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Mike Nichols column: State takes the easy route on insanity

5:14 PM, Dec. 28, 2012  |  Comments

Here's the sad truth about the loner down the block with the serious mental illness and maybe, just maybe you fear, an itch to hurt somebody.

He's a lot more likely to end up in a fight with a cop or an argument with a prison guard than a therapy session with a doctor in a hospital.

Approximately 30 percent of the inmates in Wisconsin prisons are mentally ill, according to a 2008 Legislative Audit Bureau report; about 10 percent seriously so. They account for virtually all "self-harm incidents" and attacks on staff. The Mental Illness Policy Organization contends, meanwhile, that a seriously mentally ill person in Wisconsin is four times as likely to be in prison or jail as in a hospital.

We like to do things the easy way. Instead of finding a way to prevent their crimes we just lock them up after they've committed them - if, unlike Adam Lanza, they are still around.

Wondering why we do things that way, I called a guy with more influence over mental health issues than anyone else I could think of: Garey Bies. Bies isn't a doctor or a social worker. He's a former sheriff's deputy from Sister Bay who once helped run the Door County Jail. He was making waffles for his grandchildren when I reached him on the phone to talk a little about Newtown and insanity. But he's not just another grandfather. He's also a state legislator who chairs the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Corrections.

Just how jails and prisons deal with mental health is "an issue we're gonna take up" in the upcoming session, he said without elaborating. "We're going to deal with this issue."

I hope they deal, too, with why the jailors and cops have become our de facto psychologists while the real psychologist at Sandy Hook, Mary Sherlach, was gunned down as she reportedly ran toward the killer. There's an irony there that no one seems to be talking about.

This - what to do about the mentally ill - is one of those old pendulum issues.

I recently perused a 1932 biannual reports of the Central State Hospital for the Insane in Waupun - a place that housed some of Wisconsin's most notorious and deranged criminals.

Not everyone there was "insane." Many were described simply as "feebleminded." Folks weren't politically correct back then, but they were concerned. That was around the time they started keeping good social service records of inmates' problems, and opened a "school" at the facility. The idea was to "enable the patient to again go out into society better able to meet the conditions of life," wrote the superintendent.

Hospitals for the mentally ill grew until, in the mid-1950s, there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 Americans, according to the Mental Health Policy Organization. Then came deinstitutionalization and the pendulum swung the other way. By 2005 there was one psychiatric bed for every 3,000 Americans.

Now, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn told me, it's tough for the cop on the street dealing with somebody with mental illness in the middle of the night to even find them a bed. There is no longer a Central State Hospital for the Insane in Wisconsin. It's now part of one of our prisons.

Society has largely relegated mental illness to the criminal justice system - which isn't nearly as good at preventing crimes as it is at locking people up for them. There's something for Bies to think about when he puts down the waffle iron and takes up a hotter issue, how we can do a better job identifying who's truly insane - and dangerous - before they prove it themselves.

- Mike Nichols: MRNichols@wi.rr.com

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