Hospitals and prisons
August 01, 2001
CALIFORNIA’S NEGLECT of the mentally ill is a scandalous disgrace. Tens of thousands receive no treatment, languish in
prisons, wander the streets or hide in homeless encampments.
Even worse, some of them share space with the criminally insane in state hospitals, where their lives are constantly
endangered by those who are judged too incompetent to stand trial.
In their recent investigation of this growing problem, Chronicle staff writers Jim Doyle and Peter Fimrite described how Napa
State Hospital has turned into a prison-like fortress that crams both the mentally ill and the criminally insane into
overcrowded and understaffed wards.
How, you may wonder, did this grotesque situation come about?
The reason, says Stephen Mayberg, director of the state Department of Mental Health, is that the passage of California’s
“three strikes law” has encouraged a growing number of defendants to plead insanity when facing a lengthy prison
sentence. Since 1995, the number of criminally insane patients at Napa State Hospital has more than doubled.
As a result, patient-on-patient assaults have become a near daily occurrence. Desperately understaffed, the mental
hospital typically has nurses and psychiatric technicians work 16-hour “double shifts.” An inadequate operating budget and
dangerous conditions fail to attract skilled psychiatric professionals. At present, for example, 113 positions at Napa State
Hospital have gone unfilled.
“It’s not a safe place for patients to be treated,” social worker Joan Gartos told Chronicle writers. Most hospital workers have
only minimal experience and the most rudimentary training in handling the criminally insane.
In addition, the tiny staff, most of whom are women, cannot control the violent male inmates and are therefore unable to
protect those who have been hospitalized for mental illness.
Here is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. Californians wanted to get tough on crime. But if the state
wants to maintain a strict criminal policy of “three strikes,” then the Legislature must adequately fund those state hospitals
that have, in effect, turned into prisons for those who plead insanity.
Equally important, the state government has a moral responsibility to separate and protect the mentally ill from the criminally
insane. Those who suffer from mental illness have not committed crimes. They should not be punished. Yet it is they who
have become the victims of this sorry state of neglect.