(Nov. 5, 2012) Adam Ashe, a 46-year-old Oregon man with mental illness, has both the good fortune to recognize his own need for treatment and the bad fortune to live in a time of dwindling state support for mental health.
But Ashe appears to have found a novel – if thoroughly depressing – way to secure care: commit a federal offense and convince the judge to impose a good stiff prison sentence.
In 2009, Ashe attempted to set fire to a post office in Eugene and pleaded “guilty, but mentally ill” to a state court arson charge. He was sentenced to 23 months in prison, but the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board had authority to commit him to a state hospital beyond that. At the end of Ashe’s sentence in January 2012, the Review Board deemed him a “malingerer” (overlooking at least 10 prior psychiatric hospitalizations) and set him free against his wishes.
Directly from being let off the bus from prison, Ashe walked to a Eugene bank and gave the teller a note, demanding money and falsely claiming to have a gun. He was promptly arrested and told police he just wanted to be sent back to jail.
This time, Ashe ended up in the federal justice system. At his sentencing last week, he asked U.S District Judge Ann Aiken to “do us all a favor” by imposing a sentence of 12.5 years in the hope that “maybe I’d get some help there.”
The prosecutor joined in that recommendation, explaining the sentence was sought “not out of a desire to punish Mr. Ashe but out of a desire to protect the public.”
We can’t imagine a more blatant admission the penal system is covering up for the dysfunction of the mental health system.
Judge Aiken imposed the recommended sentence but added that “society should be absolutely appalled that prison has become the only option for the mentally ill. Shame on us.”
We couldn’t agree more. See our 2010 report, “More Mentally Ill Persons Are in Jails and Prisons Than Hospitals,” and our 2012 report, “No Room at the Inn,” which documents that the increasing scarcity of state psychiatric hospital beds is a chief cause of the crisis of criminalization.