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Apr 23

Atascadero State Hospital inmate stories

"In the long run a state hospital is worse than a prison, "  ASH patient. Published 11-20-1965 as part of a multi-part series on Atascadero State Hospital. Jim Vestal/Telegram Tribune.

“In the long run a state hospital is worse than a prison, ” ASH patient. Published 11-20-1965 as part of a multi-part series on Atascadero State Hospital. Jim Vestal/Telegram Tribune.

I have been told by some who work in a prison setting, they prefer not to know an inmate’s history. All they can deal with is the now. It could be overwhelming to reflect on the combined damage a group of mental health patients had caused.
In the mid-sixties a then new approach included group therapy. Under the leadership of social workers and therapists inmates reflected on what went wrong in the past under the theory that self-awareness and therapy could help prevent crime in the future.
This story from 1965 illustrates changing views on mental health and gives a window into a day at Atascadero State Hospital. The facility was about a decade old and a big change from the previous caged warehouse model.
In the mid-60s there was a hopeful viewpoint that the system could find cures to sociopathic behavior.
We are still a long way from a complete understanding of mental health.
Today, in response to the mixed results of 1960s and 70s prison terms are longer and doubt is not given as a benefit. Once in prison, courts, governors and parole boards are less likely to grant releases.
Another artifact in the article is the conflation of homosexuality with criminal behavior, though men quoted in the article show child molesters are a sub-set of both the heterosexual and homosexual population. It is clear from the tone of the article that coming out gay was not common or accepted at the time.
Having covered stories in both Atascadero State Hospital and California Men’s Colony I can’t determine which time is harder to serve. When the steel door snaps shut, freedom is on the outside.

People with big problems
By Bill King
Staff Writer

Mental sickness, a scourge of all nations, has encountered a formidable foe — Atascadero State Hospital.
While many state hospitals still reek with the hangover of the insane asylum era, offering little more than cages built for animals, Atascadero State Hospital is the new breed of institutions — a complex factory for repairing warped minds.
And there are 1,500 minds at the hospital, each with its own problem which, in most cases, has left a trail of tragedy in its wake, a dead girl lying in a field, or a father shot to death by an irate son.
It’s easy to condemn such people. One Atascadero citizen recently commented that “We shouldn’t be spending taxpayer’s money on such people. Shoot them, just like you would any wild animal.”
Just as repulsive to the general public is the sex offender, which makes up about 45 percent of the hospital’s population.
With this in mind the Telegram-Tribune toured the state hospital recently, from the patient’s viewpoint. Three inmates, a murderer, a child molester, and a homosexual, candidly expressed their feelings about their crime, their confinement and what the future now holds for them. Their names cannot be used, so for reference purposes we call them Carl, Eric and Maurice.
Seventeen years ago Carl then 13, strangled an 8-year-old girl to death, “We were doing things we shouldn’t and I panicked.”
Up to that time Jack said his mother “kept me wound up all the time. A bundle of nerves.”
Carl was convicted of first degree murder, which was later reduced to manslaughter, and has been in mental institutions ever since. “I’ve been in state hospitals up and down this coast and this is the first one that had a treatment program”
He said he strongly feels that he could never commit such an act again and is hoping to be released soon, which would take a court order. He has become quite a rock hound and hopes to go into lapidary work when he leaves.
Eric is an entirely different case. At the age of 31 he had a good job, wife and three children. Then a year ago he was arrested and convicted of felony child molesting, involving a 10-year-old girl.
Now he is in a mental institution, his wife has divorced him and he faces a one year to life prison sentence when he is returned to court for sentencing. He must also learn a new skill. (He was formerly a quality control junior engineer).
Eric now refers to his his molesting act as horrible. “It was a ridiculous act and violated my own intelligence.”
The third member of the group Maurice, faces no prison term but faces a lifetime of social punishment, the stigma of having been in a mental institution and having been branded a sex offender. His wife is also planning to divorce him. They have children.
Maurice’s problem is homosexuality. Six months ago he was convicted of misdemeanor child molesting involving a 15-year-old boy. He faces a six-month term in county jail upon his release from the hospital.
Maurice, who admits to being a homosexual for the past 14 years, says his problem isn’t solved yet but thinks he is on the right road. He said he doesn’t have a sex problem “but some motivation to discredit myself, self destruction.”
And there are 1,500 such stories in Atascadero State Hospital. There are some leaving every day but there are always more to take their place.
The Telegram-Tribune is planning a series of articles on the state hospital to explore the complex, but effective, treatment program, and to look into the research programs and the many other significant activities.

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