The mentally ill frighten and embarrass us. And so we marginalize the people
Who most need our acceptance. What mental health needs is more
Sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation.
President Bill Clinton
Alaska: Mentally Ill Prisoners in the Last American Frontier
When people think of Alaska, the midnight sun, the aurora borealis, frigid arctic weather conditions, dynamic glaciers, abundant wildlife and endless expanses of wilderness capture the imagination. The stirring call of adventure – and perhaps danger – beckons those who answer Alaska’s invitation for an unforgettable escape from the pressing responsibilities of everyday life. However, the subject of today’s blog is not the pristine mountains, lakes, streams, valleys and natural splendor of our northern-most state. Something far less inspiring, grand and life affirming is the topic the Court Jester would like to explore. It’s something that will not be featured in glossy, vacation guides for exciting cruises, salmon and halibut fishing excursions, big game hunting, guided expeditions to scale Mt. Denali, or finding the best location to capture the natural cosmic displays of the Northern Lights. No tourists flock to visit these facilities or buy postcards to commemorate these experiences. This blog will go where no tour directors or wilderness guides dare to bring their patrons – to Alaskan prisons, where many convicted people congregate to be punished for the consequences of their severe mental illnesses.
The Jester acknowledges the reporting of David Reutter, who penned the article, “Alaskan Prisons and Jails Filled with Mentally Ill Prisoners,” that was published in the November 2016 edition of Prison Legal News. Alaska has never been a good place to suffer from mental illness. With a large number of the chronically and seriously mentally ill ending up in Alaskan jails and prisons, it is an especially perilous time to be mentally ill in this land of unlimited vistas and irreplaceable memories. Reutter followed an investigation into the Alaskan prison system by KTUU news that yielded the following eye-opening statistics. Eighty percent of Alaskan prisoners have drug and alcohol addictions, while 42 percent of its prisoners have a diagnosable mental illness, including 20 percent labeled “severely and persistently mentally ill.” Unfortunately, psychiatrically sick people can make poor decisions that lead to imprisonment during episodes of mental health breakdowns. The already extraordinarily high incidence of mental illness in Alaska’s penal institutions, jails and prisons is forced to absorb and accommodate increasing numbers of inmates and prisoners with serious mental illnesses and cognitive disabilities.
Why do these unfortunate, vulnerable people regularly bypass the state mental health treatment system and go directly to jail? The main reason is because the frontier spirit of freedom, independence and rugged individualism militates against providing for and utilizing psychological and psychiatric treatment centers, except for dire mental health emergencies. Mentally ill people often end up behind bars and razor wire before they can be treated by mental health specialists. David Reutter quoted Melissa Ring, the director of the 50 bed Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API). “Alaska’s history, traditions and culture have long placed a strong emphasis on individual liberties and individual rights.” Ring stated. “There has been a conscious decision within the state government to uphold those rights and not have institutionalization in hospitals and nursing homes. Therefore, few of such placements are available. And the laws are very stringent regarding rights of persons with mental illness to choose whether to receive treatment, take medication, stay in a hospital, or live in a shelter or on the street.” The mental health system in Alaska is difficult to access and obtain the necessary community support services, with limited options available. As Francine Harbour, director of the Anchorage chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness stated, “The mentally ill person must have the presence of mind and tenacity to navigate a complicated system that can be daunting in the best circumstances.
A tragic example of a mentally ill prisoner in Alaska illustrates the dire position these troubled people find themselves in. Maria Ruthburn talked about her son, Mark Bolus, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia but considered “too high functioning” to be accepted into a non-profit mental health treatment facility. Even though he was not “crazy-crazy” enough for program, said Zune Miller, Mark Bolus’ friend, his behavior in the community was socially unacceptable, leading to his arrest, probation placement, probation violation and incarceration. Jail and prison placements for the mentally ill can be disastrous, because they are often ostracized, ridiculed and harassed, resulting in their being put in solitary confinement. Several research studies have demonstrated that isolation causes people with mental illness to mentally decompensate. After being isolated for a month from other inmates, and longer from his family and society, 20 year-old Mark Bolus hung himself in his cell on Mother’s Day. “I wonder if he thought he was giving me a gift,” Ruthman said, “at the end of ten years of suffering.”
The preventable deaths of mentally ill inmates like Mark Bolus resulted in a state-wide investigation that exposed numerous deficiencies in the Alaska Department of Corrections (ADOC) policies and practices regarding mental illness. It also led to the resignation of the Commissioner of the ADOC, Ron Taylor. Inadequacies were discovered in the suicide prevention policies and planning, the indiscriminate usage of solitary confinement, and the correctional system’s internal investigations into prisoner deaths. A telling quote attributed to state attorneys with the Alaska Depart of Law did not recommend thorough reviews of prisoner deaths, because “…documenting all the facts around an inmate death might make it easier for the state to be financially liable for the death.” Jail and prison cover-ups, which are rampant in America, have never been defended so boldly! None of this bodes well for the mentally ill, who need treatment, not the continuous punishment provided by State Departments of Correction throughout the United States.
The last word should come from the mother who lost her son to suicide on Mother’s Day. “When incarceration is the best a parent can hope for,” Maria Ruthburn said, “something is very wrong.” She concluded her statement by saying, “We all failed.”