Civil Rights for Mentally Ill Inmates

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Civil Rights for Mentally Ill Inmates

Civil Rights for Mentally Ill Inmates

Bryan Schwartz wrote the following op-ed piece for the San Francisco Chronicle which appeared in today’s newspaper:

How we killed Berkeley’s ‘Naked Guy’
San Francisco Chronicle
Monday, June 1, 2009
Bryan Schwartz

In her May 24 column, Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders called the million-dollar settlement following the death of the “Naked Guy” a “jackpot for mom.” Esther Krenn’s son, Andrew Martinez, a.k.a. Berkeley’s Naked Guy, took his own life in Santa Clara County jail after suffering for years with mental illness. Krenn had settled with the county after filing a wrongful-death suit.

Saunders does not know Krenn, but I do. Krenn, like any loving mother, would trade any amount of money to have her son back.

The primary offense is not Saunders’ mean-spirited column: It is the dehumanization of a mother’s son. This is what happens when we lock up our mentally ill citizens and throw away the key. In a larger sense, we killed Martinez because we let him, like so many others with mental illness, drift so far from our consciousness.

I knew Martinez for 10 years before he was the Naked Guy – when he was just a top student, football and wrestling star, and a self-assured presence who defied stereotypes. For those of us who were his friends, we knew that the Naked Guy rebellion should have been but the first act of a lifetime of changing the world. We all lost the day that Martinez died.

No one is to blame for mental illness, but we should all think about how we can do a better job helping people with such challenges. How could someone of such indomitable spirit been driven so low that he would take his own life?

It is because Martinez’s excruciating insanity was criminalized. He was subjected to solitary confinement instead of being given appropriate care. He should have been in a hospital, not in a jail.

Saunders’ column implies that Martinez fought needed treatment – but this mischaracterizes the record. Martinez did not refuse treatment in the days before his suicide. Even if he had, he should not have been able to: He was a known suicide risk under the county’s care and authority, and thus legally not in a position to refuse medication.

Martinez’s mother tried to get the county to pay attention to her son’s deteriorating condition – to no avail. Although Martinez repeatedly expressed suicidal thoughts and once attempted suicide, the county assured Krenn that her son was doing well. Martinez would improve in the hospital but then be returned to jail, where the staff was untrained to deal with his illness. He would again lose competency to stand trial for criminal charges that never should have been brought because it was known he was mentally ill when he assaulted a staff member at a halfway house where he lived.

The state must repair the broken procedures regarding those incompetent to stand trial. By confining Martinez without proper treatment while he was trying to kill himself, the county sealed his fate.

The county will not admit its failings, but it has paid $1 million and agreed to revise its system. As an attorney, I know that a government defendant in civil litigation does not pay $1 million to an individual plaintiff as a “nuisance value” settlement, i.e, to avoid further litigation. The settlement is an acknowledgement of neglect, and of Martinez’s wasted potential. Governments, like corporations, sometimes need litigation that impacts the bottom line to jar them from their complacency.

Among other changes to avoid other mothers’ sons dying in vain, the notice provision portion of the settlement – ensuring that next of kin be alerted if an inmate attempts suicide – should be a part of California’s penal code, not just Santa Clara County’s new standards.

The state should also seek to redirect some budgeted prison funding to community-based, alternative placements for mentally ill/incompetent inmates to receive treatment.

Let us hope it does not take another tragedy, and another big settlement, to wake up this bureaucracy.

Bryan Schwartz, a childhood friend of Andrew Martinez, is an Oakland-based civil rights attorney.


This article appeared on page A – 13 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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