I participated in my very first press conference yesterday – about the failure of the jail system in treating the mentally ill. The system doesn’t have the training, experience, or facilities to treat the mentally ill. They belong in hospitals or other health care facilities.
Nancy Speer whose son Ben Warren has been incarcerated in the Santa Barbara jail for eleven months organized the event and spoke out in front of the jail about her son’s treatment and condition – he supposedly has self-mutilated himself and has refused food and water. On two occasions he was sent to a local hospital’s psych ward and rehydrated but not medicated and brought back to psychological balance. Now he is back in jail in a safety cell naked and only covered with a light quilt. Neither his mother nor his psychiatrist is allowed to visit him.
Nancy Speer speaking yesterday
in front of the Santa Barbara jail
Nancy then introduced me. However, I could not speak from my experience with the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill in the jail system. Paul was jailed one time for two days, and we were lucky to find a sympathetic DA who got a judge to let him go on probation and the promise that he’d take his meds - whether or not he took them is a whole other story told in my memoir Leaving the Hall Light On.
Instead I spoke about how we couldn’t get him hospitalized unless he went of his own accord. When we called the police to take him to hospital Paul acted so normal they didn’t believe he fit the criteria of being a danger to himself or to others. I feel that is a failure of our correctional system as well. They need education about how to deal with the mentally ill. They need to learn that many mentally ill people are masters at hiding behind a normal disguise. They need to learn as I have learned that mentally illness can be very deadly.
Others also spoke and their stories were horrendous: a long-time parole officer told about how a person in a straight jacket was shoved into her office for her to deal with. A woman with bipolar disorder spoke about her treatment in the “hole,” where she was shackled naked to her bed and left to play with her urine.
The theme of the conference was reiterated over and over again:
Treatment not jail
Incarceration will fail
So even though I almost turned back because the traffic getting out of Los Angeles yesterday morning, even after the rush hour, was terrible, I’m glad I went. It fit in with my goal since Paul’s death: to help erase the stigma of mental illness and suicide through raising awareness and education in hopes of saving lives.
Ben Warren needs the right professionals to help keep him alive. Hopefully this press conference will get the authorities to pay attention and make some badly needed changes.