ACMI wants to share a series of reports from Amy Silverman on the state of services for people with serious mental illness in Arizona.

Advocates for people with serious mental illness call for improved conditions at the Arizona State Hospital, and more beds.https://azcir.org/news/2021/10/21/grievances-reforms-arizona-state-hospital/

by Amy Silverman October 21, 2021

Isaac Contreras lives alone and he says it’s making him sick. 

He’s got a room and a bathroom to himself, but the luxury stops there. Contreras has spent more than a year in “administrative separation” at the Arizona State Hospital (ASH). His lawyers call it isolation. 

Contreras was sent to ASH in 2017 after pleading guilty but insane to breaking his ex-girlfriend’s eye socket, cheekbone and nose, most likely during a period when he was having hallucinations associated with schizophrenia. Previously, Contreras had served a prison term for manslaughter.

As with many people with serious mental illness, Contreras’ diagnosis has changed over the years. In March 2021 it was anti-social personality disorder, intermittent explosive disorder and post traumatic stress disorder, as well as substance use disorder that’s in remission. He’s on a long list of medications.

He and his lawyers acknowledge his past, but say that a lack of proper medical care while at ASH has made Contreras worse, exacerbated during his time in administrative separation.

In his current living situation, Contreras is indoors at least 22 hours a day. Twice a day, he’s allowed to sit outside on a patio. He says that restraints are kept on his legs when he leaves his quarters. At one point, he didn’t have a table or chair; Contreras’ lawyers say that ASH officials refused to provide them, then did so after the lawyers offered to pay for the items. For a three-month stint, he was forced to eat with his hands after his spork privileges were revoked. 

Holly Gieszl, a criminal defense attorney, represents Contreras along with civil lawyer Josh Mozell. Both routinely represent people in the mental health system. 

From left, attorneys Holly Gieszl and Josh Mozell are shown at a Phoenix law office on June 23, 2021. Photos by Alberto Mariani | AZCIR

“ASH didn’t give him the psych and medication support he needed to function on a daily basis,” Gieszl says. “And shortly after he was in seclusion, he started to deteriorate more.”

Mozell says that ASH has kept Contreras in isolation as retaliation for filing more than 300 grievances during the time he’s been a patient. At least two of those grievances were partially sustained, including one affirming that a staff member had physically assaulted Contreras by grabbing him in a bear hug. That employee later lost his job, in part because of the interaction with Contreras. 

In another grievance filed in 2017, long before he was placed in “administrative separation,” Contreras alleged that he was kept in mechanical restraints for 14 hours, despite having been calm immediately beforehand. ASH did not sustain his grievance, so Contreras appealed the decision to the hospital. 

In February 2020, ASH dismissed his concerns for a second time. 

Contreras then wrote to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), which handles appeals. In November 2020, AHCCCS upheld part of Contreras’ grievance, noting that surveillance footage backed up his claim about being kept in restraints. AHCCCS also noted that “It does not appear that ASH conducted an additional investigation as required” given that the hospital’s second decision letter was “identical” to the first.  

Other grievances were never sustained. An investigator from AHCCCS, which looks into allegations of physical and sexual abuse at ASH, confirmed that Contreras sustained a broken bone in his back after a violent incident with a staff member, but Contreras was said to have provoked the event, not the staff member. 

Along with filing grievances about his living conditions and treatment by hospital staff, Contreras keeps busy by recording videos of himself talking about his situation and finding surreptitious ways to get them posted on YouTube

“This place—if I’d known it was going to be like this, I would have told my lawyer, ‘You know what? Send me to prison,’” Contreras tells the camera.  


The Arizona State Hospital is one element in the state’s mental health care system—and probably its most controversial. 

While institutions like ASH are becoming a thing of the past nationwide, members of the local non-profit Association for the Chronically Mentally Ill (ACMI), and others believe there should be more beds available at the hospital; they are convinced ASH has the potential to offer therapeutic treatment that will help some of the sickest people get better and lead meaningful lives in the community. 

But first, they say, reform is necessary. 

Long time players in the system say oversight at ASH is inadequate because the Arizona Department of Health Services both operates and monitors the hospital. 

An independent oversight committee (IOC) comprised of citizen volunteers meets monthly to discuss conditions at the state hospital. In a draft of the committee’s 2021 annual report obtained by AZCIR, members express concern that patients are complaining about being observed while toileting, without a medical reason. Guardians of patients at ASH have told the committee they are not included in the development of treatment plans. The committee noted that ASH administrators don’t attend IOC meetings.

As recently as August, committee members expressed concern over reports that patients were peeling wood and tile from the buildings at ASH and using the materials to self-harm. The IOC’s annual report included mention of “numerous reports of patients eating laminate from doors, cabinets or paneling.” 

And the committee has worried about patients who claim they have been retaliated against when they complain about poor conditions. At least one advocacy organization is looking into that, too.

In response to questions from AZCIR, Arizona Department of Health Services Communications Director Steve Elliott wrote that federal privacy laws prevent him from discussing an individual patient. 

“ASH uses administrative separation under limited circumstances and when necessary for the safety of patients and staff,” Elliott wrote. 

In response to the Independent Oversight Committee report, Elliott wrote that the toileting concern is addressed with care. 

“If a patient insists on using the restroom within 30 minutes, staff observes while providing the patient as much privacy as possible to make sure oral medication isn’t saved or disposed of. Patients on continuous observation for safety have staff present at all times, while staff make every effort possible to provide as much privacy as possible.”

He did not directly address the concerns regarding guardians not being included in treatment plans, or whether patients are removing pieces of building materials and eating them. 


The 1900 Biennial Report of the Medical Superintendent of the Insane Asylum of Arizona offers far more detail about life in the state hospital than just about any modern document.

The report described two deaths in the 18-month period covered, including one by rattlesnake bite, incurred during an outing to Agua Caliente Hot Springs. The typical daily menu (including a breakfast of mush and milk, meat stew, fruit, bread, coffee and milk) is detailed, along with holiday menus and the superintendent’s Christmas gift to each patient of candy, nuts, oranges and “a useful gift.”

The population was carefully documented in a long list of patients’ occupations, including beggar, locksmith, sea captain, housewife, civil engineer and piano player. “Causes of insanity” included brain disease, masturbation, epilepsy, fright, solitary life, and “want of work.”

But for all that detail, there’s very little in the report about mental illness.

“Complete mental rest and mild physical employment have been found most efficacious in relieving cases of temporary insanity,” wrote Superintendent J. Miller, M.D.

He requested equipment and facilities that would allow for medical interventions.

“Insanity for women is commonly caused by pelvic diseases which may be remedied by surgical means,” Miller wrote, adding that the asylum was also in need of a medical library.

The hospital population was 175 in 1900.

Arizona State Hospital 1920
The Arizona State Hospital, known as the Insane Asylum in this 1920 colorized photo from the Arizona State Library, is shown in this undated photo postcard illustration. Photo courtesy Arizona State Library

By the late 1960s, the renamed Arizona State Hospital housed about 2,000 people with serious mental illness. But a 1970 state law requiring ASH to accept only those presenting a danger to themselves or others shrunk the number of patients to about 300, in keeping with a national trend of deinstitutionalization made possible by the introduction of medications designed to treat mental illness. 

ASH was dogged by state audit findings of facilities in poor condition, overcrowding and lack of staffing in the 1990s. In a 2015 investigation, former Arizona Supreme Court Justice Ruth McGregor found dozens of instances in which Phoenix Police filed a report following a call to ASH and there was no corresponding hospital incident report documenting what happened. In addition, of more than 1,400 assault allegations, only 33 led to internal investigations and 199 to inquiries by Adult Protective Services.

The population at ASH has remained small, in part because of reforms designed to limit institutionalization. 

In recent decades, some states have shuttered their psychiatric institutions as part of the goal of supporting people with mental illness in the community. Arizona stopped short of that. In the Nineties, as part of the exit criteria for the Arnold v. Sarn lawsuit that led to mandated care for people with SMI, a 55-bed limit was put in place for Maricopa County. That number was included in the 2014 settlement agreement in the case and remains the same today, despite the fact that the county’s population has more than doubled in the last 30 years since the cap was put in place.

(Here, it gets a little complicated, as ASH treats both forensic patients like Isaac Contreras, who is there because he committed a crime, and civil patients receiving court ordered treatment. The 55-bed limit applies to the civil side only.)

The debate over the 55-bed limit is heated. 

Chick Arnold, the lead plaintiff in Arnold v. Sarn and a longtime mental health lawyer and advocate, signed the settlement agreement but now says he believes there should be no limit on bed count—that it’s a “clinical” decision best left to medical professionals.

Anne Ronan, a plaintiff’s attorney in Arnold v. Sarn, has a different position.

“We don’t need ASH, we never needed ASH, we don’t need two beds at ASH,” Ronan says. 

“There’s nothing about the problems that the system is experiencing that gets solved by more secure housing at the state hospital.”

Carol Olson, who chairs the psychiatry department at Maricopa County’s Valleywise Health System, has a different perspective. She believes the 55-bed limit should be lifted.

She says Valleywise’s behavioral health units are overwhelmed with patients with SMI, including some who wait for more than a year for a bed at ASH. The county’s mental health units are designed for short term stays of up to 21 days. 

Dr. Carol Olson, chair of the psychiatry department at Maricopa County’s Valleywise Health System, is shown in her Mesa office on July 1, 2021. Photo by Alberto Mariani | AZCIR

On a given day, Valleywise fills 300-325 beds, with an ASH waiting list of a dozen or so. It’s not a large number, but it’s an important population, Olson says. 

“Valleywise has become like a mini state hospital,” she says, adding that that’s unfortunate since it’s not equipped for long term stays, particularly for some of the sickest patients. Many require a private room and sometimes one-on-one staff person. There is no rehabilitation staff and not much of an outdoor area for patients. 

Olson says Valleywise is very selective about whom it suggests should go to ASH. 

“We don’t even consider somebody for an application to the state hospital until they have been with us for three months or longer.” 

Even then, she says, ASH is often vague about why they won’t accept a patient. Olson says they will rarely accept someone who swallows foreign objects, for example, and they often won’t take a patient with a serious substance abuse disorder along with SMI, because such patients can often be stabilized in a short term facility. Olson says that’s not enough, that some need a longer stay in order to be successful and not return to a hospital setting. 

Some patients simply remain at Valleywise, even when there are beds available at ASH, because state hospital administrators won’t take them. 

“If we can’t safely discharge them to the community, they stay with us,” Olson says. 

The health department’s Elliott did not respond directly to Olson’s charge. 

“Treatment at ASH is considered ‘the highest and most restrictive’ level of care in the state,’” he wrote. “Patients are admitted because of their inability to be treated in a community facility or due to their involvement in the criminal justice system.” 

Olson, who has worked at Valleywise since 1991, says Arnold v. Sarn changed things dramatically for the better by emphasizing the value of helping people with SMI thrive in the community. But now she says the pendulum has swung too far.

“Many people were placed in long-term psychiatric hospitals in the 50’s and 60’s who didn’t need to be there and nowadays do well living in the community with appropriate supports. However, there are some individuals with very severe psychiatric conditions who have only minimal or partial response to available treatments, who require a long-term stay in a locked psychiatric hospital for the safety of themselves and others and to avoid behavior which would be likely to lead to criminal charges in the community, but are not able to be admitted due to the 55-bed limit at ASH and the restrictive admission criteria there. Many of those patients instead end up in jails or prisons, which are not appropriate settings for severely mentally ill people and often make their conditions even worse.”

She adds, “I wish there would be some focus on what would be most humane for those individuals.”


In a video posted in September 2020, Isaac Contreras is wearing white sweatpants, a black tank top and shower shoes with socks. His dark hair hangs to his shoulders; he’s got a lot of tattoos, including on his face. He holds up several bottles of shampoo, soap and deodorant, as well as an electric razor, then picks up a Styrofoam container of food to demonstrate how he eats peas with his hands because he’s not allowed a spoon. He doesn’t understand why he’s given hard plastic containers, which could be used to craft weapons, but no food utensils. 

He might be a man overcome by his illness, or Contreras might be the canary in the coal mine. 

Either way, through his videos and grievances, he offers a window into the secret world of the Arizona State Hospital. ASH has long been a mysterious place—it’s located in the center of the city at 24th Street and Van Buren, and many people pass by the barbed wire fencing without knowing what’s inside.  

In 2018, the Arizona Center for Disability Law, which is required by federal law to oversee conditions at facilities housing people with SMI, including ASH, successfully sued for unaccompanied access to patients. 

The center announced that under a settlement, “ASH agreed to provide ACDL reasonable unaccompanied access to the ASH facilities and residents” and to allow the center to conduct “up to three-hour visits twice per week for the purpose of educating ASH residents about their rights and the services that ACDL provides.” 

No journalist has been given a formal tour since 2015, Elliott says.

Public oversight is particularly important, critics say, because the same state agency that runs ASH is also in charge of licensing it. 

AHCCCS, the state’s Medicaid agency, took on oversight of the state’s mental health system shortly after the 2014 Arnold v. Sarn settlement agreement, with one notable exception—ASH. 

“Any reader in the whole world will understand why that’s bad,” says Will Humble, who served as the director of the Department of Health Services from 2009 to 2015. “The fox watching the henhouse. Everyone knows what an enormous conflict of interest that is, and up until now, no one has cared.” 

Humble says that as director, he did his best to “build a firewall” between the licensing division and ASH, but believes the health department should not be monitoring a hospital it operates. 

From Elliott’s written response: “It’s a common practice among states for an agency to license and operate a state hospital.” 

Along with the state licensing requirements, Elliott says several other state and federal entities offer oversight, including the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, adding, “ASH is one of the most regulated hospitals in Arizona.”

“The fact remains they are running and operating and regulating it themselves, and it’s not their fault, it’s the statute,” Humble says, adding that the Department of Health Services provides the staff that does the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services certification reviews. 

Since 2018 (state records are posted for three years), ASH has had just one penalty under the health department’s enforcement actions—a $500 fine because an employee allowed two patients to be in a room alone, resulting in a sexual assault. 

There was no penalty for the physical assault against Isaac Contreras, even though AHCCCS found his allegations to be true.

AZCIR reviewed incident reports from the first two weeks of January 2020. More than 175 reports were generated, including 22 marked Code Gray, which indicates combative or violent behavior.

The reports document patients hitting, kicking, biting, chasing, punching and spitting at staff, as well as attacking other patients. 

From one code gray report

Code gray report redacted

It’s not unheard of for a patient to walk naked into another patient’s room. One patient reportedly masturbated during a football game. Another punched a hole in a wall when told they couldn’t have fruit late at night. During a bingo game, a patient made threats against another patient, saying, “I am going to fuck him up….I’ll go for the vital organs.”

Other reports detail patients engaging in potential acts of self-harm like tying a blanket into a knot, punching the shower wall, eating toilet paper and claiming to have eaten baby powder, shampoo and conditioner. 

Three separate incident reports appear to document the same situation, in which a patient claimed to have swallowed at least 10 objects, some sharp. The reports indicated that the patient was to be observed, but there’s no information about what happened next—the spot on the incident report for “determination” is redacted, as it is on all of the incident reports released to AZCIR.  


Isaac Contreras remains in isolation. It’s now been more than 15 months.

Josh Mozell says Contreras does not need to be separated from the rest of the patients at ASH. When he meets with his client, Contreras walks out to the visitor area with someone trailing him at a distance, Mozell says, which indicates to the lawyer that there’s not much reason to fear him. 

Even if Contreras does exhibit violent behavior, Mozell says, there are ways to address that without isolating him. He says some patients have a one-on-one staff person or even two assigned to them. 

Using nursing notes that recorded Contreras’ actions in two hour increments over the last several months, Mozell’s staff built a spreadsheet documenting that Contreras has gone weeks at a time without an issue. Legally, Mozell says, ASH is not allowed to keep him in isolation, noting that hospital officials use the term “administrative separation” although Contreras has made a crayon rubbing of the sign above his door, which says “seclusion.”

Elliott, spokesperson for the health services department, declined to comment on the specific circumstances for Contreras because of federal privacy laws. 

Isaac Contreras used a crayon and paper to make an image of the sign above his door, shown here. Photo by Amy Silverman | AZCIR

Mozell is not the only one who’s concerned about patients kept in isolation.

Laurie Goldstein chairs the Arizona State Hospital Independent Oversight Committee charged with monitoring conditions at ASH. 

ASH isn’t all bad, Goldstein says. Her son spent a year and a half at ASH during 2013-15. She says it gave him the treatment and supervision necessary to live in the community with some support. 

She’d like the hospital to do the same for others, and says she and her committee are concerned about patients kept in isolation for extended periods of time. She will not comment directly regarding Contreras, again because of privacy laws, but he has spoken before the ASH Independent Oversight Committee. 

“We don’t find it particularly therapeutic if somebody was to stay in isolation their whole time and then be released,” Goldstein says. 

The committee is curious about one patient’s living quarters, Goldstein says. So far, hospital administrators have refused to offer many details: “We asked to see it. They said no. We asked for pictures. They said no. We asked for dimensions. They said no.”

The committee is also worried that some patients are facing retaliation for filing grievances, which are almost never substantiated, a concern shared by the Arizona Center for Disability Law. 

“The individual who actually processes these grievances, she’s the so-called patient rights advocate, but she isn’t independent. She’s an employee of ASH,” says Asim Dietrich, an attorney with the disability law center, which has a federal contract to monitor conditions at the hospital. 

“Almost every ASH patient we speak to who’s filed a grievance has also received retaliation,” he says.

Since 2019, ASH has received 585 grievances from patients, according to Elliott. Of those, four were substantiated and another three were partially substantiated. AHCCCS investigates allegations of physical abuse, sexual abuse and sexual misconduct. The hospital handles the rest. The state will not release details of grievances, citing administrative code. 

“I’m literally scared of getting out. Even into the unit. Not that they’re going to hurt me, but I’ve been accustomed to a small environment. I don’t understand how these people expect to help me progress if everything they’re doing is making me worse.”

ISAAC CONTRERAS

Contreras described his situation in a phone conversation with AZCIR in September. He says that being isolated is making him worse. 

“Therapy was good, it helps out a lot, but that’s the only thing I get as far as treatment. All I get is my medication and any time they speak to me, it’s behind the window. I’ve never felt this hopeless before, like there’s nothing for me out there. There’s nothing. 

“I’m literally scared of getting out. Even into the unit. Not that they’re going to hurt me, but I’ve been accustomed to a small environment. I don’t understand how these people expect to help me progress if everything they’re doing is making me worse. 

“I have not even seen the sky, I have not seen the sun come up or go down, I have not had the luxury of that.”

With the goal of helping the very sickest people with mental illness, Josh Mozell has taken on Chick Arnold’s caseload — and his cause.

Chick Arnold, lead plaintiff in the Arnold v. Sarn class action lawsuit that claimed Maricopa County and the state of Arizona were failing people with serious mental illness, is shown at his Phoenix home on April 12, 2021. Photo by Brandon Quester | AZCIR

ACMI members are working to help spread stories to the public about our behavioral health system of care. Amy Silverman of Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting is doing a series of stories highlighting Arizona’s behavioral health history and ongoing issues.

by Amy Silverman October 20, 2021

Forty years later, legacy of Arnold v. Sarn lives on

Chick Arnold pulls out an old scrapbook packed with newspaper clippings, just in case he forgets anything.

At 74, Arnold has a shock of white hair and a sparkle reminiscent of Steve Martin. Tucked up against the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, his home is cheerful and modern, with a courtyard, high ceilings and brightly colored artwork that pops in the light of this warm spring morning. Arnold’s disposition is similarly sunny, even though he’s spent his career trying to help people whose lives are very dark. 

As he talks, the scrapbook unopened in his lap, it’s clear that Arnold remembers just about every detail of the last 40 years—particularly when it comes to his role as godfather of the state’s mental health care system. 

In 1981, Charles “Chick” Arnold was a young attorney working as Maricopa County’s public fiduciary, assigned to be the guardian for 600 vulnerable adults—the elderly, as well as people with serious mental illness and developmental disabilities. Arnold had a sister with a significant developmental disability and grew up knowing enough about the systems designed to protect these populations to understand that change was needed.

Mental illness—particularly the most chronic and severe cases—is difficult to treat. Matters of the brain have always been confounding, and often dismissed. For the most part, early societies treated mental illness as something other than medical. They looked for spiritual reasons, demons. Despite some scientific advances, to this day, treating mental illness is more art than science; doctors aren’t always sure why a medication works, and a diagnosis can change based on ephemeral elements like behavior. 

In the 1960s and 70s, the combination of media and government attention to both the dangers of institutionalization and the advances in the development of psychotropic drugs meant that it was no longer a given that a person with a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder would live out their years at a locked institution like the Arizona State Hospital

A state law was passed in 1970 requiring that only those who present a danger to themselves or others be housed at ASH, a collection of somewhat majestic-looking old buildings ringed by chain link and razor wire on Van Buren and 24th streets in the middle of Phoenix. The population dropped from 2,000 to 300 in less than a year as patients were released to the street, sometimes with little more than a bus pass and a month’s worth of medication.

Deinstitutionalization was a great idea that was not particularly well-executed in many places in the United States. Arizona was no exception. Out in the community, there was basically no case management system, no counseling, no housing program, no assistance with employment, no peer support.

In the late 1970s, Arnold and others successfully lobbied the legislature to pass a bill that, in essence, requires the state to provide these services to people with serious mental illness, with no cap on the cost. This was huge, particularly in a penny-pinching, libertarian state like Arizona. 

But change was slow. Then a man named John Goss dropped by to see Arnold. 

As Arnold describes him, Goss, who was in his early 40s, was a smart man, a former stockbroker from New York who’d had a mental breakdown and made his way to the Southwest, where he’d previously been a patient at the Arizona State Hospital. One of Arnold’s charges, he was now living in an unlicensed boarding home that was in terrible condition; it had burned down more than once. Goss walked the city, often stopping at Arnold’s office in the old courthouse in downtown Phoenix to say hello. 

On this particular visit, Goss told Arnold he’d read about the new law, and wanted to know why things hadn’t gotten better for him.  

“He nailed me,” Arnold recalls. 

So Arnold turned to the judicial branch of government, becoming the lead plaintiff in one of the state’s longest-running class action lawsuits and a household name in mental health circles. 

(The Sarn in Arnold v. Sarn is James Sarn, then the head of the state’s Department of Health Services.)

The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the case, but the branches of government continued to tangle for decades, as a court monitor conducted annual audits, documenting deficiencies and calling on the court to compel government to fix them. In 2012, with the state in financial crisis following the Great Recession, the court monitor and much of the program was suspended, replaced in 2014 with an agreement that ended the litigation and established guidelines for providing services. 

“Looking back on it, I think we were not enough. The constructs that were intended to be created, the housing opportunities, employment opportunities, the kind of respect piece that had been lacking from our system is still compromised. You know, dignity, respect, or honor serving people with disabilities in a non-patronizing way.”

CHICK ARNOLD

Will Humble was the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services at the time. He recalls advising then-Gov. Jan Brewer. 

“I told Brewer’s team, ‘Look, we can’t go anywhere with a court monitor,’” Humble says. “We’re in a horrible recession. We concede that we’re not going to get all needs met. We’re just going to keep the wheels on state government the best we can.’” 

It was a tough situation. During her time in the state legislature in the 1980s and 90s, Brewer was a champion of rights and better services for people with mental illness. She had a son who spent many years at the state hospital. As governor, she supported a Medicaid expansion that benefited people with SMI (serious mental illness), but she was criticized for dropping her focus on the mental health system. She gets mixed reviews for the decision to settle Arnold v. Sarn.

“They still could use a lot of help today, but we feel very accomplished by what we were able to accomplish,” Brewer told AZCIR this spring. 

“I just know that I worked really hard and I gave it all I could and I saved it. I saved the day and I believe that and I am proud of that.”

Arnold signed off on the settlement agreement. Now, he regrets not pushing harder. 

“Looking back on it, I think we were not enough,” he says. “The constructs that were intended to be created, the housing opportunities, employment opportunities, the kind of respect piece that had been lacking from our system is still compromised. You know, dignity, respect, or honor serving people with disabilities in a non-patronizing way.”

Will Humble was the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services at the time. He recalls advising then-Gov. Jan Brewer. 

“I told Brewer’s team, ‘Look, we can’t go anywhere with a court monitor,’” Humble says. “We’re in a horrible recession. We concede that we’re not going to get all needs met. We’re just going to keep the wheels on state government the best we can.’” 

It was a tough situation. During her time in the state legislature in the 1980s and 90s, Brewer was a champion of rights and better services for people with mental illness. She had a son who spent many years at the state hospital. As governor, she supported a Medicaid expansion that benefited people with SMI (serious mental illness), but she was criticized for dropping her focus on the mental health system. She gets mixed reviews for the decision to settle Arnold v. Sarn.

“They still could use a lot of help today, but we feel very accomplished by what we were able to accomplish,” Brewer told AZCIR this spring. 

“I just know that I worked really hard and I gave it all I could and I saved it. I saved the day and I believe that and I am proud of that.”

Arnold signed off on the settlement agreement. Now, he regrets not pushing harder. 

“Looking back on it, I think we were not enough,” he says. “The constructs that were intended to be created, the housing opportunities, employment opportunities, the kind of respect piece that had been lacking from our system is still compromised. You know, dignity, respect, or honor serving people with disabilities in a non-patronizing way.”

Attorney Josh Mozell sits for a portrait in his office’s conference room in Phoenix on June 23, 2021. (Photo by Alberto Mariani)

Chick Arnold retired at the end of 2020. He says that would not have been possible if not for Josh Mozell, a young attorney who took on Arnold’s caseload—and his cause. Like Arnold, Mozell believes the mental health care system has failed the state’s most vulnerable. As a caseworker for several years before attending law school, Mozell worked directly with people with chronic mental illness. He understands the system’s shortcomings from the inside. 

Mozell, 38, also wants to change the system. He is president of the board of a local non-profit called the Association for the Chronically Mentally Ill (ACMI), whose members push for legislative remedies and other reforms. He sits on an independent oversight committee that monitors conditions for people with serious mental illness in central Arizona. Mozell has the ears of agency heads, hospital directors and police chiefs, and this fall, a joint legislative committee will convene to address shortcomings at the Arizona State Hospital, thanks to Mozell’s lobbying efforts at the state capitol. 

Like Arnold before him, Mozell represents hospital companies and other providers, something that gives him a paycheck as well as insight into how the system works and access to decision makers. 

It’s about all of that, for sure, but there’s something else that makes these men so effective. 

When Chick Arnold walks into a room of policymakers, Mozell says, people fear him—but they want to give him a hug. It’s part of his magic. 

For Mozell, it’s understanding the system in ways few do. The younger lawyer spends a great deal of time with clients who are in crisis. 

On a muggy Friday morning in August, Mozell perches on the edge of a couch in a room at a central Phoenix extended-stay hotel, laptop open. Next to him, Rob Niebuhr shifts his tall frame to get comfortable, casual in a black tee shirt, shorts and Adidas in contrast with the lawyer’s dress clothes. 

Robert Niebuhr meets with attorney Josh Mozell in August 2021 to discuss Niebuhr’s living arrangements and how to get 

Just out of jail, Niebuhr’s wearing an ankle bracelet. He has schizophrenia, and was given a two-year sentence for chasing his stepfather with a dinner knife during a psychotic episode in 2017. The incident ended when Phoenix police shot Niebuhr.

Years later, Tarrill Kertesz sobs as she recalls her son’s shooting. She had called 911 during some of Rob’s previous outbursts when the family lived in Washington State and says the police had helped calm him down. This time was different.

“They shot him in front of me. And I was screaming that we called for help, not for you to shoot him.”

Police reported that Niebuhr came at them with the knife. Niebuhr was shot twice in the back and once in the arm and leg. As soon as he was well enough, hospital staff extubated him in the middle of the night and sent him to jail.

Kertesz found Holly Gieszl, a defense attorney who often represents people with mental illness. Gieszl represented Rob in his criminal case, alongside a public defender. “I don’t know what we would have done without Holly,” she says.

Holly Gieszl poses for a portrait at a Phoenix law firm on June 23, 2021. Photo by Alberto Mariani | AZCIR

Weeks before her son was to be released, Kertesz says she began asking jail officials about the formal plan to transition Niebuhr to the community. The shooting happened in Phoenix and while she’s since moved to Yuma, Kertesz and her husband love Niebuhr and want him nearby; but the court says they can’t see each other. 

When Niebuhr was released, she brought him clothes and a cell phone. They let Kertesz hug her son, she says, “and that was it.”

Niebuhr and Kertesz stayed in touch. 

Within days of Niebuhr’s release, there was trouble. Despite his mother’s pleas, she says there was no workable transition plan. Niebuhr was placed at a setting that has housed sex offenders, Kertesz says, because there was no other place for him. Niebuhr explains that he was quickly kicked out for fighting and bounced to a couple other places before landing at this hotel, which his mother had been paying for. Desperate and running out of money, Kertesz called Gieszl, who contacted Mozell.

Sitting in the small motel room, Mozell sounds more like a case manager than a lawyer as he asks Niebuhr if he knows why he hasn’t been given a place to live (no), how he’s feeling (good) and if he has his meds (yes). Niebuhr is frustrated because he was supposed to be picked up earlier that morning and taken to a mental health clinic to see a counselor. He stood outside at 7:30 a.m., he says, but no one came.

Mozell nods and keeps taking notes. 

Niebuhr starts talking about his phone, which is broken, and pretty quickly it’s clear that he’s not entirely well. The phone was sending him codes, he says. Now he has to get those messages through the television in his room.

The lawyer returns to his office and makes some calls.

Weeks later, Kertesz reports that the system has found her son a safe place to live and he’s being assigned to an ACT team, a high-impact case management plan for people with significant needs. He’s getting food baskets, peer support and someone’s supervising his medication—all of which should have happened automatically if the system was working, Mozell says.

Later in September, Gieszl and Mozell report that Niebuhr is struggling again. 

“It’s up and down,” Gieszl says.  

Mozell acknowledges that he rarely encounters a mental health crisis that is not brought to him by a family member. That haunts him, and reminds him of his time working in the system.

“Everybody on my caseload was alone,” he says. “They had either left their families or their families left them. That is the reality—this group does not have access to any kind of power.”


Josh Mozell estimates that he’s able to help a few dozen people with chronic mental illness a year. There are only so many hours in the day, and not everyone can afford to hire a private lawyer. (Mozell and Gieszl do take some pro bono cases, but they can’t afford to represent everyone at no cost.) That’s where the Association for the Chronically Mentally Ill comes in. The board of directors includes several people who fought for years to get help for their family members with chronic mental illness, as well as Mozell and Gieszl.

Founding member Deborah Geesling describes how she first got involved in the system, through her son. 

As a boy, he loved to do tricks on BMX bikes and play guitar like his older brother. But when Geesling’s son turned 14, something changed.

At first, Geesling says, her son was really anxious. He ran away from their Gilbert home several times. The third of four boys, he told his little brother the record albums hanging on his bedroom wall were whispering to him. He hit his father. The police came.

The young man wore handcuffs and a jumpsuit to his first visit with a psychiatrist. The doctor prescribed pills.  

“I just remember driving away from that appointment feeling relieved, like we really got something to start with,” Geesling says. 

She was right about one thing—it was only the beginning. 

“I called up the next morning to check on him and the person who answered the phone said, ‘That’s your son? He’s a psychopath.’ And he kind of laughed. He said, ‘Give him the number to the homeless shelter and pack his bags.’”

DEBORAH GEESLING

Geesling’s son had his first psychotic episode at 18. He had stopped taking his meds, wasn’t sleeping, sat at his brother’s drum set, hitting one drum over and over. And then it got worse. He landed at a psychiatric evaluation center in Phoenix. 

“I called up the next morning to check on him and the person who answered the phone said, ‘That’s your son? He’s a psychopath.’ And he kind of laughed. He said, ‘Give him the number to the homeless shelter and pack his bags,’” Geesling says.

“After that phone call, I was on the floor. I literally dropped to my knees. I was crying. I was just, I felt like I was in this pit, like, ‘Okay, what do I do with this?’”

In the end, her son was admitted to a psychiatric facility, where he stayed for three months. The following year, he was hospitalized four timesThe doctors told Geesling he was one of the sickest people they’d ever seen. He believed Geesling was practicing witchcraft on him. Her youngest son says he slept at friends’ houses as much as he could, terrified to be near his older brother. 

But pretty much as soon as hospital staff learned her son lived at home, Geesling says, they’d try to release him every time. 

“How about you take him home,” she recalls thinking, “and then you tell me if you think he’s fine.” 

It took years, constant attention and the painful decisions both to seek guardianship and to announce that he had no place to live so he could qualify for housing, but today Geesling’s son is stable and living in an apartment. 

Lately, Geesling has been taking a call a day from someone else whose child, spouse or sibling is in crisis. 

Other ACMI board members take calls as well—and have their own stories to tell. Laurie and Chuck Goldstein charted the costs to private and public insurance companies over many years as the system struggled to finally get their son proper care. Barbara Honiberg’s son was hospitalized 50 times in a decade. Dick Dunseath’s son sometimes walks or even jumps into traffic. He’s been hit twice by cars. 

ACMI is not without controversy. The group is filled with hard chargers who don’t mind making enemies. Like Mozell, they are concerned about pretty much every aspect of the state’s mental health system, but their focus is often on what they see as the need for locked residential treatment facilities for those who are not sick enough to be in the state hospital, but not well enough to come and go as they please. 

Earlier this year, the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University released a report about housing for people with chronic mental illness sponsored by ACMI and funded in part by the Goldsteins’ philanthropic foundation. The study found it’s far less expensive to provide housing for people with mental illness than to let them live on the street where they place a burden on the health care and criminal justice systems.

For the most part, ACMI’S focus has been the Arizona Legislature. They’ve had some success. In 2019, the governor signed a controversial bill appropriating money for the purchase of land and construction of a secure residential facility, creating a new level of care for Arizonans with mental illness who are not sick enough for the state hospital but too sick to live on their own. Funding for the project is $3.5 million. 

That law also created a formal definition of chronic mental illness. 

The 2021 legislative session proved fruitful as well for ACMI, which backed several bills, some of which were successful.

ACMI stopped short of convincing the legislature to lift the bed limit at the state hospital, but did get a law signed that is designed to increase accountability by improving audio and video surveillance at the state hospital. And while the group was unsuccessful in its push to sunset the state’s Psychiatric Review Board, which determines whether a person deemed guilty but insane should be released from the state hospital, a law was passed that is meant to increase accountability by standardizing medical reports used in the decision-making process. 

Other successful ACMI-backed legislation included a law that creates a transition program for people with mental illness reentering the community from prison and one that addresses the process of court-ordered evaluations for people with serious mental illness.

ACMI members’ viewpoints aren’t always shared by other mental health advocates. 

Eddie Sissons worked in various roles in and around Arizona’s mental health system for decades. Like some other advocates, Sissons opposed the legislation that funded the secure residential treatment facility. She wants to see the system take a more “holistic” approach that focuses on peer and family training, as well as facilities that are not locked but offer 24 hour care, such as a longtime program run by the Foundation for Senior Living.

“They have a point,” she says of ACMI. “But it’s not just to rush out with a fire truck. How do we back it up so we’re doing fire prevention so we don’t have the need to go to ASH, to go to secure residential and that I think is a bigger, harder, more difficult discussion to have.”

Sissons does agree with Mozell and others that the mental health system in Arizona continues to falter. 

“I don’t have a magic answer,” she says. “I wish I did.”

Rachel Gold contributed reporting to this article.

ACMI members are working to help tell the story to the public about our behavioral health system of care.

Charles “Chick” Arnold, lead plaintiff in the Arnold v. Sarn class action lawsuit that claimed Maricopa County and the state of Arizona were failing people with serious mental illness, is shown at his Phoenix home on April 12, 2021. Photo by Brandon Quester | AZCIR

Arnold v. Sarn, a class action lawsuit that called for services for people with serious mental illness regardless of cost, celebrates its fortieth birthday this year. The litigation ended in 2014 with a settlement agreement that largely replaced “shall” with “may,” encouraging the system to try its best while softening requirements, and permanently doing away with a court monitor—the last remnant of robust accountability that had been in place for decades. Now Charles “Chick” Arnold, the lead plaintiff, says the agreement should have been more aggressive.

by Amy Silverman October 19, 2021

Crisis in mental health care: A place that should know better (azcir.org)

In July 2017, a man in khaki shorts and a blue pullover walked through an empty office at a center for LGBTQ youth in Phoenix with a red can, pouring gasoline on the floor as he left the building. Immediately, flames erupted then engulfed the room.  

Darren William Beach Jr. later said his grandmother told him the building was killing her. She had passed away five years earlier.  

Two days before the fire, Beach had been evaluated for treatment for mental illness at a local psychiatric facility after he’d been pulled three times from a canal. The hallucinations, he claimed, were demanding he take his own life. The facility released him to the street.

After a year in jail following the fire, Beach went to live with his half-sister, Sommer Walter, and her family, including two small boys. Walter didn’t feel like she had an option. “They were going to release a mentally ill man who had just burned a building down to the streets,” she says. 

A week later, Beach was still waiting to be assigned a case management team to help him find housing and manage his medications when he began telling Walter he was a debt collector for the Hell’s Angels. They argued when he threw a cell phone, and Beach left. 

Days later, Walter got a call from a nurse at a local hospital. “They said Darren had been found in the middle of Encanto Park, passed out.” 

He’d taken a large dose of lithium, tested positive for meth and there was blue paint on his face, apparently from eating or huffing it, Walter says. 

Beach bounced among “residential treatments, substance abuse programs, halfway houses/shelters that myself and my family had to pay for and mobile shelters, where he’d sleep at a new church every night,” Walter explains. “Sometimes he’d even just be left to the streets.” 

He was hospitalized a total of 16 times in 18 months. When he stayed at her house, Walter says she found weapons in his backpack—brass knuckles, box cutters, a broken off baseball bat. 

Darren Beach is shown in an undated photo taken while in police custody after he failed to appear for a court date in Arizona. Photo courtesy Sommer Walter.
In this collage of images, Darren Beach is shown at different points throughout his life. Photo courtesy Sommer Walter.

“I would find pieces of glass…with some kind of cloth around one end of it,” Walter says. When she asked Beach what it was for, he answered, “In case I need to shank somebody.” 

She began to worry that “somebody” could be a member of her family after a conversation with Beach during one of his hospitalizations in 2020. 

“He told me, `If you don’t let me out of here, I’m going to burn your house down with you and your kids in it.’” 


Arizona’s mental health care system is failing Darren Beach and others like him, despite its reputation as a national model after a history-making class action lawsuit prompted decades of reform. 

The state spends billions of taxpayer dollars to comply with a law mandating care for adults with mental illness, enforced by a decision from the Arizona Supreme Court.

And yet, the majority of people with serious mental illness in Maricopa County and the state of Arizona are still not getting the help they need. While an estimated 35% of people with serious mental illness receive services nationally, that figure is 25% for Maricopa County. It’s even lower for Arizona, at 18%. 

Arnold v. Sarn celebrates its fortieth birthday this year. The litigation ended in 2014 with a settlement agreement that largely replaced “shall” with “may,” encouraging the system to try its best while softening requirements, and permanently doing away with a court monitor—the last remnant of robust accountability that had been in place for decades. 

Now Charles “Chick” Arnold, the lead plaintiff, says the agreement should have been more aggressive.  

A months-long investigation by AZCIR reveals that despite decades of reforms, Arizona continues to fail some of its very sickest. Interviews with more than two dozen people with serious mental illness and family members, as well as state officials, lawmakers, program administrators, doctors, law enforcement personnel, academics, historians, advocates and lawyers, and a review of thousands of pages of incident reports, grievances, court records, police reports and state records uncovered significant deficiencies in several key parts of Arizona’s mental health system. 

Even when they have qualified for services, people in crisis are not always getting the help they need from high impact case management teams and are often not kept in a psychiatric hospital long enough to recover and be successful. Patients at the state mental hospital complain of poor treatment and retaliation by staff when grievances are aired. For those in the community, employment figures are low and housing is scarce. Some of the sickest people live in unlicensed boarding homes with dangerous conditions and a lack of supervision.

With few reliable statistics and no annual court monitor audits to shed light on if or how the system is working, the public is exposed only to occasional news reports when things go terribly wrong. Largely untold are the stories of some of the sickest people with mental illness and their families—the man released from prison to a home with sex offenders, the state hospital patient who has been in seclusion for 15 months, the college professor thrown in jail because he thought his neighbor’s dog was possessed, the 39-year-old man who hit his 93-year-old female housemate over the head with a heavy metal object during a psychotic episode, the family whose adult son was hospitalized 50 times in a decade.

Public records reveal more, including how unlicensed boarding homes, considered by some to be a thing of the past, are still housing people with serious mental illness, and that the state hospital is plagued by allegations of retaliation for those who complain about poor treatment.

All of this in a place that should know better.

Chick Arnold says that both transparency and accountability have slipped in the years since the settlement agreement was signed. The court monitor in Arnold v. Sarn pumped a healthy dose of fear into the mental health system with the risk of getting called into court if services were not adequate. Today, little remains beyond a series of annual reports designed to measure performance in the areas of case management, housing, employment, peer support and family support. 

Much of the available data that measures the system’s performance focuses on services in Maricopa County, since Chick Arnold sued both the state and county in his 1981 lawsuit.

The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), which runs the state’s behavioral health system, contracts with an outside company to generate reports on the county’s progress. The most recent Quality Service Review was released in 2020. Experts say the methodology is questionable.

The sample of members used in the report to draw sweeping conclusions about the quality of mental health services for an SMI population exceeding 35,000 in Maricopa County was just 107, well below the 135 members researchers initially wanted to ensure the findings were reliable.

In addition, 9 out of 10 people with serious mental illness either could not  be reached or declined to be part of the survey, likely leaving out the sickest people—those in crisis and those whom the system can no longer find. 

Even so, many of the report’s conclusions are troubling.

According to the Quality Service Review, 10 percent of Maricopa County residents in the mental health system did not have an Individualized Service Plan (ISP), the document to guide their care, and only 57 percent actually included objectives that “addressed members’ needs.” Researchers also reported that some ISP goals were not personalized and that it appeared that some might have been copied from other ISP reports.

In addition, in 2020, only 18 percent of people with SMI were employed. A quarter of all members expressed that they did not have enough contact with their case manager. Almost 1 in 3 said they wanted more of a service they were currently receiving. And many indicated that they were unaware of service options.

Those figures are supposed to reflect the general population of people with SMI in Maricopa County.

The state does not release data that targets the people in the behavioral health system who are the sickest, the chronically mentally ill who make up close to 20 percent of the overall number of people with mental illness, according to a 2021 study by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. 

This population—several thousand people in Maricopa County alone—often cycles in and out of psychiatric hospitals, jails and homeless shelters, often getting sicker and sicker without the right treatment, as mental illnesses like schizophrenia deteriorate one’s health with every psychotic episode. 

Before the Arnold v. Sarn lawsuit, there was no case management system at all—so things have improved. But Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) Teams, designed to protect the highest needs clients by providing additional oversight for housing, medications and other needs, are not always getting the job done.

In 2019, only 29 of the 100 highest need clients were assigned to ACT Teams. 

Turnover rates for ACT Teams, which rely on continuity to provide the best help, have been as high as 150%.  

Today, a relatively small number of patients are under lock and key at the Arizona State Hospital (ASH). Even those who believe more beds should be available to serve the sickest patients agree that conditions must improve. 

Incident reports from ASH read like scenes out of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” with staff documenting patients masturbating in public spaces, spitting at, hitting and chasing staff and punching other patients. Patient grievances are almost never substantiated and so many individuals have complained about retaliation after filing complaints that the Arizona Center for Disability Law is looking into the claims. The center sued in 2018 to get access to the hospital, even though it’s got a federal contract to monitor conditions there. 

Arizona Department of Health Services spokesman Steve Elliott denied AZCIR’s request for a tour of ASH, acknowledging that it’s been six years since a journalist formally toured the hospital.

Critics, including the chair of psychiatry at Valleywise Health System, Maricopa County’s hospital system, say state hospital administrators are leaving chronically mentally ill people in settings meant for short term stays when these patients would benefit from treatment at ASH. They also want to lift a 55-bed limit at ASH that’s part of the Arnold v. Sarn settlement. 

One of the biggest concerns when it comes to hospital stays is that they simply aren’t long enough. There’s a well known saying in the mental health system—“treat, street, repeat.” In other words, if a person having a mental health crisis is not kept in a secure facility long enough to truly be stabilized, they will quickly find themselves in crisis again, likely leading to another hospital stay—or a tragedy. Darren Beach, who was hospitalized 16 times in 18 months, is a good example.  

It’s clear that AHCCCS administrators recognize the need for longer hospital stays—or, at least, want the federal government to pay for them. A 2017 application for a federal Institutions for Mental Disease waiver to allow for reimbursement for hospital stays longer than 15 days in a calendar month remains open. (This does not apply to government run facilities like the state or county hospitals.)

According to state data, in fiscal year 2019, 15,413 people in Arizona’s mental health system accounted for 24,617 psychiatric hospital stays. 

Of those visits, 573 visits were more than 15 days.

Only 15 visits exceeded 45 days. 

And then there’s the challenge of what happens once someone does get out of the hospital and is ready to live in the community. 

A lack of safe, supported housing—considered by many to be the single most important factor in the successful long-term treatment of a person with mental illness—continues to elude many of the sickest people in the system. People interviewed for this story reported that family members with chronic mental illness were released from psychiatric hospitals to the street. There’s a statewide housing waiting list of 2,800, and more who are unable to use HUD vouchers, sometimes because of a lack of housing inventory.

Some people with chronic mental illness live in unlicensed boarding homes, also called board and care homes, long held up as a relic of the pre-Arnold v. Sarn past that never completely went away. There might be fewer than there used to be, but that’s difficult to know since no one in Maricopa County’s SMI system appears to be keeping track. The boarding homes operate under the radar for the most part—but police know they exist, sometimes answering hundreds of calls at a single address. Some have become hotbeds of violence, drugs and substandard living conditions.  

Responsibility for providing services to people with serious mental illness in Arizona falls to the state’s Medicaid agency, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS). 

(A person doesn’t have to be Medicaid-eligible (Title XIX) to receive services. That said, non-Title XIX recipients do not qualify for as much. For example, they often cannot get name-brand medications. Chick Arnold thinks this should be litigated in the future.) 

In turn, AHCCCS contracts with Mercy Care, one of several regional behavioral health authorities in Arizona charged with providing services to people with serious mental illness. Mercy Care then contracts with individual providers who actually offer services like case management. 

The state’s Department of Health Services operates the Arizona State Hospital. 

AZCIR sent lists of questions to AHCCCS, Mercy Care and the Department of Health Services. 

Mercy Care did not respond to the list of questions. Earlier this year, a spokesperson turned down a request for an interview, and instead sent links to public reports on the AHCCCS website. 

In its response, AHCCCS wrote that the agency “takes all complaints and grievances about the quality of care seriously, and wants to obtain enough information to be able to fully investigate and resolve issues, whether they be individualized or systemic.“

With regard to ACT teams, AHCCCS wrote that, “Few communities around the country provide ACT to 4.3% or more of their adults who have SMI, whereas 6.6% of Maricopa County residents received ACT in 2019. 

“After an in-depth review, it was determined that only 29 of the top 100 service utilizers were on an ACT team because the remaining individuals either declined ACT level of service, did not meet diagnostic criteria for an ACT team, or they were already receiving a service that would be duplicative of ACT.”

And researchers “found that ACT team services were consistently provided once the need for services was identified.” 

AHCCCS did not respond to questions about methodology in the Arnold v. Sarn Quality Service Review.

In his agency’s response, DHS spokesman Steve Elliott wrote that federal privacy laws prevent the discussion of individual patients at the state hospital. 

“Patients are encouraged to file grievances when their concerns are not remedied at the patient treatment unit level. Hospital investigators educate patients through the grievance process investigation,” Elliott wrote. 

He did not address the issue of possible retaliation against patients who file grievances. 

With regard to the 55-bed limit at the state hospital, Elliott responded, “ASH operates according to the settlement of Arnold v. Sarn. It is not our place to offer an opinion on the terms under which we are required to operate.” 

Just about everyone involved in the lawsuit and settlement has an opinion—and doesn’t mind sharing it. 

Steve Schwartz, a national public interest lawyer who helped shut down psychiatric institutions in places like Massachusetts, was a plaintiff’s attorney in the case and signed off on the 2014 settlement. In an interview this spring, Schwartz said he’s pleased with the outcome. 

“They can’t go on forever,” he says of class action lawsuits, adding that he often refers to the successes of Arnold when working with other states on reforms. 

“The end point is never that all the people in the class are getting all the services,” Schwartz says. “That’s not going to ever happen. And so the end point has to be some blend that the majority of people are receiving a substantial portion of supports that allow them to do certain things, even though there are some big gaps.”

We let this group of people completely fail. To me, it’s the most inhumane thing that could ever be.

JOSH MOZELL

Chick Arnold retired at the end of 2020, handing his cases and his cause to a young lawyer named Josh Mozell, who has several years’ experience as a case manager in Arizona’s mental health system.

Mozell says he has his dream job—and it’s a nightmare. He contends that when it comes to treating the very sickest, the system is the worst it’s ever been.

“We let this group of people completely fail,” he says. “To me, it’s the most inhumane thing that could ever be.” 

Mozell’s cases include a man who says he was isolated after he screamed down a jail toilet at demons only he could hear; a man having a psychotic episode who was accidentally released from a mental health facility because he shared a first name with another patient; a woman whose mother chased her across the country and back to Phoenix, where she waited a year for a bed at the state hospital; a man whose son thought he could heat a frozen TV dinner still in the box on his stovetop and lived in filth even though he supposedly had the highest level of case management; and a man who ended up intubated in the hospital for six days after his case manager placed him in a group home with cats despite the fact that he’s deathly allergic.

Attorney Josh Mozell sits for a portrait in his office’s conference room in Phoenix on June 23, 2021. (Photo by Alberto Mariani)

“People don’t come to me when the system’s well,” Mozell says. “They come to me when the system’s doing poorly.”

Mozell represented Sommer Walter, Darren Beach’s half-sister, when she needed help getting guardianship of Beach in 2019.

Beach is now at the Arizona State Hospital. He waited a year for a bed. 

He decompensated further at the county hospital, according to Walter, and it’s been worse at ASH. 

“I hate to even say it out loud but Darren is actually more ill,” Walter wrote in an update to AZCIR in September. 

“He is more violent in his thoughts and is threatening harm to others and is very paranoid. He’s hearing voices that sound like “whispers.” 

“On my darkest days,” she wrote, “I have found myself driving to the hospital, parking across the street and weeping. Even though he’s here, he’s not really here. I’m mourning a living person and it’s such a hard way to live.”

Rachel Gold contributed reporting to this article.

One of the cells at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philidelphia. Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, approximately 20 percent of inmates in jails and 15 percent of inmates in state prisons have a serious mental illness. Based on the total number of inmates, there are approximately 356,000 inmates with serious mental illness in jails and state prisons. This is ten times more than the approximately 35,000 individuals with serious mental illness remaining in state hospitals (Torrey et al., 2014). In addition, people with mental illness stay in jail and prison longer than people without mental illness.  The recidivism rates are also higher for special populations:

54% re-incarceration for people with severe mental illness

60% for those with no diagnosis

66% for those with substance use disorders

68% for those with co-occurring mental illness & substance use

The high recidivism rates indicate the need for more integrated services upon release (Wilson et al., 2011). 

Infogram about MI and Incarceration

The 30% in the illustration above, derived as the average from various studies, indicates a range of 20-45% (higher in jails than in prison, approximately 70% of this group have a co-occurring drug use disorder.) (Charles Goldstein, M.D., 2021)

It is punitive to punish people with mental illness by incarcerating them for minor crimes related to their mental illness rather than treating them in longer, more appropriate stays in psychiatric hospitals followed by appropriate community housing with supportive services.

Sadly, the nation’s jails and prisons have replaced hospitals as the primary facilities for people with mental illness. Having a conviction record comes with additional burdens post-conviction with far-reaching consequences, both legal and non-legal. These include loss of civil rights, inability to get a job, inability to live in specific apartments or upscale areas, and loss of public benefits (Chin, 2017), e.g., medical insurance through Medicaid. The effects on family and children can be devastating. “In 2010, for instance, an estimated 2.7 million children had an incarcerated parent.” (Turner, 2017). Children who grow up with an incarcerated parent have a much higher risk of becoming incarcerated, and eventually suffering collateral consequences of their own. They do more poorly in both cognitive and cognitive outcome measures (Morsy & Rothstein, 2016). In addition, the familial relationship to mental illness also contributes to poorer outcomes and the likelihood the children are at a higher risk for justice involvement.

There is a myriad of legal collateral consequences that attach to a criminal conviction. U.S. citizens can be barred from federal or state office, barred from certain professions, subject to impeachment as a witness, disqualified from serving as a juror, and lose the right to have a firearm. Noncitizens with criminal convictions can be deported. Sex offenders must register and are excluded from living in certain areas.

“Most people experiencing mental health disorders are not a threat to public safety. Yet a significant portion of the population of our jails and prisons remains comprised of people with mental health disorders. Our jails and prisons become, by default, the largest mental health facilities in the state; and far too often, people with a mental health disorder are released from jails and prisons without a treatment plan or support services in place.”  Bronx DA Darcel Clark

The fact is the average parolee is a minority male in his 30’s, 30% have a mental illness, 20% have co-occurring mental illness and substance use problems, and return to economically disadvantaged communities (Turner, 2017). And now society expects them to overcome egregious collateral consequences to boot! These factors pose an uphill battle when it comes to regaining some sort of normalcy in life.

I think it’s evident that the best way to alleviate the burden of collateral consequences that disproportionately affect released offenders with mental illness (OMI) is to change the culture of the criminal corrective system. This would entail changing from the retributive to the rehabilitative/utilitarian model. Using community punishment and appropriate treatment instead of incarceration would be a much better option for OMI.

References

First Step Alliance. (2012, July 1). Reducing recidivism: Creating a path to successful reentry. First Step Alliance. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://www.firststepalliance.org/post/reducing-recidivism?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIw9OTqLiV8wIVSR6tBh3jIAi5EAAYASAAEgL81_D_BwE.

Morsy, L., & Rothstein, R. (2016, December 15). Mass incarceration and children’s outcomes: Criminal justice policy is education policy. Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://www.epi.org/publication/mass-incarceration-and-childrens-outcomes/.

Support Discipline Support Initiative. (2010). Pipeline to prison: School discipline support initiative. Pipeline to Prison | School Discipline Support Initiative. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://supportiveschooldiscipline.org/school-to-prison-pipeline#:~:text=The%20pipeline%20to%20prison%20refers,criminal%20justice%20systems%20increasingly%20for.

Torrey EF, Zdanowicz MT, Kennard AD et al. The treatment of persons with mental illness in prisons and jails: A state survey. Arlington, VA, Treatment Advocacy Center, April 8, 2014.

Wilson, A. B., Draine, J., Hadley, T., Metraux, S., & Evans, A. (2011). Examining the impact of mental illness and substance use on recidivism in a county jail. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 34(4), 264–268. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijlp.2011.07.004

This recent article below supports our opinion that jails and prisons are not therapeutic for people with serious mental illness often causing more harm.

ACMI

Mental Illness In Solitary Landed These Men An Extra 842 Years In Illinois Prisons, Advocates Say

By Shannon Heffernan Monday, Sept. 27, 6 a.m. CT

Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness In Illinois Prisons | WBEZ Chicago

Warning: This article contains stories of people who have engaged in self-harm and attempted suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, the National Suicide Prevention hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.

Christopher Knox already had a long history of living with mental illness when he was sentenced to time in an Illinois prison. He has had a litany of diagnoses, including bipolar disorder and PTSD, and a history of self-harm going back to when he was just 7 years old. When he was locked inside prison at age 19, his mental health deteriorated. He lashed out at a fellow prisoner and he said he was sent to solitary where he was in a cell 23 hours a day, seven days a week.

“It caused me to go into the dark places that I never want to ever go again,” Knox said. “It put me in a mind frame where I didn’t care about anyone or anything. I just gave up. I had lost all hope.”

In solitary, Knox mutilated himself and attempted suicide multiple times. Other times he’d yell or throw things at staff. That too, he said, was a kind of self-harm. If he provoked staff, they may rush into his cell and violently drag him out. Those interactions gave him the painful sensations he craved, and he hoped maybe one day an officer might kill him so it could be over.

Christopher Knox says his mental health deteriorated quickly during his time in solitary confinement. Shannon Heffernan / WBEZ

During 17 years in solitary, Knox was criminally charged for spitting on an officer and was sentenced to an extra five years behind bars. His conviction for kicking a guard added four more years. A conviction for throwing liquid soap at a guard’s face landed him another six. As he continued to get in trouble, what started out as an anticipated 11 years in prison turned into a projected 41 years behind bars, according to data from the Illinois Prison Project, an advocacy organization.

Jennifer Soble, executive director of the Prison Project, said she can’t imagine that Knox would have been charged with new offenses behind bars, let alone multiple cases, if he hadn’t spent so many years in solitary with little to no mental health treatment.

The project currently represents 43 clients it says have similar stories to Knox. They were all convicted of staff assaults, many for spitting or throwing urine on staff. According to Soble, all their clients have mental illness, and about 60% were on suicide watch at the time of the crime.

Soble said the prison environment, especially solitary, exacerbates people’s mental illnesses, and then the prison system punishes them for it. The punishments can be severe. The prison project said its clients have had an average of 15 additional years added to the time they expect to serve in prison — collectively, an additional 842 years.

This week the prison project plans to file 43 petitions for commutation that, if approved by the governor, would move up their release dates.

“This group is arguably some of the most vulnerable people in the prison system,” Soble said. “We can’t erase the psychological and physical harm many of them have suffered because of their time in solitary, however we hope to spare our clients hundreds of years of additional prison time.”

The Illinois Department of Corrections did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But staff assaults are a persistent problem. According to data from department reports, there is an average of more than 50 per month in 28 corrections facilities statewide.

Many of those occur at Pontiac Correctional Center, a prison about two hours outside of Chicago, where people with some of the most serious mental illness and disciplinary histories are housed. When Pontiac prison officials seek criminal charges for assaults, the cases end up on Randy Yedinak’s desk. Yedinak, the Livingston County state’s attorney, chooses which cases to charge.

He said that victims also deserve their day in court. “Contrary to popular belief, correctional officers do not sign up for this type of behavior when they choose to wear the uniform. It is not part of their job to be physically assaulted, have urine or feces thrown on them or be spat upon. They don’t deserve it. Simply put — it is a crime,” Yedinak said.

But Soble said the best way to reduce the violence is to end the conditions that make it more likely prisoners will act out — like solitary.

“They’re not doing these things because they’re evil”

report from the United Nations said the prolonged use of solitary confinement can trigger psychological suffering, especially for prisoners who already had experienced trauma or struggled with mental health conditions. The report found that in such cases solitary can amount to torture. And in Illinois, experts say prisoners in solitary frequently report depression, bouts of anger and feelings of impending breakdown. Some experienced hallucinations, and more than one even reported playing with their own feces.

Anthony Gay said he understands why staff, and people on the outside, may hear about prisoners throwing urine and feces and assume that they are monsters that need to be disciplined. Gay said he spent two decades in solitary, and he now advocates for its elmination in Illinois. He said people in solitary are so hungry for social contact that even a guard dragging them out of their cell can feel like a relief.

“They’re not doing these things because they’re evil. They’re not doing these things because they hate correctional officers. They’re doing these things because they’re miserable,” he said.

While he was locked in solitary, Gay said he would cut himself so he could have some feeling of stimulation. And that was the same reason he would act out against staff, sometimes throwing urine at them. He wanted to provoke them.

“When they beat you up, you feel alive,” he said. “When they spray you with mace and it’s burning your skin, you come to realize, yeah, you’re still human. You’re still alive.”

The Illinois House passed a bill, named after Gay, that would prohibt the state from isolating prisoners for more than 10 days in a six-month period. But the bill has since stalled in the Senate.

The Uptown People’s Law Center, a Chicago nonprofit legal organization that focuses on prison litigation, is also seeking to eliminate long-term solitary in Illinois. They filed a class-action lawsuit arguing that the current use of solitary violates the constitutional rights of prisoners.

Jennifer Soble, executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, says people with mental illness are among the most vulnerable members of the prison population. Rob Wildeboer / WBEZ

Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Corrections reports it has reduced the use of solitary, or what it calls “restrictive housing.” In October 2020, the state implemented new rules limiting how long someone could be kept in restrictive housing and outlining minimum guidelines for mental health care.

Anders Lindall, a spokesperson for AFSCME 31, a union that represents guards and other corrections staff, said when Illinois prisons do impose solitary now, it’s not in the kind of horrible conditions that some people might imagine with absolute sensory deprivation, and no contact with other prisoners or staff. He argued “a safe and effective system needs the ability to use corrective — not punitive — measures to encourage good outcomes and discourage bad outcomes.”

Soble with the Illinois Prison Project acknowledges the department has made progress in limiting solitary, but said even if solitary is reduced or eliminated, the state still needs to do something about the men facing extra years and decades behind bars because of the way the state was using isolation.

Getting people out

The Prison Project’s strategy is two-fold. The group is filing petitions for sentence commutations on behalf of prisoners with serious mental illness who are serving time for crimes they committed while locked up. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker has the unilateral power to grant those commutations. Asked about the Prison Project’s efforts, a spokesperson for the governor simply said, “The governor regularly reviews requests for clemency and will continue to review requests as they are made.”

The union for staff said it does not generally take positions on sentencing commutations, but said any effective system must have tools to discourage bad behavior, including assaults on staff or other prisoners.

The second part of the Prison’s Project’s strategy is harder to follow because of complicated state rules.

When people are sentenced in Illinois, most are entitled to so-called good time credits that can cut their sentence in half. But those credits can be taken away.

That’s what happened to Knox. Not only was he getting criminally prosecuted for assault charges, but the prison was also taking away his sentence credits.

The threat of losing “good time” is supposed to deter prisoners from acting out. But Knox said solitary put him in such a dark mind frame that the punishment did nothing to discourage his violent behavior.

“I didn’t care about going home. … I had lost hope. I thought I was going to die in prison,” Knox said.

But while Knox was locked up, the Uptown People’s Law Center won a legal victory that required the Department of Corrections to improve access to therapy and medication. Knox said he was able to see a counselor, get on the right medication and leave solitary. He stopped getting so many tickets for lashing out against staff. But the punishment for his previous actions remained — years more behind bars.

A solitary confinement cell at Pontiac Correctional Center. Photo taken from court filing in Davis v. Jeffreys

The Prison Project got involved in Knox’s case. They wrote letters and advocated to have his good time restored. The prison gave him back three years of good time credits, according to Soble and in 2020, Knox went home. Soble said the Department of Corrections has new rules that make it easier for people to have their good time restored, something she praised.

Besides Knox, the Prison Project says eight of their clients were released after they advocated for the department to restore their credits. But the group says there is still a long way to go.

After going home, Knox got a job at a factory putting together COVID-19 protective gear. He talks to his therapist three times a week.

“I’m trying to make the best of it that I can,” Knox said.

But Knox hasn’t forgotten his friends that are still locked inside.

“A lot of them are still being denied adequate mental health treatment due to lack of staff, and they are still dealing with solitary confinement,” he said. “A lot of people are still suffering, you know, and it needs to stop.”

Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter. Follow her @shannon_h.

Worth reading: Attorneys, and ACMI Board members, Josh Mozell and Holly Gieszl wrote an in-depth piece about Arizona’s mental illness treatment system in this award-winning magazine. They focus on the 55 bed limit for Maricopa County at the Arizona State Hospital (ASH).  They discuss the community treatment and the true interpretation of Olmstead. *Begins page 40. #mentalhealth #mentalillness #Arizona

On page 80 is an interview with the infamous Chic Arnold. Well done!

Arizona Attorney – September 2021 – Special Focus on Mental Health Law

Arizona Attorney Magazine
Arizona Attorney – September 2021 – Special Focus on Mental Health Law

ARIZONA ATTORNEY MAGAZINE is the award-winning monthly publication of the State Bar of Arizona – providing a window into Arizona’s legal community with a global viewpoint.

Most folks reading our blog know the long disturbing history of how we have gotten to such a sad place in the US in our treatment of people with serious mental illnesses. You may find it interesting, as I did, to learn that President Reagan made a major change (see below), which resulted in diminished community resources.

“That began to change shortly after Ronald Regan was elected president in 1980. He ended earmarking of federal funds for this system of community mental health centers and instead substituted block grants to the states that they could use at their discretion. Almost all the states acted badly, cutting taxes rather than using the federal funding as before for community mental health.”

We need a federal plan that also involves the removal of the IMD exclusion. This mental health treatment exclusion is a parity violation. There is no such restriction on the length of stay or the number of medical beds in hospitals for medical conditions. Learn more about parity laws.

We need to focus on the people with SMI and not just general mental health!!

ACMI Board

Original article published by StatNews  on July 9th by Allen Frances

Original article

the Brain
Image by Adobe

President Biden’s ambitious infrastructure plan has a glaring omission: It makes no effort to redress the awful reality that the United States has the worst mental health infrastructure of any country in the developed world.

People with mental illness, their families, and society at large are suffering the tragic consequences of four decades of mental health defunding and privatization: 90% of psychiatric beds have been closed; the once-wonderful system of publicly funded community mental health centers has been gutted; crisis response teams are almost nonexistent; and the available pool of affordable housing meets only a fraction of what’s needed.

In the Middle Ages, people with severe mental illness were often chained in prisons, begged on the street, or languished in poor houses. In modern America, 350,000 people with mental illness are in jails or prisons (often for nuisance crimes that could easily have been avoided had treatment been available); 250,000 of them are homeless; and the average life span of those with severe mental illness is 20 years less than that of the general population. The rate of dying from Covid-19 was three time higher among people with schizophrenia than in the general community — the second biggest risk factor after age.

Law enforcement officers, sheriffs, and judges have become the most vocal critics of the brutal criminalization of mental illness and are now among the strongest advocates for improved community treatment and housing. Forcing scared and untrained police officers to be first responders for people with untreated mental illness puts them in untenable positions and is partly responsible for police brutality and shootings. People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to die during a police encounter than other civilians.

And once in jail, people with mental health issues are difficult to manage, deteriorate further, spend disproportionate time in solitary confinement, and have prolonged stays (especially since they have no place to go and no treatment if released).

How did the U.S. get into this mess? Massive and rapid deinstitutionalization of people with mental health issues began in the late 1950s for several reasons: partly because effective antipsychotics had been discovered; partly as a humanitarian response to the horrors of the overcrowded “snake pit” state psychiatric hospitals; partly as a cost-cutting method (since mental health was often the biggest and most tempting item in state budgets).

The “new approach to mental illness” that President John F. Kennedy called for in a 1963 speech, which resulted in his signing into law the Community Mental Health Centers Act later that year, was a response to the great disruption caused by the rapid closure of the huge state hospitals. Community services were meant to provide a better life for people with mental illness at less cost to the states.

My first job working in a community mental health center in 1973 in New York City was thrilling. Patients who had languished for decades in state hospitals were able to enjoy much more normal lives with the benefits of medication and inclusion in the community. The U.S. became the world leader in community psychiatry and I was proud to be a psychiatrist.

That began to change shortly after Ronald Regan was elected president in 1980. He ended earmarking of federal funds for this system of community mental health centers and instead substituted block grants to the states that they could use at their discretion. Almost all the states acted badly, cutting taxes rather than using the federal funding as before for community mental health.

And the money saved by closing the expensive state psychiatric hospitals rarely followed patients into their communities to provide badly needed treatment and housing. Community mental services either closed or were privatized, and the newly private services routinely refused care to people with severe mental illness because they were usually uninsured and always very expensive to treat.

Eventually, deinstitutionalization turned into reinstitutionalization as prisons replaced hospitals as the biggest line item in state budgets. Under Reagan, the U.S. quickly went from having the best system of community psychiatric care in the world to the worst, and things have further deteriorated ever since.

It is not clear how much of Biden’s extensive physical and human infrastructure rebuilding plan will eventually be enacted into law. But it is crystal clear that rebuilding our country’s shamefully lacking mental health system is not part of the plan.

It is also clear why. Powerful lobbying forces in Washington are fiercely jostling to capture the money allocated to the infrastructure program. Whatever emerges will reflect how much political and economic muscle each industry can exert on the politicians doing the horse trading. In this battle of the titans, people with mental illness are voiceless and their advocacy groups lack political and economic muscle.

The care of people with severe mental illness is necessarily a public responsibility that has been neglected in our primarily for-profit private health care system. The United States has shirked this public responsibility more than any other developed nation on earth. The Biden plan is a sad lost opportunity to play catch-up on desperately needed mental health services and its exclusion of mental health means there is no hope in sight.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that a nation’s greatness is judged by how it treats its weakest members. By this standard, the United States is morally bankrupt and the very opposite of great.

Allen Frances is a psychiatrist, professor and chair emeritus of the Duke University Department of Psychiatry, and was chair of the DSM-IV Task Force from 1987 to 1994.

Photo by Geesling Photography

We have an underclass in Arizona  – our chronically mentally ill, most of whom suffer from schizophrenia.  Society treats this sliver of people with serious mental illness just as cruelly and inhumanely as the lepers of antiquity or the untouchables of India. Many of these persons have no shelter, no bed, no toilet, no shower or bathtub, no running water, no electricity, and no reliable access to food, clean water, or medical care unless they are in jail.

Our public mental health care system is organized for and provides exemplary care for the 90% of Seriously Mentally Ill (“SMI”) persons who have insight into their illness and are mostly compliant with treatment.  But, some SMI persons are chronic, i.e., they are so ill they believe the voices in their heads and their delusions are real, they suffer anosognosia (inability to recognize one’s clinically evident mental illness). They are mostly non-compliant with treatment.  So, they recycle, repeatedly, through treatment programs, emergency rooms, hospitals, the streets, and jails in a hellish existence. Their physical and mental health deteriorates as their families abandon them or become exhausted, struggling to get care for them, and are blocked at every turn.

This underclass results from myths about mental illness, which permeate much of our public mental health care system and block chronically mentally persons from desperately needed care.  As the father of a chronically mentally ill adult, I personally have been told each of the comments paraphrased in quotes below:

  1. Recovery myth: “All persons with SMI can recover and lead a normal life.” In reality, chronic mental illness is more like diabetes and can be managed but rarely, if ever, cured.
  2. Compliance myth: “All persons with SMI can ‘recover’ by complying with treatment in short-term residential programs, community living programs or independent living with ‘wrap-around’ services, combined, as needed, with assertive community treatment (‘ACT’) and occasional involuntary treatment (i.e., injections and short-term hospitalizations), regardless of the severity of their illness.” “He fails to recover because he chooses not to comply with our treatment protocols and rules, so he cannot continue in our treatment program.”  The most severely ill are denied treatment because of the severity of their illness.
  3. Acuity myth: “SMI does not impair her ability to make good decisions and is no excuse for her inappropriate behavior.” In reality, schizophrenia is a physiological impairment of the brain which does affect judgment and behavior.
  4. Fairness myth: “All adults with SMI should be allowed to make their own medical decisions, to refuse treatment, to choose homelessness and never should be subjected to long-term involuntary care, regardless of the severity of their illness.” “Removing such liberty is unfair discrimination against the mentally ill.”
  5. Substance use myth: “It’s just illicit drugs.” ”We cannot treat his mental illness until he overcomes his substance use problem.”  In reality, 75% of SMI persons who are chronically afflicted self-medicate with illicit substances for temporary relief from painful symptoms at some point in their life, which exacerbates their illness.

These myths coalesce into an unconscious, sometimes deliberate, and often-denied culture of blocking chronically-afflicted persons from care because “he won’t comply”; “he uses drugs”; or, “he’s an adult and makes his own choices.”  In reality, she thinks the voices and delusions are real, and hence she cannot participate consistently in the treatment offered to the other 90% of SMI persons who have insight.  She needs a caring system free of these myths, more flexible, more attuned to her individual needs, and more accountable to the public.  And, she might even need long-term involuntary treatment, opponents of which sincerely believe and use these myths to block expansion of such treatment, unwittingly keeping this underclass in our streets and jails.

Dick Dunseath, father of a chronically mentally ill adult son  /  Carefree, Arizona

Founding member of ACMI board

Photo from April 13, 2021, 12 news https://kvoa.com/news/top-stories

The recent murder of one mentally ill patient by another mentally patient in a Gilbert, Arizona Behavioral Health Residential Facility brings into sharp focus the importance of careful placement and diligent supervision of individuals living with chronic mental illness. Of course, the complete facts surrounding the tragic death of 49-year-old Steven Howells, apparently at the hands of Christopher Lambeth, are not yet known. What is known is that Lambeth “stepped down” to a facility with only hours of staffing daily, and the alleged murder occurred when no staff was present.

A critical unknown known fact is whether Lambeth was medication and treatment adherent. Also, whether his behaviors began deteriorating in the prior days or weeks without an intervention by his treatment team or whether this deterioration (if any happened) was even noticed by staff during the mere 8-hours daily they were present in the home (assuming staff was, indeed, present). The critical known fact is that Arizona’s Psychiatric Security Board did not hear from a psychiatrist or psychologist and acted without a Risk Assessment, a formal report on the risk of violence by someone in a new environment, for example, a residence with minimal staffing.

Thankfully, Senator Nancy Barto is trying to make the community safer for all patients with her PSRB reform bill.

The profound tragedy of the Tilda Manor murder is that it is two-fold:

  1. One patient is dead, and the accused patient faces horrific criminal charges.
  2. The behavioral health system failed each of these men.

 

SB1030 — The PSRB Bill. With agreed-upon floor amendments, this bill will not have a budget impact. It reforms the Psychiatric Security Review Board and will have a significant impact on Public Safety. You can read more about this important work in a recent Op-Ed published in the Arizona Capitol Times.

Please take a moment to email or call your State Representatives and senators and ask them to support this bill! Every email or phone call matters and makes a huge difference!! Thank You!

Here is a link to find your AZ Representative’s and Senator’s email. You can also quickly email all House and Senate members through this site:

The Arizona Peoples Lobbyist – Your Voice – Your Choice (azpeopleslobbyist.com)

Holly Gieszl

ACMI founding board member


Tragedy strengthens effort to eliminate board

By: Kyra Haas Arizona Capitol Times May 14, 2021

https://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2021/05/14/tragedy-strengthens-effort-to-eliminate-board/

Sen. Nancy Barto is spearheading an effort to abolish the state board that decides whether those who commit serious crimes but were found guilty except insane are fit to return to the community.

The effort gained urgency after a man allegedly beat another resident of his Gilbert group home to death last month – 15 years after he killed his own grandparents and less than a year after the Arizona Psychiatric Security Review Board decided after a brief hearing that he needed less supervision.

Legislative efforts to reform the board fell short last year, but have picked up steam this session. SB1029 looks to reform the board, and SB1030 would sunset it and move the board’s duties back to the courts in 2023.

Barto, R-Phoenix, said the two bills – which are waiting for a floor vote in the House – are being rolled into one. SB1030 will have the reforms outlined in SB1029 while still dissolving the board in a couple years.

Barto said she’d been hearing concerns about the board for years. When she attended a board meeting to see for herself how it operated, she described it as “haphazard” and unusual.

“It’s hard to overestimate how lack of rules, really has potentially and actually harmed the public in this instance; we need to rectify it,” she said.

Christopher Lambeth, 37, last appeared in front of the board in August 2020. Previously committed to the Arizona State Hospital after being found guilty except insane in his grandparents’ murder, Lambeth had been living in a transitional facility in Tucson. At the August hearing, which lasted 20 minutes, his request to move to the Phoenix area was unanimously approved and he was placed in a home with only eight hours of supervision a day.

Advocates say the subsequent tragedy was preventable, but predictable, and that it speaks to a litany of problems with the board and how it’s run. They say the board handles cases inconsistently, provides inadequate time for clients and attorneys to prepare for hearings and has insufficient written guidelines and procedures.

Holly Gieszl, a founding member of the Association for the Chronically Mentally Ill, said Lambeth’s case was a prime example of the board’s dysfunction. Gieszl often attends board meetings to represent her own clients, and she remembers Lambeth’s August hearing setting off alarm bells at the time.

“Chris comes in, they don’t have a risk assessment; they don’t hear from a physician or psychologist, and they let him go to an eight-hour house,” Gieszl said. “Seven months later, he murdered someone.”

Board members are appointed by the governor. The board is headed by a retired psychiatrist and has a psychiatrist, psychologist, parole officer and a public member. The board is responsible for deciding whether those who committed serious crimes but were found guilty except insane are fit to be discharged from the state hospital. It is also tasked with monitoring the progress of those on conditional release from the hospital. The board deals with roughly 100 cases a year.

Some of the issues flagged by Gieszl and others were also noted in a 2018 auditor general report. The report stated that the board needed to develop rules and policies to guide its work, issue orders and notices as statutorily required and make sure it was getting consistent information on the patients’ mental health before making decisions.

It also stated that some mental health reports were much more detailed than others, with some offering only “general conclusion statements with little or no support.”

“The lack of sufficient information jeopardizes the Board’s ability to make timely and consistent decisions regarding GEI (guilty except insane) persons,” the report stated.

While board chairman Dr. James Clark has said that the board completed the recommendations outlined by the audit, advocates disagree and also want more changes.

“What the PSRB has not changed at all is the way that it has gone about assessing risk before it releases somebody,” Gieszl said, adding that her organization is backing the legislation to address those inadequacies.

Among the changes proposed in the legislation are placing a retired judge as the chair of the board, giving a 45-day notice to patients before hearings and having the board explain its decisions on each patient. After the board sunsets in 2023, the cases would be transferred to the Superior Court where the person was sentenced as guilty except insane.

Barto said that in stakeholder meetings, board members were resistant to any sort of change.

“I think they just really think that the status quo is working,” Barto said. “When you look at what just happened, unfortunately, we’ve known this is coming, something like the tragedy that happened with Mr. Lambeth and who he killed. It’s unfortunate that we have such a prime example of the board’s inability to make a better determination of this man’s future.”

Clark declined an interview, instead referring to his presentations to the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Criminal Justice Reform Committee. He declined to comment on whether the board handled Lambeth’s case appropriately.

“(D)oing away with the PSRB and having Superior Courts assume jurisdiction and monitoring/oversight/supervision of individuals adjudicated Guilty Except Insane, as SB1030 proposes, would be a major policy change, a step backwards and would add an extra burden on the Superior Courts that is unnecessary,” Clark said in his written statement.

Please join us to learn about the “Mapping the Costs of Serious Mental Illness” which was a two-year study commissioned by ACMI to determine various costs associated with serious mental illness. There will be a presentation followed by a Q & A session.

Register Now

Register in advance for this meeting: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZYldOyrrjoqHdEvH6ccSIvuuvhqjVOG6_IJ

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

Photo by Issac Geesling

Weekend Legislative Roundup.

The following bills that seek to enhance the well-being of individuals and families with chronic mental illness in Arizona continue to move forward. Here’s where they stand and how you can help:

SB1059 – Clarifies current law requires that a person with mental illness and substance use diagnosis must be evaluated and not summarily dismissed due to the presence of drugs. The intention is to make treatment consistent.

Status: Passed in the Senate. Passed out of House Committees, currently waiting to go to House floor for a vote. Email all House members.

Action: Call and/or email your AZ Representatives. Email the Governor’s office and ask for his support.

SB1142 – A tax incentive bill for employers who hire people with serious mental illness. Sets the credit amount at $2 for each hour worked by an SMI employee during the calendar year, not to exceed $20,000, tax-paying business owner. Government agencies excluded.

Status: Passed in the Senate. To be heard in the House Appropriations Committee this Tuesday, 3/30, for a vote.

Action: Call and/or email the House Appropriations Committee members (emails below) and ask them to support.  Call and/or email your AZ Representatives. Email the Governor’s office and ask for his support.

SB1716 – Currently, only 55 patients from Maricopa County can be at the Arizona State Hospital (ASH) — even when there are empty beds. ASH will no longer limit the number of patients who can be admitted based on the county where the patient lives. Admission should be based on clinical needs.

Reforms the existing ASH Governing Body (Governing Body) to operate without conflicts of interest: Most members will NO LONGER be employees of the Department of Health Services, which oversees ASH. Requires that the Chair of the Independent Oversight Committee (IOC) be invited to Board meetings and provided quarterly reports about human rights violations with patients. Improves transparency — requires Governing Body file annual reports with the Legislature that describe the treatment provides and what is working.

Patient safety improvement: ASH has an outmoded video surveillance system that puts patient safety at risk. We need a better surveillance system.  The bill requires ASH to maintain a surveillance system with video and audio and appropriates $500,000 to do so. ASH administration has requested a new system last year and is currently in a Request for Proposal.

Status: Passed in the Senate. To be heard in the House Appropriations Committee this Tuesday, 3/30, for a vote.

Action: Call and/or email the House Appropriations Committee members (emails below) and ask them to support. Call and/or email your AZ Representatives. Email the Governor’s office and ask for his support.

SB1029 & SB1030 – Psychiatric security review board (PSRB) bill, SB1029, requires more information and reports for the Board to ensure that it treats patients fairly and protects the public. The Board now operates without enough information on patients when it makes decisions. The bill has a retired judge become the Chair, so the Board operates by fair rules.

Because the PSRB Board opposes any changes and claims that it operates perfectly, SB1030 ends the PSRB and sends the functions that the PSRB performs to the Superior Court in each county. This saves the state money and will ensure that patients get a fair hearing in front of a judge who follows the law.

Status: Passed in the Senate. Passed in the House Committees, waiting to go to the House floor for a vote.

Action: Call and/or email your AZ Representatives. Email the Governor’s office and ask for his support.

Here is a link to find AZ Representative’s email:

The Arizona Peoples Lobbyist – Your Voice – Your Choice (azpeopleslobbyist.com)

SB1786 – Prisoner Mental Health Transition Bill.

Status: Passed in the Senate. Passed in the House Committees, waiting to go to the House floor for a vote.

Action: Call and/or email your AZ Representatives. Email the Governor’s office and ask for his support.

SCR1018 – A Concurrent Resolution expresses support for community-based efforts to provide clinically appropriate care to individuals with chronic serious mental illness.

Status: Passed in the Senate. Passed in the House Committees, waiting to go to the House floor for a vote.

Action: Call and/or email your AZ Representatives. Email the Governor’s office and ask for his support.

Here is a link to find AZ Representative’s email:

The Arizona Peoples Lobbyist – Your Voice – Your Choice (azpeopleslobbyist.com)

ACMI would like to thank Senator Nancy Barto, the sponsor of these bills, for her tireless and heroic work on behalf of individuals and families living with chronic mental illness in Arizona! When you have an opportunity, please thank her as well.

We realize that everyone’s life is full; if you are unable to call or email but still want to help the chronically mentally ill, you can partner with us financially. ACMI is a group of dedicated volunteers; no one receives a salary. Your gift will go directly toward improving the well-being of people living with chronic mental illness.

Please contact your legislators by this Monday morning.

Here is a link to find their email:

The Arizona Peoples Lobbyist – Your Voice – Your Choice (azpeopleslobbyist.com)

Or call the Governor’s office at 1-602-542-4331 or email engage@az.gov

House Appropriations Committee members:

César Chávez                     cchavez@azleg.gov

Regina E. Cobb                 rcobb@azleg.gov

Charlene R. Fernandez     cfernandez@azleg.gov

Randall Friese                    rfriese@azleg.gov

Jake Hoffman                    jhffman@azleg.gov

Steve Kaiser                       skaiser@azleg.gov

John Kavanagh                  jkavanagh@azleg.gov

Aaron Lieberman             alieberman@azleg.gov

Quang H. Nguyen             qnguyen@azleg.gov

Becky A. Nutt                     bnutt@azleg.gov

Joanne Osborne               josborne@azleg.gov

Judy Schwiebert               jschwiebert@azleg.gov

Michelle Udall                   mudall@azleg.gov

 

Your partnership in helping the chronically mentally ill and their families in our state is so appreciated, thank you!

Thank you,

 ACMI Board