Mendocino Resident Recounts Local Law Enforcement’s Questionable Treatment of Her Brother Suffering from Addiction in Letter to the Editor

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This is an artistic rendition of the letter writer with her brother

I hope the story I tell will illustrate the need for a new direction in our Sheriff’s Office, including the integration of social workers, psychologists, trainings, and a different approach to interactions with those deemed ‘criminal’. We need a revolutionary program. While cancel-culture toward the police is currently popular, I prefer to work together towards an internal revolution of the heart.

I want a future in which we can trust police people because they have compassion and sensitivity in the actions they force. Upholding the law with compassion is exemplary of maturity and leadership.My brother is an addict and has been in and out of jail. His drug addiction has severely impacted his mental health. He should be hospitalized in a facility based on recovery instead of in the revolving door to jail, parole, prison, and the streets. After a year in prison, the state paid for him to attend rehab. This summer we were in my backyard talking. He was recently out of jail and still sober. He said “I don’t deserve this”, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to resist the drugs and he was headed back. I said “No you don’t”.

When my brother got out of prison he was sent to a state sanctioned rehab as part of his senetence. In prison they prescribed Suboxone (an opiate), and continued to ‘medicate’ him in rehab. But he was kicked out for smoking pot. Cannabis is not a drug our family considers to be an issue in his life, while opiates, like Suboxone, continue the addiction cycle.

His probation officer ordered him to return to Ukiah and stay within the City limits. He was told he couldn’t get a job because he would have to go back to rehab or prison at some unknown point in the future. He was no longer eligible for food stamps. His out of County MediCal was held up, so he couldn’t fill the Suboxone prescription. Neither the ER nor the community support group, Plowshares, could straighten that out. He went to the ER to get medication twice. Withdrawal from Suboxone results in weeks of intense physical sickness, including vomiting, plus a longer period of sleeplessness and jitters. He was homeless. It is quicker and easier to get illegal opiates, which immediately stop the sickness caused by suboxone withdrawals.

The parole officer required that my brother check in regularly, but did not accept phone calls, except on Wednesdays. Instead, he wanted a text. My brother borrowed a flip phone so he could call, but it did not have a texting plan. He tried leaving voice mails for weeks but the box was always full. When the family called the parole officer on Wednesdays he was abrupt and unhelpful. We paid for a texting plan, but texting on a flip phone is not easy.

It is shockingly inept to require someone with mental health issues to go through extra hoops for phone texting communication. Any social worker would recognize the many ways in which these interactions are guaranteed to result in failure. Under these impossible practices someone addicted to drugs will never escape the cycle of jail and parole.

Due to the extreme trauma of the street to jail cycle, and hopelessness of life, my brother is sometimes suicidal. I heard radio interview on mental health with Behavioral Health Services that provided information about free counseling and suicide hotlines. I mentioned these services and the possibility of getting someone to help him interact with the parole officer. He felt distrustful of the Agency that he saw as part of the County institution trying to jail him.

As a homeless person, my brother was woken up in the middle of the night by police and told if they saw him again that night they would take him to jail. A different night they searched him and found paraphernalia. He was riding my bike. He asked if he could lock it up or call me so I could come get it. They refused. So he gave it to a homeless woman. Allowing him the respect and dignity to call me or lock the bike is a basic act of kindness that all humans deserve. He didn’t notice until his release that they had left his backpack with wallet and cell phone behind too.

When he went to jail we believe that he did not receive a free phone call. We did complain to the receptionist who denied it had happened. Advocating for an incarcerated family member is exhausting. Our mother did receive a paid phone call, a call that required someone to run and get a credit card (not a collect call). She was not quick enough and it hung up. In an effort to contact him we called the jail and after a few days they called back to say we needed to schedule a video call. We did so and got family members together from multiple parts of the County, but the Jail did not show up. Because we couldn’t communicate with him we missed the arraignment. The parole officer said he would likely get another three years in prison. We had wanted to advocate for rehab, as we believe that is the only solution.

Prior to Covid, when we were allowed to visit in person, jail visits were unnecessarily inconvenient. If we were one minute late we were told we had missed the appointment, but if we were on time, we often had to wait thirty minutes to an hour before someone even checked in with us. The feeling I get is that, because we are associated with a criminal, we are subhuman and don’t need to be treated with common respect. I am an educated white woman and I imagine that it is more difficult for immigrants, the mentally ill, and people of color. Our Sheriff can do better today by simply implementing common courtesy.

While still in jail my brother told us he wanted to go back to rehab via a letter. Despite incredible hurdles in communicating with him and his parole officer while he was in jail, we arranged a year-long work trade program at Jericho Project, based on an interview he had done with them. We only needed a TB test and COVID test while he was still incarcerated because the rehabilitation center enrolls people immediately upon release for health and safety reasons. We needed the parole officer’s cooperation, but he was ambivalent. Despite our requests to keep him in jail until we could make arrangements, he was released early with a year remaining on his sentence. He was on the street again with no ID or phone, yet expected to call his parole officer every other day.

My brother was again required to stay within the city limits of Ukiah. As a man with PTSD he is terrified of the streets. He broke parole and went to the coast where our mother lives and he grew up. He pitched a tent on a friend’s land who is a recovered addict with sympathy for his situation. Recovered addicts are doing more to help addicts than our institutions and on very little resources, often volunteering their time. Alcoholics Anonymous is the most familiar example. Within a month my brother upgraded his tent to a trailer and had a job doing construction full time. He hasn’t called his parole office out of fear of going back to prison, being prevented from working, and being called back to Ukiah. What has been the point of this charade?

These failures, while seemingly small, are monumental because they are repeated over and over again with families across our county and country.

How do we deal with the disparity between the need for a physical force to stop crime with the long term need to reduce it?

It is unacceptable that police systematically exhibit emotional violence and disrespect. But it is important to recognize that they provide protection for the community. We have reasons to say, “Thank you” to them every day. How do we deal with this disparity between the tough job of keeping the peace and frequent lack of respect and even violence?

I ask that you join me in asking the Sheriff’s Office and Board of Supervisors for a proposal that addresses these issues. I support making systematic changes and integrating social workers into their operations. This would free up officers to address the issues of robbery and assault, Sheriff Kendall’s primary concerns. Social workers should run the jails as well, with support from officers. Every interaction of the parole officer with my brother could have been performed better by a social worker.

This proposal would include hiring social workers to do the mental health calls, communication, and outreach; contracting with psychologists in the community about how the department can grow to meet the demand for social justice and awareness; officer training on racism and anti-racism; and improving the interface between inmates and their families so that outside support for recovery can be facilitated. I would like to humbly suggest that every officer read Bell Hooks’ book “The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love”

Today I join people across our nation in asking for emotional compassion and sensitivity. I ask this of our police as individual people too. I ask them to become incredibly mature men and women. I ask them to continue to harness power and youthful strength while also practicing the search for emotional wisdom through reading, training and emoting. I ask them to ask for help in areas in which they are not trained. I ask them to have the humility to recognize that when they take on the responsibility of being allowed to end lives they must deeply practice being good, kind, emotionally wise people. I ask that they have a daily practice of recognizing internal prejudices so they don’t go after people based on their skin color, so that they treat all people with respect. I ask them to become aware and sensitive to micro-aggressions and to understand that these aggressions are part of what encourages criminal behavior. I ask that they choose kindness so that they help make the lives of those suffering, those living on the streets or stuck coming back into their jails again, more bearable. I ask our police women and men to become some of the smartest, wisest, emotionally mature people we know.

-Mendocino County Resident, Anna Birkas

Categories: Op-Ed

5 replies »

  1. IM sorry for you, its happened in countless familys, including my own. they say smoke isnt a gateway drug, that,is a lie. The real question is why do we persist in this behavior, when the patient knows the final outcome. Somebody must have said this is an unhealthy behavior, Its certainly non productive. and expensive.
    i hope nothing but the best for you.

  2. We live in a community that has pretty good law enforcement to community interaction even though it’s usually the lower class men from the academy that end up here. I see this as an important issue for not only the county but also state in the handling of incarcerated individuals within system where help is handed out when behind bars until release day when the state severs all ties in hopes of public opinion that further hindrance is looked upon as further incarceration. I see locking someone in a community boundary away from family or friends who might provide food and shelter with hopeful diversion from prior activities a good social practice for parole/probation and local law. As far as rehab goes the state will keep the biscuit dough the same until the majority complains and to hope for help after the fact is only to in legal terms still have bars or doors like a prison thus constituting imprisonment an act frowned upon by all three bodies of government. The local side of thing can change by our vote and support, however to ever hope we will see anything more than than mental support programs in our county is never going to happen as the very funding stream we voted on for phf unit is wrapped thoroughly in red tape held with nasty brown glue with little to no budging between elected and citizen oversight. I hope we change but there’s the government view at federal, state, and local setting precident and the over funded and often forgotten unions that lobby against as there constituents are worth more than me and you with a million more signatures as their lobbyists control campaigns of the our voted few.

  3. It’s 2021 everybody in the world has been told since they were children,don’t do drugs, it will end badly. No more sympathy for stupidity. Let’s deport drug addicts to the middle east, you can visit them over there.

    • You are an ignorant pos! Let’s deport you for ur stupidity! You must be perfect so I’m sure your family will visit you in the Middle East fkn dumbass

  4. Poignant, thoughtful and insightful reflection and call to action, Anna. I appreciate these both-and perspectives that support us all to think creatively and in collaboration with current systems to evolve more humane systems that address root societal concerns. Thank you.

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