Born in 1947 to a large sharecropper family, Bennie Anthony dropped out of school in the seventh grade and moved to live with his grandmother in Ohio, where he eventually married and found work in the steel mills from 1964 to 1968. This would be his longest period of continuous employment.
Anthony first reported symptoms of paranoia in 1969. In 1974, after fearing that two men on his bus to Columbus were trying to kill him, he stumbled into his life-long involvement with mental health treatment and the criminal justice system. "I went and got on the telephone, called the police and the police didn't believe me and they took me to a mental health -- what do they call it, crisis?," he recounts. "Where you just stay overnight, you know. They took me in there and I left and came back and they suggested I go to the hospital. But this guy in the bus terminal, there were two of them. There was a black guy and a white guy and they was after me, went after me. And after I got off the bus, I saw the man in Atlanta, Georgia tried to kill me. And I stopped in Columbus, that's where the two of them were sitting and plotting and planning."
Anthony spent the next 14 years in and out of mental institutions being treated for paranoid delusions and voices and battling substance abuse -- a common co-occurring disorder for many chronically mentally ill individuals. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that 72 percent of mentally ill individuals in jail have a drug-abuse or alcohol problem, and a census published in 1999 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that across the board, mentally ill inmates have a higher rate of alcohol/drug use than other inmates at the time of their offense, in the month before their offense, and while on probation.
Between 1969 and 1979, Anthony was arrested numerous times on charges including assault and battery, vehicle theft, failure to pay child support and vandalism, though most of the charges only resulted in probation or small fines. He served a short sentence in prison for petty theft, was paroled in 1980, and received emergency outpatient treatment over the years for symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, substance abuse and adverse reactions to antipsychotic medications. In 1987, within weeks of release from a regional hospital where he was being treated for delusions and agitation, Anthony had a fight with his girlfriend and set her house on fire. The following month, while in Stark County Jail, he set fire to the mattress in his cell. Paroled again in 1993, a year later Anthony reportedly assaulted a staff member at a state hospital, a parole violation that had him sent back to prison to complete his sentence for arson.
Anthony, who spent 16 years in prison for two counts of aggravated arson, symbolizes the problem of recidivism for the mentally ill. In this cycle of institutionalization and criminalization, however, Anthony is not alone. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 81 percent of mentally ill inmates currently in state prison have previous convictions, as compared to 79 percent in the general prison population.
On March 30, 2005, Anthony once again received parole. However, this time there may be hope for him to get the mental health support he needs in the community -- and to stay out of the criminal justice system. He was one of 100 participants statewide placed in the Ohio Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) program. This unique program, started in 2002, is designed for persons with serious mental illness who most likely will be unable to link up to services in the community. With ACT, parolees team up with a full clinical mental health staff who provide 24-hour coverage, therapy groups, support for housing and transportation, and they even bring medication to parolees' homes. Anthony currently lives with roughly seven to 10 other men in a "three-quarters house" in Ohio. He is taking his medication, and is reportedly doing well.
Editor's Update: Bennie Anthony, who was paroled on March 30, 2005, is still in a pilot program for mentally ill parolees. He has had no rearrests and continues to do well.