California state officials are opening a 40-bed psychiatric hospital on death row at San Quentin. Judge Lawrence Karlton said they had to. He ordered a psychiatric evaluation of all 720 inmates on death row and 37 already qualified for admission to inpatient psychiatric care pointing to the fact that additional space will no doubt soon need to be found. Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring commented that the order “was a measure of American greatness and American silliness….We are curing them to make them executable.” Courts have ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute people who are not aware they’re being killed. The peculiar situation created by the order points to the fact that underlying issues go even deeper than the death penalty. Justin Helzer’s suicide which started this whole process was diagnosed as schizophrenic and delusional. He had helped his brother kill 5 people and throw their dismembered bodies into the Sacramento River. In 2010, while on death row he blinded himself with a pen and in 2013 hung himself in his cell with a bed sheet.
It may be that mental illness is a contributing factor—or a cause—behind the inmates’ crimes, and if not it may be that incarceration may be a contributing factor—or a cause—of their mental illness. The implication then would be that the death penalty, the criminal justice system and the mental health delivery system ought to be seriously reviewed to take in those realities. A 40-bed psychiatric hospital is but a way station