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The Committed

The state pours millions of dollars--and controversial social theory--into a prison for mentally ill felons.

The Insiders
There is a private garden in the Colorado prison system, a place where convicted killers can tend flowers and summer vegetables alongside rapists, burglars and thieves--all in the name of mental therapy. The small but immaculate plot sits behind the gates of the state's newest penitentiary, a facility that represents a $22 million experiment in giving criminals diagnosed with chronic mental illnesses special treatment in the penal system. That treatment, provided at a growing expense to taxpayers, has not been shown to make inmates any less likely to commit crimes.

In the second of a Westword series on Colorado's new breed of "special needs" prisoners, Karen Bowers goes inside the San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo. Built specifically for mentally ill criminals, San Carlos offers an array of treatment regimens, ranging from mind-altering psychotropic drugs to more untested tactics like the therapy garden. Some inmates are schizophrenics who hear voices in their heads. Others suffer from depression. And family members of some crime victims say some inmates are fakers who aren't sick at all. In each case, San Carlos is redefining mental-health treatment behind bars--and testing the increasingly thin line that marks the difference between a patient and a prisoner.

"I'm blessed to be here and be a part of these activities," Birdie Kent says, his words a torrent that spill past his lips and the space where his bottom teeth should be. "I have more freedom, and I have someone to talk to when sometimes I feel stressed or depression."

Birdie's hands are in constant motion as he speaks; gesturing, tugging at his clothes, stroking his feathery mustache, they seem to have a life of their own. He is fidgety and insists on standing when others sit, but he smiles frequently and laughs almost as often, radiating a childlike innocence.

In fact, Birdie is neither a child nor innocent. Every wave of his hand is monitored by a phalanx of nurses, social workers and prison guards. Any disruptive acts or questionable behavior are quickly noted for the record.

Birdie Kent is 42, mentally retarded, mentally ill and a convicted felon. His rap sheet includes arrests for assault, obstruction and rape.

Although Birdie has been in and out of institutions and mental-health programs since he was an adolescent, he managed to stay out of prison until 1989, when a sexual-assault charge garnered him a twelve-year sentence.

Nothing--not even his stays in mental hospitals--had prepared Birdie for the realities of prison. Even the smallest change in his surroundings left him feeling frightened and powerless. He was an easy target for taunts--and worse. "People called me names," he says of the other inmates. "It's a mind thing, you know." He worried about being assaulted, and his belongings were often pilfered.

In 1995, however, things changed for Birdie. That's when he was sent to the San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo, the state's newest prison and one designed specifically to house--and, theoretically, to help--chronically mentally ill felons.

Within months of its August 1995 opening, the $22 million facility was full, its 250 beds occupied by inmates who have been identified as the Department of Corrections' most seriously mentally ill. The DOC could have easily filled a prison twice that size. As it stands now, there are an estimated 350 additional prisoners throughout the system who have been diagnosed as suffering from chronic mental illness. (Those inmates receive mental-health treatment, but the services are minimal compared to San Carlos.)

Three psychiatrists, 3 psychologists, 9 social workers, 26 nurses and 118 correctional officers who received special training on how to handle the mentally ill were hired to staff the facility, an incredible ratio of nearly one staffer to every inmate. That compares with the remainder of the state penal system, where three psychiatrists serve 10,000 inmates and most of the state's prisons average one uniformed officer to every four prisoners.

That kind of special attention doesn't come cheap. It costs about $110 per day to house a prisoner in San Carlos--two to three times the amount for inmates at other Colorado prisons. In addition, the DOC is already pushing for an expansion that would add another 250 beds to San Carlos, even though DOC mental-health chief Jim Michaud says that number would still be inadequate to serve all of the state's mentally ill prisoners--and despite the fact there is no data to show that recidivism rates have been, or will be, reduced by placing prisoners in such facilities.

"It is expensive to house people here," concedes San Carlos warden Wallis Parmenter, who began her career as a parole officer. "But it costs far less than to put someone in the state hospital (where the price tag for treating and housing forensic patients is $252 per day)." And she insists that while the staff-to-inmate ratio is high, the number of uniformed officers is "barely adequate" to meet the facility's needs.

However, some opponents of the system complain that San Carlos's expenses are outrageously high, that inmates are being pampered instead of punished, that they receive better treatment than most mentally ill people who don't commit crimes, and that some of the inmates may even be faking mental illness.

"I think they mollycoddle 90 percent of them," says Chuck McQueen. "Where they live is better than some college dorms."

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