Politics & Prejudices: Prison and the mentally ill

Milton Mack, who for many years was the chief probate judge in Wayne County, told me a terrible story about a man who was responsible for a major arson fire a few years ago.

This guy was clearly mentally ill, and belonged in treatment, but he told the court, "Oh, no, I'm guilty, I belong in prison." So he was indeed sent to a penitentiary.

Once there, he chewed off the ends of his fingers.

Mental illness is a huge, and growing, problem in our bloated, horribly expensive prison system.

Thirty years ago, that man would very likely have been sent to a state mental hospital. Mack, who is now the state court administrator, told me Michigan once had 20,000 beds for the mentally ill. But in 1991, under Gov. John Engler, the state began closing most of its mental hospitals to save money, as part of a national deinstitutionalization wave.

By 2004, there were fewer than 1,000 beds for mentally ill people in all of Michigan.

Many of those who were released were by no means ready to re-enter society. They became homeless, slept in the streets, did not take medications they needed (and often couldn't get), committed crimes, and ended up — in prison.

The cost to society is enormous. The cost to the taxpayers is staggering, constantly increasing, and a big part of why we can't fix the roads and schools.

Flash back to the early 1970s. Michigan had just over 9 million people, compared to just under 10 million now.

Our state prisons held fewer than 8,000 inmates, and the cost of keeping them was less than 2 percent of the budget.

But then, we had first the drug epidemic, and the theory that we could solve the drug problem by locking everyone up. Then came the closing of the mental hospitals.

Prison populations and costs exploded. Today, we are spending $2 billion a year on our prisons, a larger percentage of our general fund budget than any other state.

We keep people locked up longer than the national average too. In recent years, we've been less inclined to lock people up forever for possessing small amounts of cocaine.

Some categories of violent crime have declined too, perhaps because our population is aging.

Over the last decade, our prison population has fallen, from a peak of 51,554 in 2007 to around 41,000 today.

But that hasn't resulted in corresponding cost savings, because of a dramatic increase in the two most expensive categories of prisoners — the elderly and the mentally ill.

There are at least 9,300 diagnosed mentally ill people in Michigan prisoners now. There are nearly that many prisoners over age 50, a number growing even faster.

State prison officials say the average cost to house an inmate for a year is $35,253. The most severe mental cases are usually confined at the Woodland Center Correctional Facility in Whitmore Lake. They cost an average of $95,233 a year.

Elderly patients often cost even more, because anyone locked up isn't eligible for Medicaid. Bridge Magazine reported that in 2013, 10 elderly inmates racked up an average of $220,000 in medical bills alone.

Think how many kids that could have educated.

Fortunately, there may be a glimmer of hope for at least slowing the increase in the number of mentally ill prisoners.

Newly sworn Speaker of the House Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) may be a new breed of Republican leader.

For the past six years, Republicans have been in total control of all branches of state government, and have often just gleefully rammed their agenda through without so much as any pretense of bipartisan cooperation.

Nor have efforts at prison reform been successful, in part because of a few "lock 'em up and throw the key away" demagogues, the worst being Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who wants to be governor.

But Leonard, a 35-year-old attorney from DeWitt, may just be a breath of fresh air. He is deeply and proudly conservative, but admits that he doesn't know everything and doesn't have all the answers. "I think this is absolutely a bipartisan issue," Leonard told me when I asked him about prison mental health issues.

He wants to work with Democrats on finding a way forward, to keep the mentally ill from ever reaching prisons by making it easier for judges to order a course of treatment.

Matter of fact, he has already done that, by pushing an improvement in the "Kevin's Law" bill through the legislature two years ago. As it now stands, friends and family members can ask Michigan judges to order such treatment for someone who has had their mental illness confirmed by a physician.

That won him praise from Milton Mack, who is generally acknowledged to be the top expert on prison mental health issues in the Michigan judiciary. "I'm very impressed that he took the lead on this," Mack said.

Both men agreed that there are some mentally ill inmates, such as murderous psychopaths, who need to be in maximum security prisons for life. Others, however, clearly might be better off in a different kind of institutional setting.

Unfortunately, Michigan has pretty much destroyed those institutions, and it's not likely that anyone is going to come up with the money to build more. Exactly how Speaker Leonard will proceed at further tackling prison reform issues isn't clear.

"I want to sit down with senior staff to go over this," and consult with experts, he said.

Leonard also is aware of the growing elderly prison population and the expense it causes. Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, was visiting the Lakeland Correctional Facility near Coldwater recently when he was asked if he noticed anything odd about the cell doors.

"They were wider, to accommodate the wheelchairs," he told me. Connecticut is ahead of the game on this; they have offloaded some of their elderly inmates to a state-run nursing home, which has saved that small state millions.

Michigan, unfortunately, has a high percentage of elderly prisoners sentenced to be confined without the possibility of release. The solution may be complicated.

But what's essential is that we find one, if we don't want to spend the rest of our lives paying more and more taxes and having roads and schools that continue to get worse, just so that we can keep operating our ever-more expensive penal colony.

Jimmy Fouts follies

Much ado has been made over the now-famous audio tape in which someone who sounds very much like Warren Mayor Jim Fouts says terrible things about "retards," including that they should be kept in a cage, and seems to suggest a Dr. Kevorkian should euthanize them.

Naturally, Fouts denies saying any of this, although he has refused to accept a council member's offer of a free voice analysis to settle whether or not it is him.

That, coupled with the fact that one expert has already said there's an 80 percent chance it is him, ought to remove any reasonable doubt. But quite apart from this, Warren residents ought to ask themselves — is this is the best their city can do?

This is an aging suburb trying to fight the perception it is slipping into decline. Does Warren really need a mayor with a dyed red fringe of hair who fought in court to conceal his age (74) from the public so he could chase younger women, and who eventually ended up giving his twentysomething aide a raise after she spent a weekend in Chicago with him?

Why, even Centerline does better than that...

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