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NPR: Bi-Polar Jail Time

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Tough Love
(Recorded last month for NPR's Morning Edition.)
 
by Lisa Suhay
 

I helped put my bi-polar younger brother in prison. Knowing that breaks my
heart, but keeps my family safe.

When he is stable he's a shy man who plays guitar like Segovia. It never
lasts. For 15 years he has danced all over the cracks in the foundation of
our medical and legal systems. He has often been homeless, surviving through
luck and cunning.

He is over age 18.   That means, by law, hospitals, police and treatment
programs can tell us nothing. We have no right to know where he is, or how
he is. And no right to help. We cannot protect ourselves, or our community.

He was sentenced to four years probation in a halfway house with no family
contact ...  after I testified before a Grand Jury that he had made
"terroristic threats" to harm my children and others. In the dead of night
he repeatedly called me saying, "I'm going to take away everything important
to you - starting with your kids - so you'll know how it feels to be me."

But in January he destabilized. He smashed up his rooms in the halfway house
and took off.

Nobody notified us he was rampaging.  I let the kids play in the yard,
alone, and walked the dog at night unwary.

News of his flight finally came from a relative he'd  called. Caller ID
showed the psychiatric ward at Bellvue Hospital in Manhattan.

He had checked himself in for a breather.  This has happened repeatedly. In
New Jersey  he  can check himself out. In New York he needs a doctor's
approval. But the hospital doctor doesn't know his history and releases him
after several days on medication when "he seemed just fine."

This usually goes on until he hurts someone and gets arrested.

This time I called and FAXED everyone from police to State Senators. I
begged for help until New York and New Jersey prosecutors, police and the
hospital agreed to have him picked up upon release.

He was transferred from the hospital to prison, where he waits
re-sentencing. I won't be notified of the result, or told when he will be
out again. He called my mother from
Riker's Island Maximum Security Prison saying, "My sister hates me."

Jail is not the answer to mental illness because you can't rehabilitate a
disease. But without enforced medication and monitoring he will either die
violently, or kill one of us.

We need a national tracking system for violent/self-destructive psychiatric
patients, coordinating agencies and families, to ensure the patient's
continued treatment and everyone's safety.

Otherwise, I'm afraid that someday I will face the family of a person he has
hurt or killed as they ask, "Why didn't you stop him?"

I'm afraid the answer will be that I needed help and nobody listened.