Helping a loved one who is experiencing a severe mental illness, especially someone who may not realize they are sick, is one of the greatest gifts you can give. For some, it may mean the difference between life and tragedy. ~ Treatment Advocacy Center
Conditions for prison inmates with severe mental illness are so unspeakable in some places that courts have declared them in violation of the US constitution, but the treatment of those under arrest but too ill to be brought to trial is no less “cruel and unusual.”
Tina Funderburk, a 37-year-old mother diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia spent most of the last eight years behind bars without being tried because she never was sane enough to stand trial for killing her 3-year-old daughter. She had been offered a plea bargain of four years – half as long as she spent waiting to go to trial – back in 2004 but refused it in her delusional state. Charges were dropped recently only after the Mississippi Clarion Ledger published investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell’s story about her plight (“Woman locked up 8 years without trial,” Jan. 1). Since then, she has been sent to a Mississippi state hospital for treatment.
No such fate for Seth Winder, 31. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 16, he has been shuttling between jail and the Texas state hospital in Vernon since 2008, when he allegedly killed his partner (“Can accused killer Seth Winder stay sane long enough to stand trial?” Dallas Observer, Jan. 12). Winder’s stepmother wrote a book about the case, and A&E's The First 48 filmed Winder undergoing police questioning. But, so far, Winder remains in the same purgatory Funderburk occupied for so long – charged with a crime he is too disordered to stand trial for, intermittently hospitalized. At last report, he was in jail waiting for a bed at the state hospital bed, where the state presumably will again try to induce “a state of synthetic sanity” so he can stand trial “for a crime that he allegedly committed while unmedicated.”
“Synthetic sanity” reportedly already has been created for Mary Nguyen, 44, of Minden, Louisiana. She’s been shuttled from jail to hospital and back to jail since 2007 on charges of felony theft and criminal mischief. KTBS in Shreveport reported last week that she’s “heavily medicated,” and the court has now found her “mentally fit” to stand trial (“Minden woman jailed nearly five years without trial," Jan. 25). She’ll be tried next month unless another case with “higher priority” bumps her to May.
Stories like this reach us every day – sometimes more than once a day. Each one is a multiple tragedy: A person suffering from a brain disease that responds to treatment doesn’t get treatment, commits a criminal act while in the condition that results from non-treatment – and then is essentially sentenced to an indeterminate sentence behind bars as long as he or she remains ill. In the process, victims suffer and sometimes die, and family members agonize, often over how their efforts to get treatment and prevent tragedy were thwarted.
Inexcusably cruel – but not nearly unusual enough.
Karen Easter, Mental Health Advocate for Assisted Outpatient Treatment