The Committed

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

Visiting rooms have been provided for inmates' friends and family. But, says Parmenter, visiting days at San Carlos are not the crowded, bustling affairs they are in other prisons. "We just don't have the number of visitors we expected," she says. Adds Bob Flores, who heads a team overseeing San Carlos inmates, "Their friends and family don't deal with them real well."

About 60 percent of the inmates receive anti-psychotic drugs, which treat their symptoms and, as a consequence, make them easier to manage. But the image of zombie-like patients wandering the halls isn't the reality at San Carlos. "We monitor their blood levels and watch them closely," says prison staffer Lorraine Diaz. "If they appear too sedated, we might cut back on their meds. Our goal is not to snooker them."

San Carlos prisoners see a psychiatrist once every thirty days, and a psychologist about twice as often. Those who are well enough attend group therapy at least twice a week, learn to cook and sew, and are taught about their illness, its symptoms and the critical importance of taking medication.

In a nearly unprecedented commitment of resources, San Carlos even operates a special transitional program in which social workers help smooth the way for inmates ready to be paroled from the institution. The services provided are not unlike those commonly offered on the outside to the poor or the elderly by government agencies. Staffers link departing inmates with a network of social services and help them obtain Social Security disability benefits when warranted. (Many prisoners released from San Carlos receive monthly checks based on the claim that they are disabled by their illnesses.) Staffers also teach living skills to help the inmates establish some measure of independence.

For Birdie, those skills are of the most rudimentary sort. When he was outside the walls, he held jobs as a janitor and busboy, but his mother handled all his daily needs. "She gave me clean clothes every day," Birdie says, "and she put a meal on the table every day. She knows I love chicken."

But Birdie's mother died during his prison hitch, and he's learning to cook and sew for himself. "I make clothes," he says proudly. "I'm a tailor. Shirts, pants, jackets. Four weeks ago we were on a project. It was to put together an apron."

On the last Friday of each month, Birdie and the other inmates in the developmentally disabled unit get together and cook a meal. "We got muffins, and Miss K. (Anna Krafnick, a prison nutrition and cooking instructor) gave us some ingredients--olives and mushrooms and pork and beef--and we put them in the microwave," he says. "It was good, too."

Staffers believe that this multi-tiered system of treatment has been good for Birdie. His mental condition has allegedly been stabilized with a combination of three psychotropic drugs, and he attends counseling sessions and what he calls "socialism class" (where inmates are taught interviewing techniques and job-hunting skills).

Perhaps most important, staffers say they make sure that when inmates leave San Carlos, it's with a thirty-day supply of psychotropic medication--and with assurances that someone will monitor them to ensure that they take the pills. Remaining on their medication is a condition of parole for the majority of inmates who leave San Carlos. Cutting off the chemical regimen is simply too dangerous for some of them--and for the people whose paths they may cross on the outside.

Philip Galimanis was just 21 when he killed Cynthia McQueen. He was a troubled young man with a history of prior mental illness and a prescription for psychotropic drugs. Galimanis's mother testified at her son's trial that Philip refused to take his medication in the months prior to April 1983. (The McQueens maintain that the Galimanis family simply chose not to buy the expensive drugs.)

While off the medication, Galimanis's mother testified, her son had begun acting strangely--he believed that a neighbor was watching him through the floor and following him from room to room. Even his mother began to fear for her personal safety.

On the night of April 19 Galimanis attacked 22-year-old Cynthia McQueen, who lived across the hall from him in a Wheat Ridge apartment house. "It wasn't like going out and shooting somebody--bang!--and you're done," Chuck McQueen says of his daughter's murder. "This took hours. She was alive when he started to decapitate her."

The staff had feared this was coming. When Johnnie Summers arrived at San Carlos last September, he was highly unstable. He'd consistently refused medication for his schizophrenia and had slowly disintegrated to the point that he'd begun hearing voices. When it became clear that Summers had lost touch with reality, the staff placed him in a time-out room, where it was hoped he would be unable to hurt himself.

When Summers stripped off his clothes, rubbed his lunch over his naked body and began trying to bang his head on the floor, the staff members took more drastic measures. Their plan was to take him out of his cell and move him to one of the prison's four-point rooms. Summers's hands and legs would be cuffed, and he would be sedated. It would be no easy task. The 5-10, 200-pound Summers, whose rap sheet includes busts for trespassing and drug offenses, was certain to put up a fight.

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