PBS documentary looks at Ohio inmates

Lynn Moore, who is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, is one of several former Ohio inmates whose stories are told in the  Frontline  documentary on PBS.
Lynn Moore, who is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, is one of several former Ohio inmates whose stories are told in the Frontline documentary on PBS.

In 2007, a man named Lynn Moore armed himself with bottles and bricks and tried to break into a house near Canton, Ohio. Moore, who is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia with a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, was completely delusional, convinced that Osama bin Laden or Satan, or Saddam, or the Antichrist, or somebody else really bad was in the house.

When police arrived Moore was arrested, and because he had a long record of previous arrests he was sent to prison for an eight-month stretch. While there, he received counseling and the medications he needed to control his mental problems. But he was eventually released, and once back on the streets with no supervision, the whole cycle would almost inevitably begin again.

Moore is one of several troubled former Ohio inmates whose struggles to adapt to freedom are chronicled in a disturbing PBS documentary called The Released. The 60-minute film, which airs Tuesday at 9 p.m., is a production of PBS s Frontline investigative unit. It will air on WGTE-TV, Channel 30 and WBGU-TV, Channel 27.

More than 700,000 inmates will be released from state and federal prisons all across the country this year, and shockingly, more than half that number will be mentally ill. Typically, offenders leave prison with a bus ticket, $75 in cash, and two weeks worth of medication. Within 18 months, two-thirds of those with mental problems will be re-arrested.

The reality of psychiatric treatment for those coming out of incarceration is that it is nonexistent or very poor, says Dr. Mike Unger, a psychiatrist with a community outreach team in Columbus. This isn t a population that s going to come with their planners and their organizers, and be compliant with their medications, and keep them in that perfect little medication box as they live behind a Dumpster somewhere.

Some of the inmates in the film are the same ones featured when producers Karen O Connor and Miri Navasky made a film in 2004 in Ohio.

That one, called The New Asylums, went into the state s prison system and looked at its efforts to provide care to thousands of mentally ill inmates. The Released is, in a sense, the next chapter in that story.

The filmmakers once again catch up with Keith Williams, a man who had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic who has been arrested more than 10 times since the producers first met him in 2004. This time, he s out of prison and staying at Northcoast, a psychiatric facility in Toledo, where he s receiving treatment. But it s only temporary.

The good news is that Keith is getting better, says Michelle Istler-Perry, a nurse at Northcoast. In a sense, the bad news as well is that because of this, he ll be sent back into the community in Toledo, and he ll be back within three months probably very psychotic and hopefully not having hurt somebody.

Sure enough, just four days after being discharged from Northcoast, Williams is off his meds, and after an incident at a homeless shelter, he s charged with assaulting a police officer. He now faces a 10-year prison term.

Interviews with inmates and former inmates show that they re remarkably lucid as long as they re on medication.

I have psychotic episodes sometimes when I m not taking my medication, says Billy Stokes, a three-time offender who has been diagnosed a schizophrenic. I can be a real jerk, a real jerk.

Within a month after his last release, Stokes went off his meds, lost control, and ended up behind bars again. During his processing, he punched a brick wall and threatened staff members.

Among the biggest reasons for the problems depicted in the film was the wholesale closing of state psychiatric hospitals around the country in the 1970s. The assumption at the time was that the mentally ill shouldn t be warehoused, and that they d be better off receiving community-based care. Unfortunately, adequate funding for that goal was never available, and it s been in even shorter supply in recent years.

Consequently, resources to assist the mentally ill after their release from prison are few and far between, in Ohio as in most other states. And since most of the inmates have destroyed any support system they might have had with friends and family, there s nowhere else to turn.

We release people with two weeks worth of medication, yet it appears it s taking three months for people to actually get an appointment in the community to continue their services, says Debbie Nixon-Hughes, former mental health chief for the Ohio Department of Corrections. And if they don t have the energy or the insight to do that, they re going to fall through the cracks and end up back in some kind of criminal activity.

Sherri Sullivan is program director at Bridgeview Manor in Ashtabula, Ohio, the only residential facility in Ohio that accepts the indigent mentally ill and offers them treatment, and she issues a blistering indictment of the state s lack of mental health resources.

I see the whole community mental health system as a huge social failure and a huge moral obligation that we re not meeting, because we went from institutionalization to nothing, she says. In many cases, a person is going to get a better level of care while incarcerated than they re going to get if they live in the community. And that s really sad. But it s what happens.

The Released is not an uplifting film, but it s certainly an eye-opener. It s more than a little unsettling to realize how many inmates with serious mental illnesses are released into our communities each year. And with the lack of care available for them on the outside, it s no wonder that so many find their way back to prison in short order.