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.

"Every day, police officers encounter individuals and situations in which untreated mental illness has resulted in behaviors that generate a citizen complaint or disorderly behavior," said Robert K. Olson, president of Police Executive Research Forum and chief of the Minneapolis Police Department.

"My officers know we can better serve individuals with mental illnesses without risking public safety." he said. "This report shows police how to work with all stakeholders using models and principles they can tailor to their own community — approaches that will minimize the costs in human lives, dignity and police resources."

Avoiding Deadly Decisions

Olson said he became involved in the Consensus Project because in the course of his 37-year career, he found that hundreds of people with mental illnesses were killed by police who he said were not trained to handle special situations properly. To save lives, Olson said, his department developed methods to better prepare his officers for encounters with disturbed people.

In Minneapolis, Olson said, some police are specially trained to assess situations involving people suspected of suffering from mental illness. Olson said his officers are also being trained to use less-than-lethal methods when dealing with the mentally ill, such as stun guns. Olson and the Consensus Project also recommend the use of mobile crisis intervention teams to assess and defuse explosive situations, and police protocols for handling people with mental illness.

"Before [the reforms], we were not trained normally to deal with people with mental illness," Olson said. "We're not psychiatrists; we're cops. … There were a lot of people — hundreds — with some kind of mental illness we later learned about who were getting killed or wounded needlessly. And I thought that there must be a better way for us to serve the community and not make deadly decisions with the mentally ill. My hope is that other state and local governments could perhaps adapt our model, what we're doing here and conform it to fit the particular needs of their community."

Olson also favors — and the Consensus Project recommends — a database that documents incidents between the mentally ill and police to keep law enforcement officials accountable, track repeat offenders and to help prevent mentally ill people from returning to prison.

Hopeful for New Legislation and Collaboration

Lane realizes he was lucky that police did not grant his suicide wish. Many people who suffer from mental illness are undiagnosed, refuse treatment or don't have relatives to look after them or are unable to help them. And often, as in Lane's case, they are refused medical treatment or mishandled by officials. That makes them more likely to have repeated encounters with police.

"Mentally ill people are more likely to have encounters with law enforcement," Lane said. "They attract attention when they act out and they're more likely to return to prison because they and police don't know they have an illness or they refuse treatment. When they're released, they're still undiagnosed and poor and more likely to return to prison. We've got to have more innovative solutions and better collaborations between law enforcement and mental health experts after the mentally ill are discharged. I just hope the report is a tool, an instrument of change."

Based on the findings of the report, the Consensus Project hopes congressional leaders will introduce legislation that will enable communities to adapt some of the recommendations of the report and perpetuate better understanding of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system, a problem some believe has been long overlooked.

"This is a complex problem that Congress should examine," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "If we are going to help our law enforcement officers reduce crime, we need to stop the revolving door of arrest, release, and re-arrest that is so common for mentally ill offenders."

Drawing Inspiration

A better understanding of the mentally ill is a good beginning, law enforcement officials say. But recognizing a need for collaboration between police and mental health professionals is the key.

"Awareness is always a good thing," Olson said. "There have been literally hundreds of deaths when a system that was supposed to protect them [the mentally ill] failed them. There has to be coordination and collaboration that involves law enforcement, mental health professionals, and the courts."

Meanwhile, Lane is dealing with his mental illness and seems to be winning. As late as 1999, he said almost killed himself during a bout with severe depression when he overdosed on prescribed medication. Today, as a survivor of a suicide attempt and an encounter with police who did not fully understand his condition, Lane hopes that some of his peers will learn and be empowered by his story. In July, he said he will begin a new job as director of consumer affairs for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

"I'm managing to manage the illness instead of having the illness mismanage me," Lane said. "I just want to get the word out and if people draw some kind of inspiration from my story, then I'm happy."