My name is not Robert

On twitter I saw a link to Pro Publica, an independent news organization, about the best reporting on mental health in prison. The first item, My Name is Not Robert, was an investigation into the way Kerry Sanders was wrongfully picked up by police in Los Angeles  and extradited to New York State. There he languished in prison three years for crimes committed by Robert Sanders.

The New York Times article about the case showed that common sense procedures of identification, including finger printing, were not followed in this mis-carraige  of justice. It would have been possible to identify Kerry Sanders within one hour after he was arrested. His public defender served only to convince Kerry to waive extradition. And all the prison guards, social workers and psychiatrists who heard Kerry say that he was not Robert and had done nothing wrong, all denied any responsibility for their part. If the real Robert Sanders had not been picked up in Cleveland, no one would have lifted a finger.

Kerry’s mother had desperately searched the streets of Los Angeles looking for him. Then, after  the authorities in Cleveland contacted New York State, the prison officials asked Kerry the questions that could have been answered wen he first arrived in their custody. They tracked down Kerry’s mother and whisked him back to her without any explanation.

Even after he returned to Los Angeles, the nightmare did not end, as Kerry was picked up once more as Robert Sanders. This time, New York State, told them, “you’ve got the wrong guy.” At this point I should reveal a few salient points about this story and my interest in it. Kerry Sanders had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was collecting disability benefits. His speech was often disorganized and seemed to be having trouble maintaining his grip on reality. He responded to both names, Kerry and Robert, while in prison. Robert, on the other hand, had no psychiatric history; he was simply a criminal.  He also had several tattoos compared to one small tattoo for Kerry. The one New York prison official who spoke to the New York Times reporter suggested that at least Kerry had a warm place to stay and received three meals per day during his wrongful incarceration. Asked whether he felt any responsibility to help determine whether the state had imprisoned the wrong man, he said “not my job.”

Kerry was able to connect to mental health services in Los Angeles and an attorney helped obtain a large cash settlement for the ordeal he had experienced. This story illustrates the stigma attached to mental illness, where his protests of innocence were considered more more signs of paranoia.   physical reseml


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