The Committed

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

"He owed a guy some money," Messamore says of Lowe's 1994 case, "and when he came around, it scared Preston and he stabbed him. His perception of it is very distorted."

After that arrest, Lowe was sent to the Arkansas Valley prison, where he took part in the special-needs program for the chronically mentally ill. When San Carlos opened, he was transferred there.

Lowe has been out now for about nine months. And according to Messamore and Lowe's therapist, Mike Steinert, he is doing well. Some of the credit for that, they agree, must go to San Carlos.

"I think that when Preston went to prison, he really turned around," says Steinert. "He's never gonna be a, quote, 'normal' individual. But he's much more involved in his treatment, and he's motivated by the fact that he's on parole."

Some of that attitude is due to the prison's emphasis on getting inmates to understand their illness, says Steinert. But he adds that Lowe is also motivated by the fact that he doesn't want to go back to prison. "The whole experience was pretty traumatic for him," Steinert says. "He realized severe consequences for what he did."

Lowe was helped, too, by San Carlos's transition team, says Messamore. Prison staffers found him a place to live and signed him up to begin receiving Social Security benefits almost immediately. He also was enrolled in an intensive therapy program at the Mental Health Corporation of Denver. Unlike many of the mentally ill who come out of prison, notes Messamore, "Preston was really kind of lucky in that he had some VA benefits [from a short stint in the National Guard] and that he had some family to parole to. That's sort of unusual. A lot of these people end up in shelters or, because they're violence-prone, the shelters won't take them and they end up in hotels or the YMCA."

But not everyone agrees that what has happened to Lowe was the right way to deal with his problems. "It seems to me," says public defender Reynolds, "that if San Carlos is dealing with the chronically mentally ill, those people shouldn't even be in prison. I think they should be in a structured mental-health program." And if people like Lowe are imprisoned, she argues, they should be evaluated and released as soon as they have been stabilized through medication and therapy.

But Steinert sees a benefit in placing disturbed inmates in the correctional system--if their mental illnesses are treated. "For some, it can be a real comfortable place because of the structure," he says. "But it's also very important to allow the person to experience the natural consequences of their actions."

Messamore says it's important to remember that, mentally ill or not, the inmates at San Carlos are criminals. However, providing treatment inside prison is crucial, she adds, even if at times it creates the appearance that the state is cosseting criminals. "We're going to pay for these people one way or another," Messamore says. "Some day, some way, they're going to get out."

Corrections officials hope that when prisoners from San Carlos get out, they'll stay out. To date, however, there is no convincing data to show that, even with expensive treatment, the chronically mentally ill are any less likely to reoffend.

Officials so far seem to have hitched their hopes to an informal recidivism study conducted in 1994, when the state parole office surveyed 42 chronically mentally ill parolees. Although not statistically valid, the study pointed out the importance of pre-arranging housing and disability benefits for prisoners, many of whom lack the mental capacity or organizational skills to take care of those everyday matters themselves.

"Of those people who had no resources and went to live in a shelter," Messamore says, "about 90 percent of them went back [to prison]. Of those who had some kind of support, 50 percent went back. I know that those figures are [still] incredibly high. But that is a 40 percent difference in the recidivism rate."

Such slim evidence doesn't impress critics. But it's enough for prison officials, who are counting on San Carlos and its follow-up program to help keep mentally ill prisoners from reoffending. Those officials say it's critical that the new experiment succeed, because the numbers of such inmates are bound to increase. By the time San Carlos is able to double its bed space to 500, says Michaud, there will likely be 800 chronically mentally ill prisoners in the DOC system.

Back in his unit at San Carlos, Birdie Kent says he's ready to go. He's slated to meet the parole board this week, and he hopes the board members will decide to release him. In the meantime, the convicted rapist is trying to remain upbeat about his ability to make it on the outside--and to stay out of trouble.

"I'm thinking about Birdie Kent," he says, referring to himself in the third-person vernacular so familiar to veterans of therapy groups. "When I close my door and go to bed, I, Birdie Kent, seem important to me--who I am, how I'm feeling," he says. "I got to make it out of here someday.

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