What’s the Difference?

I was reading the story about the armored car heist in Alberta. There were no fancy headlines like those reserved for Vincent Li. Apparently we find it comprehensible that someone would murder three individuals for a little over 300 000 dollars. Possibly we can relate to crime for financial gain, while crime due only to a mental disorder is foreign. Could we fathom doing something we wouldn’t normally do for financial reasons? What would you do for money otherwise not attainable? It may be totally foreign for most of us to commit any crime but if it is for profit there seems some rhyme to it.

What does it say about us as individuals and as a society? Why can we comprehend someone whose value of life equals roughly $100,000 per person? Murder under any circumstance is abominable yet we only demonize the person suffering from hallucinations and delusions. The headlines that follow Vincent Li years later are “Crazed Bus Butcher”. “Baumgartner Nabbed at Border” follow the individual who is likely criminally responsible for three deaths and another seriously injured. This person seems to be in full possession of his mental faculties yet he avoids demonization by the media and possibly the public.

Why do we allow someone who knowingly murders for paper, dignity of sorts yet strip those who suffer from a mental disorder that same dignity? Should we hold the media to higher standards? Call a spade a spade and I will still buy your paper. Distort the facts and you are a sensationalizing letch. Are those whose occupation it was to distribute money to machines not worthy of our outrage? If we are going to spit on someone, greed as a motive for murder might just be worthy of it. Possibly we don’t want to demonize something that we could fathom ourselves? Is there an amount you might murder for?

It all seems senseless and Mr. Li did perform an atrocity but the courts and medical profession have proven and deemed him Not Criminally Responsible. Why is that so hard to disseminate? If Mr. Baumgartner is responsible in act and under the law should we not hold him accountable to the same extent we mistakenly hold those who are factually “not” accountable? If Mr. Li killed for an amount of money would it be comprehensible? If Mr. Baumgartner killed because he was ill I would expect headlines such as “Armored Car Abomination” or “Twisted Treasure Terminator.” We can understand one scenario because we would all do certain things for money under certain circumstances. The thing you have to realize is we could each do any number of things under the powers of a mental disorder. My outrage flies in all directions and my sympathy to those affected by both individuals.

Fool For A Client

I was clearly psychotic for much of my time in jail but I was at times in complete possession of my intellect. I might have looked and sounded bizarre but I made sense at times as well. I was at a disadvantage because of my illness. I was taken advantage of by certain inmates and often disregarded by the authorities. As much as they deny you in jail you also maintain certain freedoms. My case was still before the courts so I was allowed to cast my political ballot. I was in the medical cells at the time so I’m not sure what voter turnout was but I possessed my usual political will. I was resigned to the fact that none of the parties was overly concerned with me as an individual or population but it is a vote I will always remember. I was stripped of most of what makes a citizen but I stood tall with my golf pencil in hand.

About this time I was quite displeased with my lawyer as was my family. I was doing my best to dodge his services but he dragged me to court every other week to pad his pockets. It was a several month battle to have him removed from my case. The authorities in the jail were advised that I was representing myself; by myself. I did have a fool for a client but I was given a privilege above my fellow inmates. I was allowed access to the institution copy of the Canadian Criminal Code. After I filled out a form I would be locked in a lawyer’s room with my disclosure documents and the big book. I was a whirlwind of activity. Within a few weeks my papers were in tatters and filled with notes. My golf pencil had no erasure so I would use my shoe to erase my previous episodes of lawyerly notations. I was often in a panic looking over what I had written. Each time I would read the Canadian Criminal Code my defense would change. One day I stumbled on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I had never read them before. I couldn’t see any help for me in them but I read them intently.

During this period I was spiritually charged as well. Any time I had access to a phone or a pencil and envelope I would reach out to religious leaders in the community. I had regular visits from a Baptist minister, a Catholic priest, a Muslim Imam, an Evangelical minister, the institutional minister and several lay-people from the community who offered religious guidance. Sometimes when Reverend X. was at the institution she would take me to her office in the basement and we would smudge. I learned to love the smell of burning sweet grass and was always moved by the ceremony and gesture.

To add to my religious education I got my hands on a copy of Malcolm X and started copying the customs he described involving his conversion to Islam. One of the guards was also a Muslim and I looked to him for guidance. One day I waited with my breakfast. When he came to the bars to collect my food tray I asked if I was permitted to eat. There was ham on it, he nodded and I woofed it down.

I didn’t have a clear idea what I was through all this. I even had some knowledge of Judaism to throw in the mix. One thing that became clear to me was that I shouldn’t be eating meat. I asked a guard if I could change my diet to Vegan. “You’ll have to fill out a request form.” I did and was denied. I asked to see a lieutenant. I was again denied. “I want to speak to the Warden.” “You’ll have to fill out a request form.” I did and within days he was standing outside my cell door. I made my request. “It’s jail policy that you can’t change your diet after being admitted.” “It’s not a security issue” I said. “If you had requested a Vegan diet when you landed here I wouldn’t have a problem.” “But it’s part of my religion.” “What religion is that?” “Well I might be Jewish.” “You’re not Jewish.” “I have a new religion.” “I don’t recognize your religion so as I said you’re out of luck.” “I have the right to practice and follow any religion whether you recognize it or not.” “I can even follow no religion.” He walked away.

Jails and those employed in them are overseen by the Ombudsman. If an inmate has an issue he or she can ask for a “Blue Letter”. It required no stamp which furthered my excessive correspondence and unlike our other mail it could be sealed to escape the censor system of the jail. I filled out a request form and asked for a “Blue Letter” and filled it out. About a week later I was notified and given a number to contact the Ombudsman by phone. The woman asked me if I had exhausted all internal measures. “Yes”. She said she would look into it. The only other person who knew of my battle was Rev. X. After another week or two I was again asked to call the Ombudsman. The woman was quite pleased to inform me that the Ombudsman had sided with me. I had the right to follow my religious conscience. I could practice any religion or no religion. It was my first victory as a lawyer. The Reverend came to my cell and was clearly pleased as well.

I was punished for taking things beyond the institution. The kitchen gave me some kind of meatless cabbage rolls three days a week. As much as I hated them they did have a certain sweetness:)  I could have created some havoc within the jail by passing on my knowledge to my fellow inmates but being a lawyer I steered clear since there was little money to be made. I never held it over the Warden. When I regained the majority of my sanity he went on vacation for a couple of weeks. He had a habit of walking around the entire jail and checking to see that our pillows were left in our cells when we were locked out. I saw him come around the corner and walked up to him with a huge smile and said “welcome back”, it was my jail too.

Not Criminally Responsible: The Burden of Accusation and Popular Misconceptions

This an essay I wrote while in college several years ago. It’s not my usual writing style.

On the surface, to be found Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) would be more acceptable and advantageous than a guilty finding. However, responsibility and blame are placed on NCR individuals even though the law finds them not responsible, and they are subjected to punishment and a loss of liberties which is comparable to penal sanctions. The number of Not Criminally Responsible individuals is statistically overestimated in the judicial system and NCR individuals are thought to be prescribed shorter sentences. Being NCR also means navigating through a new world of social stigma which exceeds that of a common criminal. Individuals who commit a crime and are considered or found Not Criminally Responsible face more severe social consequences and punitive measures than criminals tried and or convicted without the Not Criminally Responsible defence.

NCR offenders are the recipients of additional blame due to the effects of the “just world hypothesis.”“The just world hypothesis (Lerner & Simmons, 1966) states that individuals believe that people have direct control over their fate and get what they deserve in life” (Murray, Spadafore, McIntosh 35). The just world hypothesis applies to victims whereby blame is placed on a victim to reinforce a person’s belief that somehow people get what they deserve. Since this may be an automatic process (Murray, Spadafore, McIntosh 35), it can be hypothesized that in the case of an individual losing touch with reality and acting unlawfully as a result, more blame may be placed on this perpetrator who in essence is also a victim. The law clearly states that such individuals are not responsible. To accept the fact that they are not responsible, one has also to accept that mental illness can strike an individual through no fault of their own with severe ramifications. Those found NCR are in fact victims whose existence threatens the ideal of a predictable and just world where we control our own fate. People are uncomfortable with mental illness because it is indiscriminate and has no apparent cause. Kay Redfield Jamison a well known author and psychiatrist who is bi-polar experienced the effects of the just world hypothesis in response to her book. She states, “I received thousands of letters from people. Most of them were supportive but many were exceedingly hostile. A striking number said that I deserved my illness…” (Jamison 533). Not Criminally Responsible individuals face the same hostility.

NCR individuals are not spared punitive measures. There are several purposes to punishment. People feel the need for retribution – some form of punishment comparable to the harm done by the offense. Society also believes punishment serves as a deterrent to the offender and others (Pollock 265). Both purposes are problematic. Retribution is not equal to the crime in many cases. Some people are comfortable in jail while others suffer greatly. For those suffering from mental illness, jail can be terrifying. Often the correctional response to mental illness is isolation, which can make symptoms worse (Kondo 255).Brad, whom the author interviewed and who suffers from schizophrenia, spent his 4 months in jail (waiting for transfer to a hospital), isolated in medical cells where there are no TV, radio, books or news, natural light, or cellmates. Mark, another interviewee, spent 8 weeks of his ten months between the “Hole” and medical cells. The “Hole” has no mattress during the day, 24 hour light, and “a four inch window with a view of a wall.” Kondo describes what it must be like for NCR individuals in jail; “to be in jail is a miserable, horrible experience. It’s full of shame, it’s full of defeat, it’s full of hopelessness, it’s scary. It would have to be 10 times more difficult for mentally ill offenders than for those without phobias, depression, schizophrenia, or other disorders” (255). The experience of jail without delusions, hallucinations, and depression invokes anxiety in most of its inhabitants.

People who are unable to appreciate the nature of their crime, specifically the fact that it was criminally wrong and probably morally wrong, many times through treatment come to the full realization of their act(s). For some, the extreme disparity between their actions and their true nature is overwhelming. Scott, stated “that not a day goes by when I don’t think about it.” Despite not choosing their predicaments and being victims of an illness, many NCR patients take responsibility for their actions and the burden of their illnesses. For those seeking retribution, reality and the memory of crimes committed can be a significant and severe form of punishment for these individuals.

As a deterrent, punishment is ineffective. If it was effective there would be no crime to punish (Pepinsky, Jesilow 122). Others would view the punishment and be deterred while those who were already criminals would be deterred and not re-offend. In 2004/2005 approximately 32,100 adults were incarcerated (Beattie 2) with minimal change to crime rates. Furthermore, one third of offenders re-offend within two years (Beattie 13). Allowing a very small percentage of individuals to circumvent the penal system has little effect on deterrence which may have minimal influence anyway.

Another purpose of punishment is incapacitation, whereby a person is prevented from committing future offences (Pollock 267). Those found Not Criminally Responsible are generally housed in maximum security units initially. According to Scott, at Regional Mental Health Care in St. Thomas, the maximum and medium secure forensic units have bars on the windows, security cameras throughout the common areas, metal detectors and a series of locked doors off the unit. There can be little doubt that while the patient is in the assessment stage and early stages of treatment and recovery he/she is no more capable of escape or re-offense than a criminal. Brad, who is under a community detention order, explained that individuals are monitored by a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, mental health nurse, and other support staff. Most accused are required to comply with drug and alcohol screening and have geographical limitations; all of these conditions can be considered forms of prevention.

A general misconception is that NCR individuals receive lighter sentences. If the individual is deemed to not be a risk to the public he/she may be released immediately, but this provision is very rarely exercised (Gray, Shone, Liddle 337). Individuals receive a yearly hearing whereby the Ontario Review Board reviews their status and either recommends that they remain in hospital, be released with conditions, or receive an absolute discharge (Gray, Shone, Liddle 337). There is no cap to the time an individual remains under a Disposition; therefore, patients are detained indefinitely and are often held for periods longer than what would be prescribed for a criminal who was found guilty of the same offence without a mental disorder (Adshead 302). Mark’s offence was criminal harassment, which is sometimes dealt with by fines (Statistics Canada). He spent 10 months in jail which, because it was pre-trial custody, would count two for one (20 months). He spent two years incarcerated in the hospital and has been in the community for two years conditionally. This example illustrates the fact that not all NCR patients “get off easy.” As McLaughlin points out: “Charter challenges to these lengthy incarcerations have failed…” consequently this defence is usually employed in more serious crimes (1).

Another popular misconception is that those found NCR are prevalent in the justice system. Using statistics from Baltimore, the data does not support this view. Of 60,432 indictments only 190 plead NCR and all but 8 dropped the defence. These 8 were unchallenged (Janofsky,Dunn, Roskes, Briskin, Rudolph, Lunstrum 1464). Janofsky et al also found college students believed the defence was used 80 times more than it actually is and they thought it was successful 3,600 more times than statistics show (1464). The American system varies from state to state but is comparable to Canada in most states making these findings statistically relevant (Viljoen, Roesh, Ogloff, Zapf 369). This severe misconception is a direct result of popular media. NCR cases are consistently reported because they are controversial and often high profile because of their severity. Because so many of these cases dominate the media, while similar criminal offences do not, the public overestimates their occurrence.

Those found NCR suffer from a double stigma. Not only are they labelled criminals but they also have to deal with the stigma of being mentally ill. For some, they have had no experience with either and find the labels humiliating and isolating. By demonizing and blaming those who are NCR, they can be labelled as insane. Blaming serves two purposes. Their actions and illnesses can be written off as aberrations that could never happen to normal people, which supports the just world hypothesis. And labels provide mental molds that can be cast for people so others feel separate and safe from them. If they are not stereotyped and compartmentalized they are allowed to occupy what comprises the “normal” world. Labelling and stereotyping negate the possibility that one could be as they are or that they could possess similar human characteristics. As a name and object of scorn or hate they are dissimilar and one could not imagine being as they are. Link and Phelan mention labelling as part of the stigmatization process . . . . “ the group doing the labelling separates ‘them’-the stigmatised group-from ‘us’(Link, Phelan 528).

McFadyen’s comment that there are more dangerous people roaming the streets than there are in forensic hospitals is logical (1436). In reality, many people fear those who are NCR. People fear the unknown and many know little about mental illness and this aspect of the law; most rely on movies and news headlines for their information. Many are terrified by the prospect of losing control of their minds or emotions and most pride themselves on being rational and in control. To think there are illnesses that can destroy what is essential for functioning, is terrifying.

To be found Not Criminally Responsible is not an easy way out. Responsibility and blame are still attached to these individuals, often by themselves. Most are subjected to jails and are forced to navigate this system and its inhabitants with the disability of a mental illness. NCR individuals usually serve time in secure hospital settings often for lengths exceeding traditional sentences. They are also a very small group of offenders who in no way exploit the legal system but are in fact prone to abuse by it. Most significant for these individuals is that society deems them as criminal and insane, leaving them to deal with stereotypes and stigma and the social isolation that accompanies them. Adshead sums up the predicament of Not Criminally Responsible individuals when he states, “it is hard not to perceive that the interests of mentally abnormal offenders come at the bottom of almost any list of priorities; partly because such patients are vulnerable and can be exploited, but also because they are ‘guilty’ individuals, and can thus claim less moral or legal protection” (302).

Labels

I started thinking about all the labels I have; crazy, insane, mentally ill, criminal, disabled, manic depressive, I could probably name a few more. Labels are basically stereotypes, mental molds that we cast for people so we feel separate and safe from them. If we don’t box them in and we allow them to occupy part of what comprises our world, we allow for the possibility that we too could be as they are or that they could also posses some of our human characteristics. If we can keep them as a name, they are less like us and therefore we could never be as they are.

With stereotypes comes stigma and with stigma comes isolation. This isolation helps protect the strong and healthy but it drives those who are different underground. It makes us feel less than we are and feel wrong for having the problems that we do. In the case of mental illness people don’t seek help or those that do feel weak or lesser for their illness. Many suffer in silence and the isolation of stereotypes and stigma only exacerbate the difficulties of mental illness. People with mental illness need support and understanding not labels. Labels are like a sign pinned to your back. Everyone sees the sign. It is physically painless but it is humiliating and degrading. The stigma associated with mental illness is simply fear. People fear the unknown and most know little about mental illness. Many are terrified by the prospect of losing control of their minds or emotions. Most people pride themselves on being rational and in control. To think there are illnesses that can rob you of this is like an alien taking control of your person. What could be worse than losing control of your mind, your sense and will, your emotions and desires?

When we or someone we love becomes mentally ill we become quiet about it. We isolate that person and ourselves. We contain what is fearful. We don’t let the world see a person who is very ill; they are kept on separate wards often locked, so there is little to no understanding of it. As a result all we have are misconceptions which lead to labels and stigma. Just think about how many people consider Schizophrenia to be a splitting of personalities. It has become part of popular culture and is totally ingrained in most people’s minds.

Getting past the fear is the first step and the key to this is knowledge. As more and more people step forward with their illnesses their success stories can only help to alleviate the stigma associated with mental illness.