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Alex Fisher Organizes Panel on Alternatives to Incarceration for Psychiatric Patients

Discussants in the panel discussion, 'Care Not Incarceration: Teach-In to End Coercive Institutionalization in Washington.' Panelists: Robert Wardell, Laura Van Tosh, Kyle Matheson, Cindi Fisher, [ASL interpreter], Christina Black, and Dorian Taylor (right to left, top to bottom).

March 3, 2022

Upon receiving the funds from the Abe Osheroff and Gunnel Clark Endowed Fund, I along with No New Washington Prisons, began planning a teach-in to educate our community about psychiatric incarceration and disability justice approaches to prison abolition. This teach-in was part of a larger campaign to stop the expansion of Western State Hospital (WSH), a psychiatric confinement facility in Lakewood, Washington. Western State Hospital has a long history of violating the human rights of the patients who live there. During psychiatric confinement, patients can undergo forced drugging, incapacitation in bodily restraints, physical assault, and long-term trauma from experiencing captivity. For example, in 2018, Western State Hospital was decertified by Medicaid because the facility contained imminent threats to the life of patients. The new, expanded facility would house people undergoing forensic commitment. Forensic commitment is a process in which people with psychiatric disabilities who have been charged with a crime are assessed for their competency to stand trial and make legal decisions concerning their case. If certified incompetent, the incarcerated person must undergo therapeutic “competency restoration” to be ready for trial or be declared not guilty by reason of insanity and undergo civil commitment. In this way, psychiatric confinement facilities like Western State Hospital shuttle people with disabilities into our prison system where community members are unlikely to receive treatment or heal from the trauma of institutionalization.

Alec Fisher, 2021 recipient of the Abe Osheroff and Gunnel Clark Fund.

To begin building a movement to protect the human rights of people incarcerated in Western State Hospital, we brought together community organizers, disability non-profits, disability communities at the UW, and survivors and families of psychiatric incarceration. We brought together these stakeholders in order to begin building a coalition which could challenge the construction of new psychiatric confinement facilities in Washington and to begin planning community-based mental health resources that are not traumatizing for people with disabilities. Our teach-in would not have been possible without the help of Disability Rights Washington, Associated Students of the University of Washington’s Student Disability Commission, the UW’s Disability and d/Deaf Cultural Center, and survivors of WSH such as Siddharta Fisher and Laura Van Tosh. The UW’s Simpson Center for the Humanities generously donated funds for Spanish interpretation. Our teach-in, titled “Care Not Incarceration: Teach-In to End Coercive Institutionalization in Washington” was a panel discussion of survivors of psychiatric institutionalization and their families. Panelists included Laura Van Tosh, a survivor of Western State Hospital and mental health policy consultant; Cindi Fisher, mother of a patient at WSH; and Robert Wardell, survivor of the Fircrest School for people with disabilities. We used the funds generously supplied by the Abe Osheroff and Gunnel Clark Endowed Fund to provide stipends to our panel participants to support their research and preparation during the panel.

By inviting organizations currently working on reducing WA’s prison population, we aim to normalize the understanding that expanding mental health infrastructure cannot be an unspecified solution to housing people in prisons. Mental health facilities often act as prisons themselves and can increase the risk of future criminalization. We asked our panelists to talk about community-based alternatives to psychiatric incarceration that would have been healing or anti-violent for themselves or their family members.

Thank you again for your generous funding of our community education work.