When we left Michael Parrish two and a half years ago ("Michael and the Monster," Dec. 14. 2000), he was receiving heavy doses of psychotropic medications and confined to the Indiana Department of Correction's Secure Housing Unit at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. Parrish was held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day in a windowless 6-foot-by-10-foot cell. For the other hour, he was placed in shackles and walked to "rec," a 20-foot-by-10-foot area where - still alone - he could look up through mesh wiring at the sky.
Sometimes I use this column space to provide updates on stories we published in previous issues of NUVO. Often, these updates are good news. But when I update a story about the dysfunctional relationship between mental illness and the criminal justice system, it never seems to be good news. Parrish is still being held the same way, still being medicated the same way, still in obvious anguish. Only now he is even farther away from freedom than he was then.
Our first article tracked Michael Parrish's path from severely mentally ill young boy to a seemingly perpetual inmate in adult prison. Mental health professionals and juvenile court judges pointed to Indiana's refusal to fund residential treatment for severely mentally ill children like Parrish as a likely contributing factor in the young man's psychological deterioration. Parrish, whose most recent diagnosis is antisocial personality disorder with likely organic brain disorders, continues to rack up new crimes even while incarcerated.
Parrish's most recent convictions were for mailing two phony anthrax threats in late 2001 to Marion County Superior Court Judge Cale Bradford and then-Marion County Prosecutor Scott Newman. Earlier this year, Parrish received two consecutive three-year terms for class D felony Intimidation, thus adding to the other crimes (battery for throwing feces on a correctional officer, and arson for setting his cell on fire) he has been convicted of while in prison.
In addition to these crimes, Parrish has received 28 sentencing penalties at the Department of Correction and has racked up 61 incident reports at the Marion County Jail. Although Parrish should have long ago finished his original sentence for a botched attempt to escape from LaRue Carter Hospital as a teen-ager in 1993, now he does not seem likely to be released for at least another decade.
"This is extremely common," says Scott Cleveland, general counsel for the Mental Health Association of Indiana. "What we see time and time again is that people become involved with the criminal courts because of their mental illness. Too often the lawyers and the families don't know how to present evidence of the mental illness, and too often there is a mindset among judges and prosecutors to be more punitive in their approach."
Cleveland estimates that as much as 20 percent of Indiana's prison and jail inmates are mentally ill, and a recent Department of Justice survey showed that nearly 300,000 mentally ill people are held in the nation's prisons. To many observers, the 1980s-era removal of persons with mental illness from facilities like Indianapolis' Central State Hospital was less de-institutionalization than re-institutionalization, with the prison system swelling with mentally ill even as the hospitals emptied.
'Intense internal turmoil'
Psychiatric professionals acknowledge that the punishment a mentally ill prisoner receives can worsen his illness. Court records show that Dr. Ned Masbaum, a psychiatrist appointed to examine Parrish, reported that the years Parrish, now 26 years old, spent in extreme isolation "can lead to loss of contact with reality, disordered thinking and impaired judgement." Masbaum also noted that Parrish's daily dosage of 750 milligrams of Thorazine, plus a variety of other sedatives and antidepressants, are "a significant flag that reflects his intense internal turmoil." Masbaum recommended that Parrish be removed from the Secure Housing Unit and be placed in the DOC psychiatric hospital facility in New Castle.
"We recognize that prisons are not a good place to treat mental illness, but psychiatrists are not happy with the correction practice of putting prisoners in solitary confinement," says Dr. George Parker, director of forensic psychiatry at the IU School of Medicine. "Human beings are not meant to be in solitary confinement for a long period of time. There is a reason that is a practice that is used in interrogation techniques. If someone put in solitary confinement has a psychiatric disorder, it will almost certainly be exacerbated."
Pam Pattison, spokesperson for the Department of Correction, cited confidentiality reasons for not commenting on Parrish's treatment, but did say that the DOC has never received a copy of Masbaum's recommendation that Parrish be removed from solitary confinement. Even when the recommendation is received (it was faxed over to the DOC this week), it is not at all certain that Parrish's treatment would be changed. The 100-plus beds at the DOC psychiatric hospital facility are filled to capacity, and this spring the Indiana General Assembly refused the department's request for increased funding to add psychiatric treatment space.
In the meantime, court records show that Parrish continues on a drug regimen that several psychiatric professionals say appears designed to do little but chemically restrain him. (They note that the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine seems a poor match for Parrish's diagnosis of a personality disorder.)
Some things are the same as we reported in December 2000. Jean Spears, Parrish's mother, continues to drive to the southwestern Indiana prison to visit her son. "Whenever the car is holding up and I have some money for gas," she says. She won't be able to change that routine any time soon.
"He's just not getting any help," Spears says. "He's just getting more time and more time and more time. Where is the rehabilitation in all of this?"
Fran Quigley is a contributing editor to NUVO, where this article originally appeared - www.nuvo.net