Sunday, April 08, 2001

Stuck behind bars

For Ohio's mentally retarded prisoners, freedom means nowhere to go

By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        LIMA, Ohio — Jimmy Day desperately wants to leave the prison he's called home for nearly a third of his life.

        The state of Ohio says he should have left two years ago.

        Instead, Mr. Day and 10 other mentally retarded men who have been paroled since 1998 remain behind bars.

        They are there for one reason only: As mentally retarded offenders with troubled pasts, they have no place else to go.

        “I ain't getting any younger, I'm getting old,” says Mr. Day, 59, who was sent to Allen Correctional Institution in 1984 for burglary and the rape of a Trumbull County woman.

[photo] Jimmy Day, paroled two years ago, remains behind bars because he is mentally retarded.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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        “I don't want to die in prison.”

        At a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is debating whether the Constitution prohibits executing mentally retarded people, Ohio prison officials are grappling with a different dilemma: what to do with mentally retarded inmates who have served their sentences and want to go free.

        Every year, about 30 of these inmates are granted early release through parole or set free outright because they've served all their time. Some return to their families.

        Others remain in prison because officials can't find them appropriate housing, a condition of early release. Instead they spend years behind bars waiting for a rare spot in a group home or the only halfway house in Ohio willing to take them.

        Meanwhile, the state shells out as much as $61,000 a year to keep each of them locked away — nearly three times as much as for other inmates.

        Mentally retarded inmates who have served all their time face a tough future, too. Some are sex offenders or violent. Like every other departing prisoner, they're given $75 and bus tickets to their home counties.

        “When their term ends, we have no jurisdiction over them,” says Barbara Brown, mental retardation services director for the Ohio Department of Mental Rehabilitation and Corrections. “They have to leave that day, sometimes with no options, no resources and no money.”

        Officials say it's predictable what happens next.

        “When their hometowns say they have nowhere for them to go or nothing for them, they end up in a homeless shelter,” says Thomas Sovacool, program director in a special unit for the mentally retarded in the Lima prison. “A week or two later, they are headed back here.”

        For communities, it's a frightening pattern.

        “It's getting scary,” says Bob Rankin, director of client services for the FreeStore/FoodBank, a Cincinnati food pantry. He says his agency is seeing an increasing number of ex-inmates who appear to have mental retardation, mental illness or both.

        “They threaten you. They threaten to blow up the store,” he says. “The kinds of people getting out of prison these days, it would blow your mind.”

Intense problems
        Their numbers are small, but their problems are not.

        Of the 45,321 people in Ohio prisons today, the 277 with mental retardation function anywhere from the kindergarten level to the fifth or sixth grades. With IQs of 70 or below, they're doing time for everything from robbery to murder.

[photo] Mr. Day cannot read, so he looks at the pictures in books.
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        Many can't tell time or count money. Some are so severely impaired they must be taught how to properly hold a fork and spoon. By the time they're free to leave, they've often endured years of abuse from other prisoners — especially if they're left in the general population and not housed in the special unit.

        “Inmates will immediately pick them out and say, "There's my cigarettes for the week, there's my coffee, there's my bed maker,” Mr. Sovacool says.

        “And those are the little issues. There are other ways they get taken advantage of. Use your imagination.”

        Thirty-seven mentally retarded inmates are waiting to get into Allen's special unit, which offers counseling, life skills and some measure of protection. But even in the unit, called Sugar Creek, problems exist.

        Inmates still steal from each other and act out sexually. About half also are mentally ill.

        “We have individuals who hear voices and see things. They bang their heads and hands,” Mr. Sovacool says. “Some of them need a lot of stimulation. The rocking chair is the hottest thing in the unit.”

        If inmates with mental retardation are tough to handle behind bars, officials say, they're even more difficult to deal with once they are released.

        “I understand why a group home which has 12 people doesn't want to take in an arsonist or why a man who rapes his sister can't go back to his family. I understand, but that doesn't solve the problem,” says Ms. Brown, the prison director. “Some guys do not fit into any program, but they still need help. And they sure aren't able to help themselves.”

"Woefully inadequate'
    An estimated 6.2 million to 7.5 million people in the United States have mental retardation. About 25,000 of them are incarcerated in state or federal prisons, studies estimate. Also:
   • Studies estimate that between 2 percent and 10 percent of the country's prison population has mental retardation. • A 1992 study showed that residential programs house 12,500 mentally retarded people who had been convicted or were suspected of committing a crime. The number of mentally retarded people on probation, in local jails or placed in programs for people with mental illness, remains unknown.
   • As few as 10 percent of individuals with mental retardation are identified at trial. Many are not identified until they're in prison or on death row.
   • Of the 277 Ohio inmates with mental retardation, 35 are from Hamilton County. Three Hamilton County inmates with mental retardation have been paroled since 1998 but remain in prison waiting for housing.
   • Offenders typically are between ages 20 and 40 and unemployed at the time of their arrests.
   Source: The Arc, a national advocacy group for people with mental retardation
        Local and state officials agree there is a desperate need for solutions, but say those will be harder to find in a tight economy. To fund a proposed billion-dollar education plan, Gov. Bob Taft's administration has recommended across-the-board cuts in most other departments, including millions in cutbacks for low-income housing and prison programs.

        “You don't add new programs to help people like this when you are in the middle of a massive budget cut,” Ms. Brown says.

        Other inmates, such as arsonists, murderers and the mentally ill, also get stuck in prison if they can't find the housing they need to make parole. But while the state has no obligations to help everyone, it is morally obliged to look after the mentally retarded, says Tom Eamoe, executive director of Hamilton County Arc, an advocacy group.

        He is outraged that it doesn't.

        “It's egregious that people with mental retardation have to stay behind bars because there is nowhere else for them to go,” Mr. Eamoe says. “It shows just how woefully inadequate the support is for the the mentally retarded in Ohio.”

        Things are so bad that more than 12,000 mentally retarded people in the state are on waiting lists to get into group homes or similar housing. Many have waited for years, some for more than a decade. Some are the mentally retarded children of aging and frail parents.

        “County boards are struggling to meet the needs of people who haven't committed crimes, and offenders with disabilities are not going to be everybody's favorite neighbor,” says John Romer, coordinator of adult services for the Cincinnati Center for Developmental Disorders. “They are just forgotten people.”

        Robert Morgan, superintendent of the Delaware County Board of Mental Retardation, says county boards are faced with two options: Divert money from needed programs for non-offenders to help ex-inmates, or ignore them.

        Often, he says, “We have to do what is most practical. We pretend these problems don't exist.”

        He cites the decision his agency made two years ago to provide care for a mentally retarded man at high risk of being a repeat sex offender. With few choices available, the agency sent the man to a special program for mentally retarded sex offenders in Utah.

        The price tag? $110,000 a year, paid for by taxpayers.

        “We just can't afford to do that for too many people,” Mr. Morgan says. “It's very expensive, and it all comes from local funding.”

        Still, Mr. Morgan points out if the county board had not gotten involved, the sex offender would have been left on the streets, receiving no treatment.

        “This is the one group that it's politically correct to hate and ostracize but not to help,” he says. “But when you are mentally retarded you have even less ability to cope, and if a county board doesn't take the risk and help you then you are doomed to fail.”

        And failing, he says, “means they end up hurting someone else.”

The last resort

        Mentally retarded inmates across the country face similar difficulties, says Mark Englander, a psychologist and director of the habilitation program in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

        He conducts surveys of corrections officials and says very few states have formal procedures for assuring that mentally retarded offenders are placed in group homes or receive other community services.

        Still, not all states keep mentally retarded people in prison for years after their parole. In Indiana, for example, officials say they typically find housing for mentally retarded parolees within 30 to 90 days.

        Kentucky officials say that state keeps no record of the mentally retarded as they move through the prison system.

        In Ohio, advocates for the poor and homeless say a bad situation may soon get worse. Proposed cuts in low-income housing funds are coming at a time when more offenders with mental retardation, mental illness, or both, are turning up on their doorsteps.

        “We are scrambling to find low-income housing already,” says Vicki Aug-Williams, head of social services for the FreeStore, which also helps people find housing. “The funds are drying up, and people are fighting over it.”

        Instead of cutting funding, Mr. Rankin, the FreeStore's client services director, says the state should help offenders with severe disabilities get the housing, caregivers and treatment they need.

        “A lot of these guys are not warm and fuzzy so nobody wants to put their arms around them,” he says. “But for an investment a lot smaller than the cost of prison they could get these guys services so they won't go back to jail.”

        Women and juvenile offenders released from prison have an easier time finding housing and services than male inmates. Currently, only four women and about 40 juveniles with mental retardation are in Ohio correctional facilities.

        Still, Jerry Plassenthal, superintendent of the Opportunity Center, the state's 42-bed correctional facility for mentally retarded youths north of Columbus, says some offenders are harder to find homes for than others.

        For example, officials currently are struggling to find a place for a 165-pound, 17-year-old juvenile from Butler County who functions at the second-grade level and has a history of being physically beaten and locked in closets.

        “When he hears voices and feels threatened, he becomes violent,” Mr. Plassenthal says. “He's been in and out of halfway houses and foster homes and has a reputation for hurting staff. Now the question is, where does he go when he leaves here?”

Wants to go home

        For Mr. Day, who is from Warren, Ohio, the question of where inmates go after they leave prison is not an abstract one.

        He entered prison at 42, moving into a 7-by-10-foot prison cell with concrete floors and cinderblock walls. His cell in the Sugar Creek unit is bare except for the worn black Bible and pair of brown suede boots tucked into one corner.

        He hides most of his belongings, a few clothes, shampoo and a bar of soap, in a small plastic tub under his cot to try to keep “the bad people” from stealing them.

        Mr. Day, a thin, almost gaunt man with gray hair, is given to rambling about Kitty Hawk, meeting Elvis Presley in Las Vegas and marrying a rich, Chevrolet-dealing girlfriend.

        But there is always one thing clear in his mind - just how much he wants to step beyond the prison walls.

        “I'd like to go back to my family, if that's not asking too much,” he says.

        Eager to please, he sings a song by The Lettermen at an official's request and even does a little dance. “They don't let anyone hurt me here,” he says, beaming at the handful or prison officials in the room as if seeking approval. “But it's not the same as being home.”

        Mr. Day's brother, who lives in Florida, had agreed two years ago to care for him after he was paroled. But Florida officials would not allow the inmate to move into that state.

        Unless something changes, Mr. Day likely will serve all 25 years of a seven- to 25-year sentence. That means he will spend the next eight years hiding his few belongings and earning $18 a month cleaning prison toilets and mopping floors.

        Before returning to his cell, Mr. Day motions to a white envelope in his hand and says it contains his brother's phone number. Would someone help him give his brother a call?

        “It's been a long time since I seen my family,” he says.

        “I just want to go home.”

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