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17 January, 2009

Full moon at the psych ward

Sent to me by Robert Eringer, The Investigator for the Santa Barbara News.

Note: A recent documentary called American Drug War features Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s draconian “Tent City” in Arizona. The documentary is a must see. I’ve seen it a couple of times, it’s unbelievable.

January 17, 2009 12:00 AM

The Investigator recently ventured into the maximum security psych ward of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix, Ariz. This is not the kind of place most folks would want to spend any significant time.

"It's true what they say about the full moon," one of the jailors tells The Investigator. "We have more incidents then."

A full moon is imminent.

Heavy, self-locking doors clank open and shut as we enter the acute wings where patient-inmates are treated and observed until they're ruled sane enough to stand trial.

Guards endeavor to enforce a sterile existence. They are hard-pressed. Several inmates protest incarceration with peculiar art therapy: finger-painting the walls with their feces. One male, bent on harming himself, had just sickened his keepers by dining on his own dung. The stench of scatology weighs heavy despite daily hosing.

The main thing here is that inmates -- those believed to be suicidal -- not be able to harm themselves. To this end, those categorized "Level One" are refused any clothing and must exist in their cells dressed only in their birthday suits, lest they attempt to utilize garments for hanging themselves or attempt suffocation by gagging.

The result is a human zoo. Some pace, some sleep -- all are on display through unbreakable glass.

"I don't belong here," is a familiar rant among the constrained. One leans forward, lends an ear (a barrier prevents the possibility of it being bitten off), and invariably hears that a terrible mistake has been made, that he or she has been confused with somebody else or vindictively targeted. "They're all nuts, even the shrinks -- but not me!" Mental health care staffers have become jaded by this familiar refrain; they are naturally skeptical of grievances, be it lack of drinking water or a non-flushing toilet.

"If you look at their chart," says a keeper, "you'll see things that'll make you feel real good that they're in here instead of out there."

We already feel that way about several inmates, including a serial killer who shouts that he wants us all dead. "Get out of my house!" he hollers repeatedly, along with a string of obscenities. "I'm going to kill you all!" When we walk past, he grins like a Cheshire cat, sweeping the forefinger of his right hand from ear to ear across his throat.

This particular individual is assigned a 24-hour watcher, posted outside his cell to raise alarm in the event that he smashes his own head against a wall. This is because the day before he scraped a piece of cinder block from the wall and punctured an artery in his wrist.

Some inmates are caged for mere misdemeanors, and will be out on the street within days, homeless. They'll be directed to a medical shelter for free medication to continue treatment begun in the facility. But none of them ever appear, and weeks later, in a perpetual cycle, they'll be picked up again for new transgressions and re-booked into old cells.

One inmate believes he is a vampire; he looks at visitors as if dinner has arrived. Apparently, he has a record of dining on human flesh and drinking blood.

Nearby, an Iraqi male has been feigning madness for several years to prevent the Immigration and Naturalization Service from deporting him home to Baghdad. The mental health care staff knows that he's faking it, but every time he is forced into court, the Iraqi lunges at the jury; the judge calls a mistrial and orders him back to the Psych Ward. (Interesting that he prefers to live among these folks rather than return to Iraq; maybe no one has told him Saddam is dead.)

A new inmate arrives in black & white stripes, restrained by pink handcuffs.

Sheriff Joe does his best to ensure prisoners -- sane or insane -- do not want to return to his facilities. This means pink underwear and no coffee, on the basis that coffee is a luxury without any nutritional value. "In Arizona we don't mollycoddle our inmates," says Lisa Allen, Sheriff Joe's Director of Media Relations.

But the recidivist rate -- 60 percent -- is no different than, say, in San Francisco, where county prisoners can order cappuccino and watch color TV in relatively comfortable cells. Which means tough and humiliating conditions do little to deter a majority of offenders from returning to a criminal life -- though it does save public money.

A certain element of society will always be criminal or homeless or suicidal, no matter how much rehabilitation or treatment is lavished upon them. You can lead a horse to water, the saying goes, but you can't make it drink.

Nonetheless, the measure of any civilized society is how well it cares for its unfortunates.

Which leads us, in a roundabout sort of way, to Cold Spring Canyon Bridge on Highway 154.

Since this arch bridge was built in 1963, 48 persons -- aged between 18 and 72 -- have used it as a launch pad for jumping to their deaths. No one has survived the 480-foot drop.

Suicide is often impulsive, deriving from temporary thoughts, and almost always a result of psych-ache associated with bipolar syndrome, depression and schizophrenia, which can all be treated.

A research study showed that 94 percent of 515 persons prevented from jumping off San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge were still alive seven years later.

As many as one in six people will become seriously suicidal at some point in their lives, according to the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) in Washington, D.C.

The allure of a "suicide bridge" -- of its certainty, without impediment -- is a strong motivator for persons temporarily blinded with suicidal thoughts.

"There is no question that bridge barriers work," Dr. Alan Berman, executive director of the AAS, told The Investigator.

"Research has shown that barriers are the most effective form of suicide prevention on bridges that have been magnets or landmarks for people with suicidal thoughts. Our research includes looking to see if suicide increases elsewhere in the general area, and we find there is no such increase."

Despite its cost, a plan to install barriers on Cold Spring Bridge measures up to the morality we expect of ourselves as a civilized people.

Who is Robert Eringer?

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