A Son in the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital[i]: An Interview with Jayette Lansbury
NAMI recently interviewed Jayette Lansbury, a member of the NAMI New York State board of directors, to discuss how she copes with her son’s long stay in a forensic psychiatric hospital.
What’s your role with NAMI New York State?
My role with NAMI New York State is as a board member and also chair of the criminal justice committee. My goal is to make life better for those living with mental illness involved with the justice system—the whole spectrum from the time the person is arrested to the time they are reentering back into society.
I am also co-president of NAMI Huntington, a Family-to-Family teacher and a support group facilitator. I wear many hats.
Can you tell me a little bit about your son and his situation?
My son has autism with a mental illness and he’s been in a forensic psychiatric facility for 15 years due to contact with the police. He took the insanity plea at the time, not knowing he’d be trapped there longer than the original sentence he was facing. I knew if he went to prison he wouldn’t survive. We look the insanity plea thinking he’d be home in the same time as his prison sentence, but it doesn’t work that way.
What is it like for you and your family to have a loved one in a forensic psychiatric hospital?
For me, it’s heartbreaking but I’ve learned to overcome the grief and become the advocate for him and others. I’ve learned to be part of the solution and part of the program, by advocating making life better for him and others.
Part of my goal is to reform the insanity plea. The reason I’d like to see reform on the insanity plea is I’d like to see a balance. If someone is offered two to five years in prison, if they take the insanity plea, they should receive the same amount of time in a forensic hospital because they are seeking help for their problem. They shouldn’t be held longer because they have an illness. They should be able to work their way towards a furlough or a visit home. Right now the insanity plea is a black hole. Once you check in, you don’t know when you’re getting out. It’s really about finding that balance; if a person is eligible for the insanity plea, they should be able to do their sentence in a forensic hospital.
What’s the justification for keeping someone in a forensic hospital for so long?
The person is observed and given a test to see if they are competent to be released to a civil hospital. A lot of times, a person can fail the test if they have a problem besides a mental illness. I don’t think the patients understand the test.
We all speak about de-institutionalization and people having rights and freedoms. A forensic hospital is much more restrictive than a psychiatric hospital. To me, it violates human rights to keep someone in the hospital so long that they become institutionalized. Once they are released to a civil hospital in New York State, they can spend another ten years in that hospital. They would still be in a hospital setting, but with more freedom. After a while, you get a person to the point where they are stable, if you don’t move them forward towards a furlough or transfer to a civil hospital, they are going to regress. Most people don’t deserve that. I know that there are a few people who can’t be stabilized and live in a community setting, but many people can.
Some of these people have been in the forensic hospital for 25-30 years. They are getting older. My son wants to be closer to home to see his grandma. He wants her to be able to visit him. Now that she just had surgery, she can’t visit. It’s just a basic human need. When you to talk to people, all they want is a house, job and friends. Everybody deserves that. It’s human dignity.
Is your son getting help for both his mental illness and his autism?
He does get help for the mental illness. Because he isn’t psychotic he doesn’t see the doctor regularly; he gets therapy and he goes to support groups. He’s doing better, but he’s not getting help for his autism.
What has helped you cope with this difficult situation?
Helping people involved in the system and their families, and being a strong advocate for them. And I have a support system through NAMI. I’ve got to tell you this, it’s been a wonderful journey—the wonderful people doing wonderful work because of my wonderful son. That is what helps me cope. Also it helps knowing that I’m doing something to make it better for my son and for the other families going through the same situation.
NAMI New York State has a number of initiatives related to the criminal justice system. What are you most proud of?
The special housing unit (SHU)exclusion bill, which we advocated for as part of the Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement coalition. [Editor’s note: The SHU exclusion bill restricts the use of disciplinary confinement, also called solitary confinement, for inmates with mental illness. Solitary confinement involves restricting inmates to small cells without windows and cutting them off from human contact for weeks, months or even years at a time.]
We are also providing criminal justice advocacy training to help individuals and families navigate the justice system.
We have reached out to judges and helped get mental health courts and veteran’s courts up and going. And we’ve been able to build the criminal justice taskforce a meeting of law enforcement, district attorneys, sheriff’s department, county police, mental health services, drug and alcohol service, county psychologists and NAMI. We meet four times a year and contact each other throughout the year and try to find alternatives to incarceration. We also make sure the jail is trying to do the right thing by those with special needs. Because of the taskforce, when I get complaints from a family, I can call the sheriff’s department and talk to them. If a family says, “My son is not getting medication,” I can help them communicate with the jail.
Do you have any advice for families facing the arrest of a loved one?
I get a lot of calls from families. Mental health service providers and the ACT [assertive community treatment] team will refer families to NAMI when the police have to be called. When this happens, the feeling inside of you is, “I’m alone. This is embarrassing.” You have to get over the embarrassment and the grief and you have to reach out to someone who has been there. When this happened with my son, we didn’t have a criminal justice person at NAMI New York State and we didn’t know who to call. Now families can call me, and I encourage them to do the “three e’s” – educate, empower, engage.
Don’t give up hope. Think positive. Reach out to a NAMI Affiliate, and reach out to resources. If your local NAMI Affiliate doesn’t know how to help, ask them to put you in touch with another group, parent, spouse or sibling who can relate to your situation. Don’t give up hope and remember to take care of yourself because you have to be strong for that person as well. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Don’t be afraid to network. Speak to your legislators. Keep a record of hospitalizations and medications to present to the prosecutor, judge and defense attorney. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the county mental health services–sometimes records don’t get transferred. The best advocate for your loved one is you yourself, because you know them better than anybody else does.
I’ve been involved with NAMI going on 17 years. I’ve been a criminal justice advocate for about 30 years. I’ll do this work until I can’t do it no more. This is about getting rid of the stigma. Mental illness and the criminal justice system are a double whammy. All of NAMI’s issues come together. If a person has no meds, no housing, no Medicaid or Medicare and aren’t seeing the doctor, this is what happens. I want to see the families and individuals with illness have the respect and dignity that they deserve.
[i] A forensic psychiatric hospital is a secure psychiatric hospital, generally used to provide treatment to individuals with serious mental illness who have been charged with a crime, but are considered incompetent to stand trial or have been found guilty by reason of insanity. Individuals may be held in a forensic hospital instead of sent to prison.