Freedom After 17 Years



by Gail Noble

Pamela is an African-American woman in her late thirties who spent most of her adult life locked in a mental institution. Initially, Pamela was charged with two felonies, and was advised by her attorney to take an insanity plea, which she did and was placed in a state mental hospital. If she had fought and lost at trial, she would have served a likely four year sentence according to her current attorney. Instead, she has served 17 years, with no sign of release in sight, meaning she could spend the rest of her life locked up in a mental hospital.

Rosie, Pamela’s mother, heard about De-Bug from a friend and they both came to an ACJP meeting one Sunday afternoon.  At our meetings, we write the names of the people we are here for on a board and go through the list. Pamela’s name was next on the white board, and when called, her mother Rosie told us Pamela’s story. Rosie had been fighting and hoping for Pamela’s release alone for 17 years.  I offered to work with Rosie. I contacted the supervisor of the San Mateo County Private Defender’s Office, introduced myself, and told her I was with De-Bug and Pamela’s mother had came to us for support. The supervisor was familiar with De-Bug and Pamela’s case. She gave me her attorney’s contact information.  I contacted him to let him know that Rosie had came to De-Bug for support and my plans were to go and meet Pamela and to see if Rosie and I could attend an upcoming annual evaluation.  He gave me the updated version of Pamela’s case and I offered to assist him with her case in any way I could.

Pamela was due for a yearly evaluation by the hospital, and this report is given to the District Attorney’s Office, who in turn would put forward a recommendation to the court. This process happened every two years, and Pamela was always recommended to stay in a closed unit, and could never move towards freedom based on the opinions of the doctors and District Attorney’s Office. For years, Pamela was being held in a closed, locked facility, with little privileges or freedoms. If she could get into an open unit, she could eventually transition into an independent residential living situation that would assist in employment training, allow her to leave at her free will, and essentially get back into society.

I suggested as a next step to meet Pamela and her doctors.  Pamela gave authorization for her mother and I to attend her yearly evaluation. It was a hot day in July.  It would be my first time meeting Pamela. I picked up Rosie and we were on our way.  The ride took at least two hours from San Jose to Napa. Once I saw the place, the reality hit me that this is where Pamela had been for 17 years, and where her mother had made so many trips up here to visit her – alone. I could only imagine how hard it must have been to leave her after every visit, year after year.

It was clear that the doctors were making their assessments of Pamela with little communication to each other, and no accountability. I asked when Pamela could go to an open unit. The psychiatrist said she was off the list to go to an open unit for half a year. Her medical doctor did not even know she was off the list.  And the reason they gave as to why she was off the list made no sense. They initially said she was not taking her medication. But after reviewing her file, it turned out she had been taking all of her psyche medications, but had only missed taking some of her diabetes medications. When I looked at Pamela, who is smart and pleasant to speak with, she was very quiet, and I could see hopelessness in her face, like she was never going to get out of this place.  As the meeting came to a close, I stated that we needed to set some goals collectively, which would be about getting Pamela to an open unit.  The doctors did that, and we finally had something measurable to assess Pamela’s progress.

She had an upcoming evaluation, and if things didn’t change this round, she wouldn’t get a shot at improving her condition for another two years – she would have then done 19 years in a locked unit.

The meeting with the doctors haunted me, and Pamela’s attorney saying it wasn’t looking good for Pamela. So I decided to do my own research on cases where the insanity plea was used and how to get a person released from mental institutions. I found two cases that applied to Pamela – Foucha vs. Louisiana, and Jones vs. United States. In both cases, the people were no longer a threat to themselves and needed some pathway to get out, even if it meant them staying on medications.

The courts ruled that in both cases their eighth amendment and the fourteenth amendment rights were being violated.  They ruled that it is unconstitutional to hold someone in custody in fear of them committing another crime, and that people cannot be held in a mental institution indefinitely. I shared my research information with Rosie at our ACJP Sunday meeting, and then the attorney.

Rosie and I met with Pamela’s attorney again. Before her court hearing, he decided to use the information I found. That was great news.

OUTCOME:     At the evaluation hearing, everyone had their say – the doctors, the District Attorney, Pamela’s attorney, and the judge. Pamela’s attorney presented the case of Jones vs. United States in closed chambers.  When they returned, the Judge mentioned the Jones case, and ordered Pamela to be released into a transitional living facility where she will remain there for 90 days.  This is the preparation training needed for CONRAP.

He then looked at Pamela and said, “You are taking the first steps towards your freedom.”  Pamela had a smile from ear to ear.  Tears filled Rosie’s eyes and mine. We had finally achieved the hope Pamela needed. If she succeeds in this residential program, she will go to another, even less restrictive environment, with the only condition being that she take her medications.

Rosie is an amazing mother. She never stop seeking or believing her daughter would be released from this mental hospital one day.  And she was!

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