The Committed

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

Lonas has been in and out of mental wards, including the state hospital, and was diagnosed as bipolar fifteen years ago. He sought refuge in cocaine. But unlike Poor, this is Lonas's first stint in prison. He swears it will be his last.

Police caught up with Lonas while he was working for the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit, Aspen-based think tank dedicated to exploring alternative energy concepts. "He was involved in computer systems operations," says Dave Blaine, an investigator with the Pitkin County Sheriff's Department. "He could buy equipment and pay suppliers. But he embezzled money and stole computers, hardware and software. I think he stole between $9,000 and $17,000. He was arrested for forgery and theft." Lonas got an eight-year sentence; he's been "down" for two.

Much of Lonas's first year and a half in prison was spent at the Fremont facility in Canon City, where, he says, "you learn nothing about yourself. I slept and watched TV and ate meals." Since coming to San Carlos six months ago, however, "I'm a new person," he says. "I have a new life."

Lonas still has plenty of time before he faces the prospect of release. He isn't scheduled to go before the parole board until January 1998. Poor, though, is a short-timer. He voluntarily turned down a chance to meet the parole board earlier this year when he learned that he couldn't be released to a residential program that would deal with his addictions to drugs and alcohol. Another felony conviction could lead to a lengthy sentence as a habitual offender, Poor says, "and I don't have an opportunity to go out there and make a mistake." (Poor was recently accepted at another drug rehab center and has left San Carlos.)

In her ten years as a parole officer, Kelly Messamore has seen it happen again and again to ex-cons who suffer from mental illness: Released from prison and unable to cope with life on the outside, they quickly commit more crimes.

"One of the first cases I remember," says Messamore, "was a man who was released with the standard $100 and no place to live. He'd discharged his number [served every day of his sentence] and was not on parole. He didn't have the ability to find a home and a job. Within a couple days, he'd thrown a rock through a business window. He wanted the police to pick him up and take him to prison, because he thought he would be safe there."

Even when inmates had parole officers to fall back on, the system often failed. "What would typically happen," Messamore says, "is that they'd be released, and because mental-health issues are confidential, parole officers were not even aware that there were mental-health issues with a client.

"They would have been on medication [in prison], and they'd show up for their first meeting, and they'd look pretty good because they'd been on meds for a long time. When their next appointment came around, maybe in a couple weeks, they'd have [worsened]. And by the time we were able to address those problems, it was too late. A lot had already fled or reoffended."

At San Carlos, prisoners nearing the end of their hitch aren't necessarily guaranteed their freedom. If the San Carlos staff feels that an inmate close to being released is still a danger to himself, says staffer Lorraine Diaz, the inmate can be sent to the state hospital for evaluation--and a possible civil commitment after their prison term has been completed. One female inmate whom Diaz says is very violent is now in the process of being reviewed for possible commitment to the state hospital.

Those prisoners deemed well enough to be released into society often wind up on Messamore's Denver doorstep. One such client is Preston Lowe.

Lowe, like Birdie Kent, is developmentally disabled. Now forty, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while still in his teens, and he has been in and out of hospitals since 1975. He has survived numerous suicide attempts and an addiction to illegal drugs.

His psychotic episodes, when they occur, are "scary," Lowe says, in an interview at the parole office in downtown Denver. "It's like shadows and wicked, wicked stuff. I hear things hollering out. But I never experienced a voice where the voice makes me do something. It's like they're having a conversation with somebody else."

Although anti-psychotic drugs helped keep the voices at bay, Lowe was resistant to the treatment because of the side effects caused by the medication. "I was on these shots, and I didn't like it," he says. "I'd shake, and sexually I had problems with it. Sometimes I could read, but it would get blurry."

So Lowe quit taking his prescribed treatments and self-medicated himself instead with alcohol and cocaine. In 1979 he went to prison on a ten-year sentence for sexual assault. He was paroled and got a job working as a janitor. But he went off his medication again, began taking illegal drugs, and in 1994 was arrested and convicted on first-degree assault charges. Although Messamore says she has few details about the sexual-assault case, she seems certain that Lowe's second assault conviction was a direct result of his failure to maintain his regimen of psychotropic drugs.

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