Sunday, April 08, 2001

Halfway house has long waiting list


Mentally retarded offender unwanted as neighbors

By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — When Austin Zeigler got tired of going to jail for stealing cases of beer from a supermarket, he quickly came up with a new plan.

        “I waited for the guy to come with the beer truck and when he wheeled the beer inside, I stole the truck,” he says, grinning.

        But for Mr. Zeigler, a weathered man whose arms are covered in prison tattoos, the story soon turns grim. “Every time I drank I went to jail,” he admits. “I'm an alcoholic. I got it bad.”

        At 59, Mr. Zeigler, who is mentally retarded, says he was once so desperate for booze he hit a man over the head with a two-by-four to get money. He has beaten people and stolen money for liquor so often he's been sent to prison six times.

Zeigler
Austin Zeigler
        After his last burglary, however, a Morrow County judge ordered Mr. Zeigler to finish his sentence by completing a two-year program at Wittwer Hall, the state's only halfway house for mentally retarded offenders.

        Today, Mr. Zeigler is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and dreams about finding “a real nice woman who doesn't drink,” moving to the country and going fishing.

        “I've been in and out of prison all my life,” he says. “But if I had been here when I was 35, things might have been different. I wouldn't take a million dollars for this place, and I really mean that.”

        Ohio prison officials also rave about Wittwer Hall.

        They cite just one drawback: About 100 mentally retarded people try to get into the Wittwer Hall Residential program each year. It can accept no more than eight.

        “I don't think I want to know what happens to all the people we can't take,” program coordinator Kathryn Sasser says. "It's sad. A lot of people fall through the cracks.”

        Despite a huge need for more halfway houses in Ohio for the mentally retarded, Randy Shively, the program's psychologist, says more don't spring up because there are few places to build them.

        “Mention the words "mentally retarded offender,' and the not-in-my-neighborhood attitude quickly develops,” Mr. Shively says. “It's terrible because what are the other options, letting people out on the street?”

        Mr. Shively says Wittwer Hall has managed to maintain good neighborhood relations, in part, because it screens out the toughest felons, including arsonists or those at high risk of hurting others.

        Even with the screening process, the halfway house still has a five-month waiting list. He says inmates can't wait to move in.

        “One of every four inmates I've interviewed (for the program) tell me they were raped, beaten, molested or taken advantage of in prison in some way,” Mr. Shively says. “It's a huge problem. People with mental retardation, they need special help. You can't just warehouse them.”
       

Learning to say no

        Prison or county jail inmates lucky enough to land a spot in Wittwer Hall spend two years in an old brick building in a run-down neighborhood near downtown.

        They take classes in basic tasks such as cooking, ironing and, when possible, reading and writing. For many, such lessons are a struggle.

        “We have one guy who can't sign his name without misspelling it. Sometimes I look at these guys and think, "My gosh, how did they ever survive prison?'” Ms. Sasser says. “One guy is so small you can see he made it through by melting into the walls.”

        Because of Medicaid rules, Wittwer Hall doesn't accept anyone with an IQ higher than 70. Residents have the developmental abilities of 8-year-olds to young adolescents. Many also are coping with mental illness and drug and alcohol addictions.

Phelps
Tim Phelps
        Medicaid pays $168 a day for each offender to stay in Wittwer Hall. About 40 percent of residents fail to complete the program and are typically returned to prison or jail. The agency spends a year or more helping the rest return to their hometowns across Ohio and get housing, jobs and other services.

        Tim Phelps, a 30-year-old from Cincinnati, is one former resident who will never forget his graduation day. “I wore a white shirt and a Mickey Mouse tie,” he says. “I was really feeling good.”

        Mr. Phelps, who is mentally retarded, says he entered Wittwer Hall in 1993 a crack cocaine addict. Two years later, he came out sober and determined to stay that way.

        Today, Mr. Phelps works at a pizza parlor in Roselawn. He spends much of his time chain-smoking Newports alone in a dingy two-room apartment on Reading Road. His black velour couches are ripped and broken down, and garbage has piled up near a kitchen stove thick with grease.

        But the way he sees it, the place beats prison.

        “I'm not on drugs or alcohol anymore,” he says. “If I can make it, anybody can.”

Armstrong
Cary Armstrong and his anger mask
        Cary Armstrong, 33, is another mentally retarded offender who says he has learned to stay sober at Wittwer. Mr. Armstrong says he had been drinking since a relative started buying him beer when he was 6 to “calm my hyperactivity.”

        He was sent to Wittwer Hall after he was convicted in Mercer County for corruption of a minor. He acknowledges he had sex with a 14-year-old girl and says that wasn't his only problem.

        “When I got drunk, I assaulted police officers,” he says.

        Hanging over Mr. Armstrong's bed is a bright red and green mask, another reminder of what he has learned in the residential program: how to control his anger.

        “Red is for violence,” he says, taking the mask down and turning it in his hands. “That's what people saw me as.”

        Mr. Armstrong, whose biggest hope is to land a job stocking shelves at Wal-Mart when he moves back to Celina, is thankful to have this second chance.

        “Without this place I could be in jail or an institution or even dead,” he says. “We've got enough prisons overflowing with people like me, with the same kinds of problems, doing 10 years to life.”

       



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