Jails, Justice and Mental Health

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Still from "Definition of Insanity," courtesy PBS

After wrapping up his much-praised 2001 documentary about Mark DeFriest, the so-called “Houdini of Florida,” who spent 27 years in solitary confinement after 13 escape attempts, filmmaker Gabriel London began thinking about how the U.S. justice system consistently “criminalizes” the mentally ill. A meeting with Miami Judge Steve Leifman, the pioneer of non-punitive approaches for justice-involved individuals who need mental health counseling, triggered his next film project, “The Definition of Insanity,” now streaming on PBS.

Gabriel London

Gabriel London

In a conversation with The Crime Report, London said he hoped his film, narrated by Rob Reiner, which follows participants and the team involved in the Miami-Dade Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP), can point the way towards programs that changes lives, and can serve as a model for future reform—a strategy he says can resonate at a time when people are looking for positive change in the justice system.

The following has been edited for space and clarity.

The Crime Report: How did your previous experience as a filmmaker lead you to this project?

Gabriel London: Over the years, I’ve worked on a number of criminal justice documentaries, and I spent a lot of years working on a film called The Mind of Mark DeFriest, which goes into the history of a guy who is pretty infamous. That started me down this path of thinking about the criminal justice system and mental health.

In the years after I finished that film, I had a theatrical run and I met Judge Steve Leifman at a screening we had at Florida International University College of Law. I was just really taken with the notion that in many ways, the story that he was telling about Miami was a little bit of an antidote to the story that I had captured in The Mind of Mark DeFriest. That film was also about the Florida prison system, so that touched a lot of things for me. The conditions of confinement can vary so widely, across the country, and even within a state. And then I begin thinking about how can we look into a solutions approach for the crisis that everybody has become familiar with, the criminalization of the mentally ill.

TCR: Can you describe the process of making the film?

GL: This film was a story that wanted to be told. I had an opportunity go to Miami and embed with the Miami-Dade Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP), to capture the drama of people going through the system in Miami-Dade County. With other films that I’ve made before it was always really tricky to get access to film in prison or access to the court systems.

In this case weeally worked with the public defender’s office, the office of the state attorney and with the court itself, to make it so that we could really follow these cases through all the different touch points of the program. The jail diversion program is really a community program. We were able to get a really good picture of how the program works and how it affects the people that are within it. It’s not situated in such an adversarial way. It’s much more collaborative.

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Judge Steven Leifman encourages a man with a misdemeanor case and mental illness to participate in the jail diversion program. Still photo courtesy Found Object

TCR: The program is described in the film as unique, but it’s not a new idea.

GL: We show in the film there was a missed opportunity that came from what was a pretty universal recognition that the conditions of the asylums in the 1960s were terrible and really hard to get out of, and that the solution was to do these community mental health models. They would be funded, I guess, through the Department of Justice or [some other part of] the federal government, but on a community level around the country, and what’s clear is that there were fits and starts. I’m still piecing the story together because in a sense, it’s like a forensic history.

There has been a process of trying to build a community solution for mental illness that would keep people on the path to recovery instead of being punished for their symptoms in jails and prisons. That’s what the film has enabled us to do, to leverage that model where it’s really functioning already. It’s not theoretical. The Miami model proves that it’s possible.

TCR: What feedback have you gotten from the film so far?

GL: We are so used to storytelling that’s about a crisis or a problem, and are very rarely able to get a wide audience for a solution story. So having PBS back us up and give us the kind of support that they did was exciting.  And given the times— we premiered on April 14, which was just in the middle of the COVID curve—it was pretty great how many people told us, “Thank you for a story that shows what’s possible.”  I think people are really hungry. We have so many issues with the political system that I think just to see something that works is a little bit of an antidote for the times.

It’s not a unicorn. There’s no brain surgery here. This is just about a spirit of collaboration that any community can bring to bear on this. And it’s just being able to get beyond that idea that you can punish or imprison your way out of a problem.

TCR: Did anything shock or surprise you during the course of filming?

GL: A woman got in touch with me whose son is in prison in Florida to this day, in Broward County, just north of Miami Dade. They don’t have the same program in place. They don’t have the same collaboration between the police and the courts and the health providers.

The story of that family was so starkly different from what we were seeing elsewhere. When this woman’s son was younger, there was no commensurate treatment that fit what he had been through and was going through, and so he has been in prison this whole time and really suffered for it badly.

‘Next Frontier’: Early Detection of Trauma

I should also mention we were there in February of 2018 when the Parkland shooting happened. Maybe a next frontier in all of this, beyond mental illness and drug courts, is really to think about trauma and some of the early signs that we can capture in young people. Not just mental illness like schizophrenia, but of the kind of acting-out and negative self-destructive and purely destructive behaviors that can emerge from trauma.

TCR: There’s a line in the film from a young man named Trevor, who says that the people administering the program are really just trying to be somebody that you never had in your past, or maybe you never had period.

GL: It’s really sad. That line really hit home and I think that’s exactly what we’re talking about.  And it’s not about the government coming in and sort of rescuing. This is a community effort. It’s all about breaking bread and building human relationships, and in the end it’s those relationships that help people, if not recover, at least have some something to recover for.

TCR: How would you describe the team who run the treatment program and the people involved?

GL: There are different qualifications and different pieces in the pie that they deal with. You have folks that help purely with the social security applications within that office, and then you have people that just are out delivering medication and taking people to eat.

I always refer to them as kind of a beautiful safety net. Everybody fulfills a different role within that in order to make it work. And it’s literally from the judges all the way down through the folks who are just out in the community working on it, like the family clinic; and beat cops as well. They have all been through Crisis Intervention Training (CIT).   

TCR: What’s your view on the CIT training the police officers receive in the program?  

 GL: Who do you call when there’s a situation or an emergency? You call the cops, and in a sense, you want to have a cop who shows up on the scene who is trained in deescalating crises. You know this George Floyd situation, I mean, this keeps coming up, right? Obviously we still have a huge problem in this country with police shootings, and on the flip side with violence against police officers.

Through this program and the CIT training, which teaches de-escalation, it’s not just better for people who have mental illness. It’s better for the police officers, right? They’re given a new tool so that they don’t need to get into use-of-force situations that can cause injury to themselves and to others. In Miami-Dade County, what you’ve seen is that police shootings of people with mental illness have basically been reduced, but at the same time injuries to police officers have also been reduced.

TCR: What’s your next project?

GL: I’m really interested in doing a film about trauma. It’s a topic that I think is a thread through all of the characters’ stories that I’ve done in the criminal justice space going back 20 years. It really goes to back to how I got interested in looking at recovery as being possible in the criminal justice system for mental illness, with medication, with counseling.

What opportunities are there to reach deeper into the community and weed out people who have had traumatic impacts earlier and get them on a path towards better lives? I think it would address so many things in the culture itself.

Dane Stallone is a contributing writer for The Crime Report

One thought on “Jails, Justice and Mental Health

  1. Re “the criminalization of the mentally ill.” Mental illnesses are not criminalized, and there is no generic “the” mentally ill.The references mislead. Courts dealing with someone with a mental illness who has committed a minor crime were set up specifically not to criminalize them.

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