Five years ago, FRONTLINE's groundbreaking film, The New Asylums, went deep inside the Ohio prison system as it struggled to provide care to thousands of mentally ill inmates. This year, FRONTLINE filmmakers Karen O'Connor and Miri Navasky return to Ohio to tell the next chapter in this disturbing story: what happens to mentally ill offenders when they leave prison. The Released is an intimate look at the lives of the seriously mentally ill as they struggle to remain free.
As communities across the country face the largest exodus of prisoners in history, the issue has never been more pressing. This year alone, more than 700,000 people will leave prison, more than half of them mentally ill. Typically, these offenders leave prison with a bus ticket, $75 in cash, and two weeks' worth of medication. Studies show that within 18 months, nearly two-thirds of mentally ill offenders -- often poor and cut off from friends and family -- are re-arrested.
In 2007, Lynn Moore, armed with bottles and bricks, broke into a house looking for Osama bin Laden. A paranoid schizophrenic with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, he was arrested more than 20 times and sent to prison for the fourth time. After serving eight months, Moore was released without supervision. FRONTLINE follows him from his first day of freedom to a homeless shelter in Canton, Ohio. "I don't think people understand how hard it is to transition from prison life back to everyday life," says Scott Schnyders, program director at Refuge of Hope, the shelter that housed Moore.
For about a month, Moore stays on his medication and does well. But when he fails a breathalyzer test, he is asked to leave the shelter -- and, like the majority of unsupervised ex-offenders, he is unable to remain on medication. After once again searching for bin Laden, Moore resurfaces at the county jail, where he has been charged with criminal damage for throwing rocks at a trailer. Asked about the incident, Moore tells FRONTLINE: "It is no delusion. ... It was the devil, Antichrist, bin Laden, Satan, Saddam." After 30 days, Moore is released from jail. But one week later, he is re-arrested.
"The realities of psychiatric treatment for those coming out of incarceration is that it is nonexistent or very poor," says Dr. Mike Unger, a psychiatrist with a community outreach team. "This isn't a population that's going to come with their planners and their organizers ... and be compliant with their medications and keep them in that perfect little medication box as they live behind a dumpster somewhere."
Finding housing is always difficult for ex-offenders, but the challenge is even more acute for the mentally ill who need treatment. "For the severely mentally ill, there is virtually no facility designed for long-term inpatient care," says Sherri Sullivan, director of Bridgeview Manor, the only residential treatment center in Ohio that accepts the indigent mentally ill. "If they exist, they exist in the form of a group home, and most group homes don't offer treatment."
FRONTLINE also tracks down Keith Williams, a paranoid schizophrenic who had been arrested more than 10 times since producers first met him in 2004. Now at Northcoast Behavioral Healthcare, a state psychiatric hospital in Toledo, Ohio, Williams has been stabilized on forced medications. "I'm doing a whole lot better," Williams says. "I want better things in life than this just, you know, going back and forth to jail, back and forth to jail."
But Northcoast, like all other state psychiatric hospitals, now provides only short-term crisis care. "The good news is that Keith is getting better," says Michelle Istler-Perry, a nurse at Northcoast. "And in a sense, the bad news as well is that because of this, he'll be sent back into the community in Toledo, and he'll be back within three months, ... probably very psychotic, and hopefully not having hurt somebody." Once released, Williams will be responsible for taking his own medication. Asked how he'll know when to take his pills, Williams tells FRONTLINE: "I would know when to take them because ... if I feel like kaboo-ka-kaboojaning, ... I mean groovy or foamy or something, ... that's when I know I already took them." Four days after being discharged from Northcoast, Williams assaults a police officer. He is facing 10 years in prison.
"We release people with two weeks' worth of medication. Yet it appears it's taking three months for people to actually get an appointment in the community to continue their services," warns Debbie Nixon-Hughes, former mental health bureau chief of the Ohio Department of Corrections. "And if they don't have the energy and/or the insight to do that, they're going to fall through the cracks and end up back in some kind of criminal activity."