The Criminalization of People With Mental Illness in America: A Matter of Human Rights | Ginger Lerner-Wren

It proved to be a bittersweet Mental Health Awareness Month this May 2015. As mental health advocates posted articles and assembled educational community forums, Human Rights Watch shocked America with the truth. A 127-page investigative report describes a criminal justice system in America and its use of excessive force, even systemically brutal and malicious. The report, “Callous and Cruel: Use of Force Against Inmates With Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons,” charges in no uncertain terms that, “Jails and prisons staff throughout the United States have used unnecessary, excessive and even malicious force against prisoners with mental disabilities.”

According to Jamie Fellner, U.S. program senior advisor at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, “Force is used against prisoners even when, because of their illness, they cannot understand or comply with staff orders.” The report is essentially a compilation of the multitude of individual cases and class actions, Justice Department investigations and interviews with over 100 correction officials and use of force experts. The report includes the death of Damen Rainey, a 50-year-old inmate who was locked in a shower, which according to the Miami Herald, “had been converted to a torture chamber at Dade County Correctional Institution.” Additional alleged atrocities uncovered by The Herald describe a pervasive culture of mental and physical abuse, which includes a starvation squad, racial beatings, sexual assaults and threats of retaliation if complaints were filed. The Department of Justice and FBI are investigating.

One can understand why Broward’s pioneering Mental Health Court was established as a human rights model. With the release of this latest Human Rights Watch report, it is more than fair to say that all mental health courts should embrace a human rights framework. So what does that mean? It means that although, for example the U.S. has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities those fidelities can become aspirational values and embedded within the court process. That dignity is promoted and due process and equal rights under the law protected. It means that individual substantive constitutional rights are preserved and all statutory entitlements and legal protections against abuse, neglect and harm are advanced. Further, a human rights orientation respects individual choice and ensures these principles of dignity and self-determination are braided through all operational and procedural constructs of the court process. More importantly, there is authenticity and urgency to the court’s therapeutic mission of diversion from the criminal justice system to community based system of care. Of course, public safety and victim’s rights are paramount judicial considerations which must be balanced.

America stands at a crossroads. As the Human Rights Watch report informs us, jails and prisons are unsuitable substitutes for psychiatric hospitals or residential programs. They can be dangerous and potentially deadly. In America, hundreds of thousands of people with serious mental illness are being housed in our nation’s jails and prisons. Many due to untreated mental illness, stigma and severely underfunded and fragmented state-wide systems of behavioral health care.

It is true, prison guards and jail correction officers are not trained social workers or mental health practitioners. The use of excessive force and other abusive practices must be investigated and perpetrators held accountable. The criminalization of people with serious mental illness has been a source of epic human suffering, victimization and economic loss. It is worthy to note that Florida, the 3rd largest state, has defiantly rejected Medicaid expansion funds and stands at 49th funded in the United States. The correlation between failed governmental policies of deinstitutionalization and the resulting criminalization of people with mental illness is well settled.

It is beyond time to reject criminalization as an acceptable substitute for the funding and development of qualitative and recovery focused community based systems of care. It is time to recognize that America’s human stain — is one of basic human rights.

Pictures from the 2014 NAMIWalks Broward County

NAMIWalks Broward County 2014 was amazing — it was a beautiful day and we had over 800 people in attendance! It was heart-warming and inspiring to see so many dedicated advocates and supporters united for the cause of raising awareness about mental illness. We are deeply grateful for the support and generosity the Walk has received. Thank you!

With music provided by DJ Crash Tandy, our emcee for the day, our own Executive Director, Kat Campbell, Honorary Walk Chairs Sheriff Scott Israel and Chief Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, an energetic warm up with Joyce Simmons and an amazing performance of the national anthem performed by Cassidy Shooster it was a day full of good times. NAMI Broward also received a proclamation from Coconut Creek  Mayor Lisa Aronson.  Special thanks to the Broward Sheriff’s Office for all their support.


We had plenty of food, water and FUN! Just a reminder the fundraising continues for 60 days after the walk. It’s a good idea to touch base with the people you solicited for donations and let them know what a great time we had and that it’s not too late to contribute. We are still working on reaching our goal so if you have not yet donated and would like to lend your support please follow click on to


Thank you to all of our sponsors, teams, participants, donors and volunteers for making the 2th Annual NAMI Walk on Saturday, November 8 our most successful Walk ever! Late donations are still being accepted online or mailed to: NAMI Broward County Attn: NAMI Walk 4161 NW Fifth Street, Suite 203 Plantation, FL 33317

The funds raised will allow our affiliate  to continue to expand our educational programs and support groups in Broward County.


To see pictures from the 2014 Walk click on the link below:


More pictures from the 2013 NAMI Walk, South Florida. Enjoy!

More pictures from the 2013 NAMI Walk, South Florida. Enjoy!

Graduation from the Family to Family class in Spanish

Graduation from the Family to Family class in Spanish

November 15 ·

Photos of the graduation from the Family to Family class in Spanish. Thanks to everyone who took part and our volunteer instructor. Friends and support are made this way. Gracias!

Our Photos

NAMI Walk Attracts Over 700 Participants in its First Year!

NAMI Walk Attracts Over 700 Participants in its First Year!

Every journey begins with that first step! A tremendous “Thank You!” to everyone who joined in on Saturday’s Walk at Tradewinds Park. It was an amazing show of support and raised funds and awareness for NAMI South Florida programs.

As NAMIWalks celebrates its first walk in South Florida, we are proud to be the largest and most successful mental illness awareness event in America! Through NAMIWalks’ public, active display of support for people affected by mental illness, we are changing our American communities and ensuring that help and hope are available for those in need.

Plan on joining us again next year! Let’s keep the momentum going!

Have a Smartphone? Fundraising and managing your fundraising page is easy on our new fundraising app. Download for free. Visit the site and get the app!

Call the office at 954-739-1888 or email NAMIBroward

Official Website:

Every journey begins with that first step!
Our Amazing Sponsors

Gold Sponsor: Magellan Complete Care

Silver Sponsors: Broward County Sheriff’s Office; On Call Public Relations

Start/Finish Line Sponsors: Palm Beach Kennel Club; Take Shape Plastic Surgery

Bronze Sponsors: Cenpatico; GEO Care; Henderson Behavioral Health; Nello Biordi; Keiser University

Supporting Sponsors: Global Response; Angels Heart-h-Hands; FootWorks; Gulf Coast Jewish & Family Community Services; Broward Health; Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale; Remix T-Shirt Company; and SeaWorld

Kilometer Sponsors: LifeSkills of South Florida; CBRE Brokerage; Allsup Alliances; and Biagi Engineering

NAMI newest Photo Album

Visit our photo album on Facebook. Take your own photos of NAMI events and we can post them too. Send to NAMIBroward for consideration



Mental Illness and Gun-control: A presentation by Pearl Bennette Atkin

Pearl Bennette Atkin is a NAMI Broward member who presented this moving talk below to the congregants at Temple Adath Or. She received a standing ovation and I am pleased to reprint her talk for all to read. –

Mental Illness and Gun-control

Good Shabbos! Hello—I’m Pearl Bennette Atkin—I’ve been with Rabbi Marc Labowitz and Temple Adath Or for more than 10 years—and I’m finally coming out to fight the “stigma” of having a daughter with Mental Illness! How many of you have a friend or relative that has heart problems? (— “Raise your hand!”) How many know of a relative or friend with cancer? (— “Raise your hand!”) But then, how many have a relative or friend that is or has been mentally Ill? (PLEASE— “Raise your hand!”) Well—certainly not too many people raise their hand for this last question—yet statistically one in four families are impacted in one way or another by Mental Illness—it is a brain disorder that early and proper attention and medication can be kept under control better than heart disease or cancer.

NAMI is the “National Alliance on Mental Illness” and has chapters all over the United States. Since the 1980’s I’ve been a member, then a group leader and counselor and now most recently a Board Member of NAMI—Broward County.

Florence Ross, of blessed memory—first president and Grand Bubby of TAO—gave me the blessing to be a Mentor to my Peers! Since our wise Rabbi Marc always says—“See the Good!”—maybe now Mental Illness will be addressed seriously (as will ways to attain better “Gun Control”)! Of course, my opinions and feelings about guns would be considered “radical” and “un-American” by the NRA (National Rifle Association)—as I believe that only police and soldiers-at-war should have guns! The Second Amendment was formulated when the guns were muskets that you loaded one-shell-at-a-time for firing—not the rapid automatic-firing AK-47 automatic and semi-automatic guns that are all around us now.

Certainly our beloved TAO community supports many needy causes: The homeless, the poor, abused women and children, and the coming together of different religions. But none focuses on the mentally ill—which may contribute to some of those same issues! I now ask you to join with me and NAMI in also helping the mentally ill.

In the late seventies and early eighties I was in the beginning of a new life and career as psychotherapist and sex therapist (—>Dr. Pearl!) With a new and loving husband, and two grown daughters. One was preparing to enter college—the other (the older one) was already working and married, when suddenly her marriage went awry and she went belly-up! I was in denial and struggled personally and professionally to help her find her way. She told her therapists—whom I provided—that “ my mother is a therapist” and so “you can’t tell me anything!”

Of course, most of the mentally ill are not dangerous except to themselves—depression, suicide and homelessness are usual outcomes if there is no community support, which lately there hasn’t been! Years ago people with mental illness were simply gathered up and hidden away in state institutions. Then in the 60’s and 70’s when tranquilizing medicine by the Pharmaceutical Companies flooded the market, the government was happy about this and closed down most of its Psychiatric Hospitals—and the mentally ill were put back into the community! The federal money thus saved was supposed to go back to the communities, but that never happened. Without any such help the Community and families couldn’t handle the Mentally Ill—and the mentally ill themselves often didn’t want or didn’t show up for their injections or pills—so lots of un-medicated, unhappy souls wandered the streets and a new population of Homelessness came into existence, living on the streets and under the bridges here in Florida.

Now it’s sad how the laws still have not moved quickly enough to help those unfortunate souls who strike out at themselves and others out of frustration and anger! (But maybe now that Mental Illness and Gun Control seem to be “more on the table”—so to speak—problems with mental illness issues will finally be addressed more seriously and effectively.) Many cannot help themselves, and eventually even good, helpful families stop helping because of being overwhelmed by the faulty laws and the bureaucratic system of poor help in emergency situations when people reach out for help for their family-members—and then are only given an appointment 2-3 weeks in the future—their mentally ill family member disappears or hurts themselves or other in the interim! Then “Baker-Acting” (involuntary commitment) only keeps them safe for 72 hours!

The stigma of mental illness is still with us even though there is much medicine and treatment that can help—just as there is for Heart disease and Cancer!

When my daughter went belly-up—she would come to the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan just before Shabbos—even when we were living in Northern Westchester! If Rabbi Shlomo was there he would send her off with a woman for a hot shower and a clean dress—he would sit her next to him at the Shabbos Table—treat her like the Shabbos Queen and put her up at a nearby hotel for Shabbos! There were several other unfortunate souls who came to the Shul—they were never turned away unless they were disruptive! We only learned about this months later and not from Shlomo—but we ourselves eventually noticed some coolness towards us from some of the Chevra. So the Stigma of Mental Illness permeated some of our so-called Spiritual Friends! We were hurt and devastated by their withdrawal and rejecting behavior—and that’s why we haven’t told you until now!

We’re hoping now in 2013 that a brain disorder—which we call “Mental Illness”—will lose its stigma, and these many unfortunate people will also be treated with care, respect, and dignity—just like heart-disease and cancer patients!

Paper by Pearl Bennette Atkin


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 769 other followers