 miles per hour in Arizona, where there were more criminal charges. This year, he had a brief stay at a mental health hospital in California. Without provocation or explanation, he had hit his grandmother in the head with a wine bottle. She wouldn't press charges.
Four psychiatrists have diagnosed him and prescribed psychotropic medications. Two diagnosed him with bipolar disorder; the other two said he was schizophrenic. All agreed he was paranoid. I asked one of the doctors how people with severe mental illnesses like Colby's fare in the world, what a parent should expect.
"Most end up in prison," the doctor said. "The rest commit suicide."
The nation had about 500,000 inpatient beds for the mentally ill in the 1950s. There are now just 40,000, despite U.S. population growth of more than 75 percent, from 175 million to 308 million. That change in mental health services occurred with the advent of psychotropic drugs, which were supposed to allow for outpatient management of the disorders, combined with federal spending cuts in the early 1980s that closed most mental health hospitals. Like most patients, Colby doesn't believe there's anything wrong with him so he refuses to take the drugs.
A 2007 study estimated that 266,000 Oklahomans suffer from serious psychological distress. The state has 53 mental health hospital beds.
The numbers are worse in Oklahoma's prisons, where half of the state's 26,000 incarcerated offenders have a history of mental illness. About 4,500 of them receive medication.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections estimates that 67 percent of offenders with mental illness will be reincarcerated within six months of their release if, on the outside, they do not receive adequate treatment.
Dante's last three circles of Hell were violence, fraud and treachery. They exist at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in every cell, the modern asylum where illness and evil co-mingle. I cannot abandon hope for Colby. But after a few hours in the cellblock, I am terrified for him.

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