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"It should not be this way. Should it?" Do the homeless mentally ill belong in prison?

Black box

Black box

In the early morning hours of November 8, 2011, I was handcuffed with a black box and belly chain, shackles were placed on my ankles with a short chain between them. I was wearing a bright orange jumpsuit with the word PRISONER in black letters across the back, as if someone might mistake me for something different. I was then transported to the United States Courthouse in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Today was the day I had been looking forward to for 17 months.

I had been arrested on July 14, 2010 and held in a solitary cell in the Kay County Jail, where not even I knew who I was for several days. A nurse recognized me and attempted to find the right medications and the right dose, to no avail. I had quit eating, I would not even take a candy bar from my court-appointed attorney. Finally, after two months, I was committed to the state mental hospital.

Upon arrival at the mental hospital, and being relieved of my restraints, I ran into my old room and found someone in what I thought was my bed. I asked him to get out, but a fight erupted wherein I hit my head on the edge of the steel door, cutting a gash that required several stitches at the local hospital. I was left with half my head shaved.

Back at the mental hospital, I was given an injection for hallucinations, as they had my medical records. This was not my first visit here.

The next morning, I saw my doctor. She weighed me in at 126 pounds. She said she was putting me on double portions for awhile and a snack at night. I was still hearing some Chinese voices, so she said she would increase my medications. She said not to worry, that I was safe here and she would take care of me. At first I saw her daily, then weekly, and then monthly. After several months, she pronounced me stable with medications, and the deputies from Kay County came and took me back to the jail.

On March 1, 2011, two U.S. Marshals came to get me, bringing me an orange jumpsuit. I was chained and shackled and brought to the same holding pens. Later I was transferred to a federal holding facility in a county jail, where I remained, sometimes with medication, sometimes without. On two incidents I was beaten by 6 to 8 deputies because I would not back up to the door and stick my hands through to be handcuffed. I was tazed and sprayed with mace, then dragged to the shower, thrown into the small 2 by 3 confines where cold water was turned on for several hours.

The marshals came back to the holding pens and said, "It's your turn to shine." I was led swiftly down a long maze of hallways in the inner recesses of the courthouse, the sharp edges of the shackles biting into the skin and tendons of my ankles. I could feel it against the bone. I was hurried. "Don't want to keep the judge waiting," they said. We came to some stairs and climbed them, they pushed a button and a door popped open. I was finally in a huge courtroom. I felt really tiny in there knowing there was no one in the world who knew I was there except these marshals.

I was homeless. I had always been homeless except when in jail, prison, or a mental hospital.

My public defender came in and was telling me what was going to happen this morning. I was to be sentenced. The federal sentencing recommendations were for 6 months to one year, he said. The Attorney General and probation office had agreed on this punishment.

I was charged with theft of public funds and using an identification of another to commit a crime. I had cashed a social security check that I was not the rightful recipient of and used an old driver's license that was not mine. I knew I was going to have to pay back the $1,850.90. I was hoping to get my own disability check, as they said I was eligible. I just never had a place long enough to get it started.

Then someone said, "All rise," and in walked the United States District Judge, David L. Russell.

The judge said that we were there for sentencing and asked my public defender if he had anything to say. I remember him saying there was a long history of mental illness in this case. He said that when I was on medication and had a place to live, and food, I did good. It was when I got out of prison, having no place to live, needing to work and support myself but unable because of a severe mental illness -- when I could not even manage to get transportation to get to appointments to get my medication -- that I would go off the prescribed medications and turn to alcohol. I would then commit some homeless crime and end up back in prison.

The judge asked me what I had to say. I said the same things. It's when I get out with nowhere to go that I have no idea what to do. I get overwhelmed when I can't get the right medications. I use alcohol. Then I am back in jail, heading back to prison for years.

Then the judge started: "Frankly, I am quite sympathetic with you," he said. "I know from the presentence report you have had a tough life, a lot to deal with..."

I was hearing him saying, "I think you are better off mentally and physically in prison..." Then the next thing I hear him saying, "I sentence you to 120 months in federal prison with a three-year suspended sentence after that."

I felt as though I was trapped on a runaway train heading straight for a cliff. I wanted to scream "WAIT! I don't want to spend the rest of my life in prison. I have always been in prison." I wanted to somehow put those words back into him and make this nightmare go away. I am an old man with a mental illness, not a criminal. I do not think I will be better off in a federal prison for the next ten years. Prisons are not the right place for me, that is a place where you are punished. I have been punished all my life. Why can't someone say "I want to help you"? Help me find a place to live, even just one small room with a door that locks from the inside, not the outside, just once before I die an old man in prison.

I want to become a free and successful member of the the human race, not in the junk-pile where America throws their broken people. Maybe I am better off in a federal prison, but it should not be this way. Should it?

Having a serious mental illness puts me at a serious disadvantage at life, both while in prison and even moreso upon release back into an uncaring, cold world. I am now almost 63. I am not even sure how many prisons I have been to anymore, lost count, but I know I am no criminal and that there has never been any serious attempt at helping me find a life outside. I have a serious mental illness. I think I have a right to be respected and treated humanely because of the inherent right of being a human being. I do not think I am now, ever was, or ever will be "better off" in any prison.

I think the people who criminalize me for being mentally ill would be "better off" in prison. Send them there and sentence me to "LIFE," in a place where people care about you, where people think love, not condemnation, is the answer! A place where I would have adequate food and shelter, access to the great outdoors -- nature. How about some meaningful activities and someone who is willing to listen, even when they can't understand what I am trying to say. "ALL OF THIS OUTSIDE OF PRISON."

I have been in prison for at least 40 years and these things are not there. It is a place of hate, a place of hurt, fear and sickness of the human spirit. Just once in my life could I have a simple life around people who care, some plants, a dog, maybe even a horse, and lots of water? I love water.

I have 18 months left on the 10-year sentence and I have the restitution paid off. I have some friends out there now, for the first time in my life. I thought there was a chance.

I put in for a relocation to New Hampshire where I have an apartment promised to me, and a part-time job helping with the chores around their rental properties and fixing things. I like to fix stuff and paint it. Those friends said they would help me get my disability check started. But I recently found out that the New Hampshire Federal Probation Department denied the request, stating that I would be "better off" (yes, they said that) returning to Oklahoma, although I will be homeless and alone there. How can anyone say I will be better off homeless and alone epically with a serious mental illness, or for that matter in a violent federal prison for ten years as an old man?

Society seems to want things clean, with no mess, no fuss. If it's broken and deformed, hide it in a closet, get it out of sight before they have to be reminded that there is imperfection in the world, lest they catch this sickness, this contagion. If it's lame, crippled, or crazy, get it out of here. They do not care where you put it, just make it go away, lest it remind them of their own imperfections and frailty of life. Heaven forbid this happens to one of them. I am "better off" forgotten, out of sight, done away with, RIGHT??? That is the question only you can answer.

As Doctor Martin Luther King once said, "It's always the right time to do the right thing."

Although this is written by me it's not just about me. The dynamics are far-reaching and all-inclusive to the trend of America's criminalizing addiction and being mentally ill.

I have not one day of formal education. At the age of learning to read and write, I was locked in a cellar with no running water, no light and alone, except those times I was being raped and beaten. Then I would be left laying there on the dirt floor in my own piss and blood and shit. So I will not attempt to engage you in some intellectual discussion on ethics and morals, I leave that to the educated. I will take aim at your heart, your consciousness, as it's from here my words pour out in an unbroken stream.

There are those who read my words and say I am a good caring person -- I wonder what do they want. Some have said I am an amazing human being -- I look around suspiciously. Who Me? They say I show more resilience and tenacity than any other person they know -- Not me, I argue with myself, as I am filthy and no good. These same people have said I am strong and beautiful -- what in the hell do they want now?

The greatest gift that could ever be bestowed upon me would be acceptance, some place I could feel safe, to know in my heart of hearts I will never again be cast into that dark cellar of my past. To bring me to feel and accept that I am lovable and that I am loved as with what I would gladly pass from this world to the next with the assurance that in the next world I could make it a better place, that I would be stronger than I was in the world.

-- If you would like to know more about Aubrey Elwood, visit his website at www.DrawingAWiderCircle.com. --

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