The Committed

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

An inmate's mental condition, not the nature of his or her crime, determines placement at San Carlos. Some of the prisoners there are in for theft or burglary. Some, such as Samuel "Dino" Salaz, are murderers.

Salaz, now 34, was just 17 when he lured a young neighborhood girl to a Federal Heights park and stabbed her in the back, heart and lungs with a four-inch buck knife. Though Salaz admitted his 1980 crime to family members, he eluded capture for ten years until, one night, he walked into a police station and turned himself in.

During the decade that passed between the crime and his surrender, Salaz's mental condition had deteriorated to the point that he'd been hospitalized at least twice and given prescriptions for psychotropic medications (which he didn't take). Salaz had become obsessed with cleanliness, scrubbing floors and counters by the hour and washing his hands so insistently that he once scrubbed his palms raw. He wound up pleading guilty to second-degree murder and received a twenty-year sentence.

But despite the aberrant nature of some of their crimes, none of the inmates at San Carlos are legally insane. The forensic unit at the state hospital (now known as the Colorado Mental Health Institute) remains the official custodian of people who have been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity. At the end of May, 190 such patients were housed at the hospital.

The difference between those patients and the inmates at San Carlos is sometimes impossible to distinguish. "It's a legal difference," says Parmenter. "Not a mental-health difference. When you talk about sane and insane in a legal sense, that line is fuzzy."

"People do crazy things," adds Diamond, "and it isn't excused by the law unless you meet certain criteria. Just because you're schizophrenic, that doesn't mean you meet the legal definition of insanity. To be found not guilty by reason of insanity is a two-pronged proposition. First, you have to suffer from a prolonged mental illness, and second, because of that, you have to have been incapable of determining right from wrong and be so unaware of what you were doing that you were incapable of forming intent.

"It also depends on what the jury buys."
Common perception to the contrary, lawyers rarely pursue an insanity defense, and when they do, they rarely succeed.

Salaz's attorney, for instance, pled his client guilty to the second-degree murder charge rather than face a prosecutor who felt he could prove Salaz knew right from wrong at the time of the murder and thus was guilty of first-degree murder. Galimanis has been found legally sane in two hearings (the first was overturned on constitutional grounds, and the McQueens say that Galimanis's public defender is appealing the second finding as well.)

Even Jeffrey Dahmer, who confessed to murdering seventeen young men, dismembering them and cannibalizing some, was found by a jury to have been sane at the time of the killings. So was John Wayne Gacy, who killed 34 men and boys and buried their remains in his basement.

John Hinckley, who tried in 1982 to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster, was declared guilty but insane, then shipped off to a mental hospital.

Colorado does not offer a verdict of guilty but insane. But in July 1995 the state legislature toughened laws regarding insanity pleas. Previously, sanity hearings were held separately, prior to trial. Under the new law, sanity issues are debated concurrently with the criminal trial in a single proceeding.

William Poor, 35, has been in and out of prison for decades. Counting his current incarceration (a three-year sentence for assault and menacing), he's been up the river five times, three times in California and twice in Colorado. He's been into alcohol and drugs in a big way--speed and crack were particular favorites, but he combined them all at one time or another.

"I had a pattern where I'd be fine for three or four years," he says, "and then I'd have a blowup." Poor was sent to Denver General Hospital after one of his "blowups" and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression). Following his assault conviction almost three years ago, Poor was sent to the pilot program for the chronically mentally ill at Arkansas Valley. When San Carlos opened, Poor was one of the first "guests" in the unit for those diagnosed with bipolar disorder and with a history of substance abuse.

Poor, along with fellow inmate Mike Lonas, served as a unit leader and program coordinator, helping new inmates get adjusted. Each man in the unit signs a contract promising to work in the kitchen or act as a clerk or porter. Everyone is given responsibility for enforcing the house rules.

"A lot of us have never been on medication before," says Poor. "They get us stabilized on medication and they try to educate us on how to deal with our symptoms and when to seek help." All in all, he says, "it's been a very safe environment to open up."

For Lonas, a chubby, baby-faced 39-year-old, opening up was particularly hard. Initially, he says, the prospect of divulging his deepest secrets--including the fact that he is gay--made him resistant to accepting treatment. "There was no way I wanted people to find out," Lonas says. "Not in prison. But my caseworker assured me that it would be no problem, and it hasn't been. Now I don't hide it."

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