As Jerry Tharp's November 2004 parole date drew near, he wasn't counting down the days to his release, but rather attempting to stay in prison. Tharp, who was nine years into a four-to-15-year sentence for robbing a pharmacy, (in which he netted $116) told anyone who would listen the disturbing reasons why he should not be released back into the public. "I have thoughts to go out there and murder a certain class of individuals," he said. "Find a local Christian church wherever I'm paroled, and purchase a .380, with the bullets, and walk into this church, wherever it be, and just open fire. I'm going to target the old and the young."
Tharp, 30, who is diagnosed with psychosis, borderline personality disorder and major mood depressive disorder, recanted his murderous plans. He said his statements were an effort to avoid a detainer to be picked up by federal authorities he thought he would face upon release from state prison. He was released in November 2004.
Tharp's retraction is an example of the shifting behavior among some mentally ill inmates that can bring into question both the degree of illness and true motivations behind the behavior. In Tharp's case, anxiety over returning to the outside world seems to have contributed to his thoughts of planned rampage. "I've been locked up for so long that, you know, I have a fear of going directly to society," he said before his release. "Because in here, in prison, life's a lot simpler, and everything is on a tight schedule. Out in society, the world, it's a lot bigger and more complicated, a little bit more scarier."
Based on Tharp's past masochistic behavior and the basic nature of his illness, it is impossible to truly know his intentions. But in the strict prison environment, learning how to identify and deal with what is known as malingering, or exaggeration and manipulation, has serious implications.
"We've had people claim to hear voices when they haven't heard voices, claim to be suicidal when they really haven't been suicidal, fake acts of self harm such as stage an overdose or have a noose or something tied around their neck and then call attention to themselves when the corrections officer is walking by," Dr. Gary Beven, the chief psychiatrist for the maximum-security prison in Lucasville, Ohio, tells FRONTLINE. "I think the risk of malingering, for the inmates, is that if you cry wolf one too many times, eventually when you're sick you're probably just going to be ignored. Another risk of malingering is that staff get desensitized and they think that everyone's faking. The worst thing you could do is to assume everyone is a malinger … because eventually you're going to ignore somebody who's very, very sick."
Tharp suffers from religious preoccupations and has a long history of mutilating his body. He says he cuts and burns himself "to let the demon out" and that the acts relieve his pain. Several years ago, he used a staple to carve an "X" into his forehead in order, he says, to distance himself from the world and as a reaction to his segregated prison environment. "The reason why I cut this symbol on my forehead, symbol of death, is because I'm dying, psychologically dying to, you know, all the hell, the ignorance and incompetence," he explains.
After entering prison in August 1995, Tharp began eating inanimate objects, including pens, pencils, paper clips, nail clippers, toothbrushes, a radio antenna, bed hooks, razor blades and an entire Sony Walkman. "I just crushed it up in chunks and slivers. Bent my head back and pushed it down my throat and immediately drank water and swallowed it down," he recalls.
He made at least one serious attempt at suicide by swallowing packets of shaving cream, called Magic Shave, along with 10 pens and a paper clip. "The Magic Shave, it liquefied my stomach lining. I vomited up all my stomach lining, but your stomach lining grows back," he says. "I swallowed the ink pens and paper clip with it because I thought they would, you know, pump my stomach, and if they did, the ink pens and paperclips would, from the pressure, you know, cut through my intestines and pierce and stab and get lodged in my throat."
Tharp admits that, at times, his behaviors are an effort to get attention. "Sometimes I'm depressed, or I'm stressed, or also just to, you know, what I call 'pull a move,' to go to Oakwood [the prison psychiatric hospital], just to get out of this environment, you know, just the hell of it," he says. "I get tired and need a break. And Oakwood, the staff and COs in Mental Health, they're different. They're real. I can, I will say that they're human beings."
When asked what he thinks his fate should be, Tharp suggests a lobotomy or high doses of medication that will allow him to just sleep his life away. "I know that my own mind, within myself, is an insanity of its own that I'll never escape. Sometimes I'll do good, you know, and think rational, and it just bounces in and out," he says. "I'm never going to escape it. I want out of it, and I can't really get out of it. So just pump me full of Thorazine and put me in a room, bring my food to me, just give me a bed -- or whatever, you know, and just leave me for lost."
Less than three months after his release, Tharp committed the exact same crime that landed him in the Ohio correctional system. In February 2005, he robbed an Ohio pharmacy for $2675. According to police reports, Tharp told officers at the scene he'd recently been paroled and had robbed the pharmacy because he wanted to go back to prison. Tharp currently is in jail in Middletown County awaiting trial.
Editor's Update: Jerry Tharp was sent back to prison on Oct. 26, 2005 and has been at the prison psychiatric hospital, Oakwood Correctional Facility, since Dec. 15, 2005. He was transferred to Chillicothe Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison, on Feb. 28, 2006. He is cooperative in taking his medication, is considered stable and continues to express his desire to remain in prison.