Cycle of Imprisonment for Mentally Ill

Years before becoming an advocate for the mentally ill, a suicidal Tom Lane was surrounded by armed police, contemplating whether he should force the officers to kill him — and none of the law enforcement officials seemed to know it.

In July 1997, Lane, a cabinetmaker who was a recovering alcoholic and substance abuser, was suffering from severe depression. A head injury from a construction accident left him suffering from seizures and unable to work.

Despondent, he called a suicide hotline from his trailer home in Northern California. When he could not guarantee the hotline operator that he would not harm himself, police were dispatched to his residence and he found himself surrounded.

"I had hidden my .357 [Magnum] inside my travel trailer. They asked me to come out and show my hands. I could see the laser from one of the officers tracing me from 15 feet away," Lane said. "I really contemplated doing something to make these officers do something to me, a suicide-by-cop kind of thing."

Police did not kill Lane, but he did not receive immediate counseling for his depression, either. Lane, who is considered legally blind, recalled being thrown and dragged on the gravel outside his home to a police car. His glasses were broken and he was thrown in jail, where police refused to let him take his anti-seizure medication. Lane was hospitalized after he began suffering two seizures a day.

Upon release from the hospital, he still suffered from depression and did not receive the any recommendation for treatment for mental illness. He soon began sleeping in the bushes outside the hospital. Lane was able to call his mother collect from a pay phone and his family found him and brought him to New Mexico.

Once he was receiving treatment and was back on his feet, Lane became an advocate for the mentally ill.

Now living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Lane, 42, has been instrumental in forming peer counseling groups for people suffering from mental illness. He has focused on their problems in dealing with law enforcement. And he helped contribute ideas to the Criminal Justice-Mental Health Consensus Project, a two-year bipartisan collaboration by the Council of State Governments with law enforcement officials, criminal justice officials and mental health advocates and consumers that will present a report at hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee today.

The Mentally Ill’s Revolving Crime Door

The report is designed to help state and local government officials who are dealing with the significant number of people with mental illness in prison or jail. The Justice Department estimates that 16 percent of the people incarcerated in America suffer from mental illness.

"When on any given day there are more people with mental illness in the Los Angeles County Jail than in any state hospital or private facility in the United States, it's time to agree we have a major problem," said Ron Honberg, director of legal affairs for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

The report makes 46 recommendations, from training officers better to handle initial encounters with the mentally ill, to ensuring that the mentally ill receive the treatment and counseling they need upon release to prevent their return to jail.

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