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Those who puzzle us are often left out in the cold

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002

Some problems, in fact quite a lot of them, in our society don't get fixed. They wax and wane in the light of publicity spawned by things like congressional hearings, and then, several hundred thousand cubic feet of hot air later, remain on the unsolved list.

We've done it with drug prices for the elderly, medical care for the poor and, as evidenced by what happened in Citrus County last week, adequate care for those who are, frequently through mental illness, unable to cope with life.

Robert Fremer, a 48-year-old Inverness man, allegedly walked into a Circle K, took a six-pack of beer, told the clerk he wouldn't be paying for it and, as reported by my colleague, Carrie Johnson, sat down to wait for police to take him to jail, a place he called "home."

Fremer isn't the only person with a history of mostly minor crime and mental health problems for whom the only choice is jail.

It goes back to the 1970s when enterprising journalists across the country began discovering what were called "mandamus patients," people committed to mental hospitals for a variety of reasons, some of them having nothing to do with mental illness. I remember the case of a Chinese man charged with a murder in an opium den who was committed by a judge who thought his language was gibberish. A colleague of mine back then, Howard Wolinsky, found out that the guy hadn't committed the crime and had been unfairly locked up in a state hospital for decades.

There were people who had been committed as children because they were unwanted. There were also speech- and hearing-impaired people had been fine until they were locked up for 40 or 50 years, only because they had been unable to communicate.

There was an immediate move to free the bulk of mental patients and replace hospitalization with a network of community clinics where medication and therapy could be dispensed to persons living in loving homes or, in some cases, independently.

That system worked fine for some, but for others, the problem is that the pendulum swung too far. Too many people who should be institutionalized aren't and the criteria for involuntary hospitalization in most cases now demands that the patient, when examined, present a direct threat to himself or others.

A man in Pasco County, who was charged with raping a woman and killing her by stabbing her 74 times, was found not guilty because of insanity in 1981. He had a degenerative brain disorder that made him dangerous only when he drank. When he was acquitted, prosecutors sought to have him committed, but he had been in jail for two years without alcohol, and, therefore, didn't meet the criteria. He was set free.

And so, while society struggles to find the balance between hospitalizing the wrong people and not hospitalizing the right ones, people such as Robert Fremer live in a world where jail is the best place to be.

I met Fuzzy Griffin one cold night in the early 1970s when he tried to get into jail by stealing a woman's collard greens from her back yard and sitting on a crate full of them in the middle of the street waiting for police to arrest him.

When that failed, Griffin, who was homeless and had a few strange psychological quirks, such as collecting stolen lawn mowers, went downtown, and threw a brick through a jewelry store window, finally gaining admission to the jail he also frequently called home.

Griffin, still homeless at 78, became a national flash-in-the-pan cause celebre in 1987 when he was charged with armed robbery. He told a convenience store clerk that he had a gun (which she never saw) as he stole a $1.99 sandwich.

He wound up being convicted of petty theft and being sentenced to the 31/2 months he had already spent in jail where he, at least, had a safe, warm place to sleep and three unstolen meals per day.

The body of society can continue to ignore those parts of it that it finds disquieting or puzzling, but ignoring them won't make them go away.

Elections are coming up. The next time a congressional or state legislative candidate starts pumping your hand, ask what plans he or she has to take care of the elderly, the very young, the disadvantaged and for the members of our society who are too mentally ill fend for themselves.

See if you hear answers.

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