A twisting, grimacing, tear shrieked Paris Hilton shouted "Mom, Mom, It's not right" as she was yanked from the downtown Los Angeles courtroom after being ordered to finish out her jail time. The tears were more than the agony wrench of a selfish, pampered, hyper-privileged airhead socialite terrified at the thought of spending a few weeks in the slammer. Her tears sprang from the same psychological trauma that afflict a staggering number of others in America's jails and prisons, namely those who have acute or chronic mental health issues. The Federal Bureau of Justice estimates that more than a quarter-million offenders are warehoused in America's jails and prisons that suffer acute mental problems. That's about sixteen percent of the total jail population in America. In California's jails alone, an estimated 85,000 prisoners suffer mental ailments.
Unlike Hilton, the overwhelming majority of them are poor, indigent, minority, and like her increasingly female. They have absolutely no access to any quality psychiatric care and treatment behind bars. The majority of them, like Hilton, are not violent offenders, but were convicted of petty, low level crimes. The magnitude of the crisis of the mentally challenged imprisoned is so great that the L.A. County system that Hilton is now a guest of has the dubious distinction of being the biggest mental health facility in the nation. A report in 2004 lambasted the county for the chronic shortage of doctors, nurses, medicines, and support services at the L.A. jails. Since then, there have been some modest improvements in the general quality of medical care for inmates within the jails. The changes, though, were made under heavy pressure from prison reform groups such as the ACLU, an adverse federal court ruling, and the imposition of a federal consent decree to make changes. But for many inmates especially the mentally ill the conditions are still severe.
A livid judge, police officials, prosecutors, and much of the public railed against Hilton's release as blatant celebrity favoritism. It was certainly that. But the irony is that Hilton was and should have been released early precisely because she couldn't get the quality treatment she needed at the jail. The problem, of course, is that neither can any of those who aren't rich and famous like her, and won't get favored prisoner treatment.
A significant number of prisoners in the L.A. county jail, and in other overstuffed jails around the country are released without having had a medical exam. There is no way of telling what kind of mental ailments they suffer from. That virtually insures that those individuals with the same untreated mental problems that got them locked up in the first place will be jailed again.
Long before the end of her jail stint, Hilton will know first hand the pain and misery that dozens of these inmates in the L.A. County Jail, and the thousands more like them in state jails and prisons, face daily. Maybe that will even sensitive her to their plight. If so, she has a prize opportunity to do something that before her legal woes she would never in her wildest dreams have thought of. She can act as the poster woman for the rights of those jailed that have psychological maladies.
But unlike her won't get a favored early release to seek quality care and treatment. Her wealth, fame, and celebrity notoriety on their behalf could help keep the public and media glare on the crisis problem of the inadequate care and treatment for mentally challenged inmates. This would prod law enforcement officials and politicians to radically increase funds, programs, and services for their care and treatment. It would also spur L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca who stoked public ire by releasing her early and those that run the nation's urban jails to end the favoritism that results in a handful of privileged, well-to-do inmates getting early release as Hilton momentarily got. They are free to seek outside treatment while the poor and indigent with medical ailments who don't pose a public safety threat remain locked up.
The instant that Hilton got favored prisoner status bestowed on her the same media and public that she's made a cheap career out of titillating with her sex-laced escapades did an O.J. Simpson like pirouette and roundly vilified her. Putting her name, fame, and money behind the cause of prison medical reform would do much to redeem her name. This time for something socially useful and that can make a difference in people's lives.
She'd join the growing legion of celebrities that have finally got it and seen that there's a bigger world beyond jet set parties, the whirl of cameras, block long stretch limos, mansion living, and playing hide and seek with the paparazzi. They have used their star power to do a little good for humanity. Hilton can transform herself and her reputation from that of selfish, spoiled heiress Hilton to socially responsible Hilton by demanding the Hilton treatment for others.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.