The Released, a Frontline production, examines how mentally ill inmates fare after their release from prison. Filmed in Ohio, the film follows up on five men who are being let out of prison and their trials and tribulations in homeless shelters, group homes, and state mental institutions.
These experiences are shadowed by the "Great Decarcerations" of the 1970s. Following the invention of Thorazine, and under a philosophy highlighting free choice and freedom, various U.S. states began closing down their mental institutions. Some readers may recall Ken Kesey's One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest as a cultural harbinger and representative of this ideology.
The problem was that no viable alternatives were created. Medication is a suitable alternative to prison only if one is sure to take one's medication. And, in many such cases, the organization and cognitive presence required for consistently taking medication is lacking.
Several of the people interviewed in The Released manage shelters and group homes, and while they have plenty of good will and energy to help, their powers are limited if one of their residents decides to take off. These places are ill-equipped to supervise medication; the only place who does a decent job at it is the mental institution, and therein lies the paradox; once medicated, the inmate is functioning well, and therefore released, whereupon he ceases taking medication again, leading to a new incarceration or hospitalization.
According to the movie, a million inmates in the U.S. are mentally ill. Thinking about our local problems, one can only guess what the incarceration experience is like when surrounded with so much dysfunctionality. Is it possible that the Plata/Coleman descriptions of flawed mental health treatment are actually better than what the inmates are to expect on the outside?
An aspect portrayed, though not deeply explored, in the movie, is race. We see a white man -- the only uplifting, redemptive story in the film -- obtaining a placement at an excellent group home, Bridgeview Manor, with great facilities and conditions. All other residents are also white. At the end of the movie we see him doing well. The other people portrayed in the film -- black inmates -- are not so fortunate; the shuttle from shelters to jail and back, and some face further tragedies. The extent to which race and class play a part in placements, and as a result, in the hope of a regulated, supervised life, is disturbing. But more disturbing is our notion of what counts as "good". There has to be a point of balance between unnecessary paternalism and laissez-faire abandonment of people to their fate. I fear we are not there yet.
You can watch the full movie right here on the PBS website.