Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Four Days on the Outside

Can you imagine anything worse that being committed to an insane asylum for the remainder of your life? Especially if you are not really insane? Shades of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest."

Yesterday as I was driving to work, I heard that John Hinkley Jr. was petitioning the courts to allow him to leave St. Elizabeth’s for a 4-day visit with his parents. This caused me to remember his story and to once again consider the reality of spending the rest of your life in any place not of your choosing.

Hinckley is now the 51-year-old version of the young man who attempted to assassinate President Reagan on March 30, 1981, seriously wounding him and permanently paralyzing his press secretary James Brady. A highly publicized trial and extensive medical exams resulted not in the death sentence for young Hinckley, but rather his commitment to St. Elizabeth’s for the rest of his life with no possibility for permanent release.

Hinckley has been the model citizen over the past 25 years of his confinement. Last year he requested and was granted permission to make 7 overnight visits to his parents’ home in Williamsburg. He is now requesting that his seventh and final visit be a stay of 4-days.

How do I feel about John Hinckley? When he shocked the country with his assassination attempt, even though I didn’t vote for Reagan, my initial reaction was to lock him up and throw away the key. Since then President Reagan has died a natural death and James Brady has continued to lobby for gun control from his wheel chair. My initial anger toward this midguided individual has turned into a profound sadness for him and his family.

I wonder how his parents have dealt with this shame and their loss? I wonder how long Hinckley will continue to live at St. Elizabeth’s at the taxpayers’ expense? I wonder just how mentally ill he is? I wonder what would happen if he were allowed to rejoin society?

I continue to try to understand the penal system, with a fervent desire to heal the offenders in our society and not just to confine them.

And your thoughts?


Blogger Old Lady said...

It is one of those things that can't be touched, seen, heard, smelled. I know my mind and when it is out of kilter, but what if it was always out of kilter, what is one person's reality compared to our own? Could I actually kill someone? I know there have been times I wanted to, but to actually do it, you have to be crazy or protecting yourself.

Do I think John Hinkley and his voices should be let out. Nope, just cuz a person is 'crazy' doesn't mean they are stupid. He comes under the category of criminally insane and they need to stay in.

Am I sympathetic toward John Hinkley? Maybe more for his parents than he. He knew he was trying to kill RR and he knew who he was. His pretzel logic is little excuse for his present abode, but either way he is put away.

He is just a dangerous as John Wayne Gacy, Son of Sam, The Boston Strangler, Ted Bundy, et al. We wouldn't have let any of them 'out'.

4:00 PM  
Blogger Old Lady said...

Oops! Sorry, too long!

4:02 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

OL -- If the authorities thought he was still so dangerous, would they be letting him make overnight visits to his parents' house at all? I have a hard time understanding the difference between 1 day and 4 days and a month. You're probably right in everything you said, but the whole thing still seems to slightly defy logical thinking. I guess the real question is whether you can ever really recover from this level of insanity?

4:46 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

I don't think they are letting him make overnight visits. He petitions the court about this regularly, which apparently is his right to do, but has never been allowed out. He's either insane or was cognizant of his crime when he tried to kill Reagan. So doesn't he belong locked away either at St. Liz or in a maximum security prison? He should thank the stars he is at the former rather than the latter, where he might be subject to the Jeffrey Dahmer treatment. Your post is thought provoking, but I just don't see what the issue is here.

5:19 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Matt -- According to the CNN article I linked to, Hinckley has had 6 extended visits with his parents over the past year with no incidents. So the precedent has already been set for letting him out for supervised visits. I am just questioning how someone can decide what is allowable -- Is he more dangerous if he is allowed out for 4 days that 1 day? Will the 7th visit be the last?

I agree that he is personally far better off in St. E's than in a Federal prison with no hope for parole. But I wonder how crazy you have to be to feel like you fit in with your peers.

Why did I write this? Because I have so much trouble with issues of finality like capital punishment and life sentences, even though they might be deserved.

5:32 PM  
Blogger RennyBA said...

A delicate question again Barbara, but I think you have dealt with it in a balanced way. Sending people to prison is necessary to protect the citizens of course, but also our kind of revenge. They also say that staying in prison makes you more criminal in mind because of the negative influence. This person is obviously mentally ill, but maybe these visit together with a mental help program, would make him a “safer” person to the society. He needs to learn his lesson of course, but how does hi learn to associate, deal with or mix with the society out of prison?

4:12 AM  
Blogger wharman said...

I think about this problem quite a bit, but I don't have good answers. Well-written post.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Old Lady said...

You are right in that it doesn't make sense. Trusted prisoners have been let out for special reasons in the past and have used those leaves to plan an escape. Not all but some, so who's to know until what happens happens? Forgiveness isn't quite the same as trust and I don't trust him.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

There are a number of different topics in this blog that can be touched on and anyone of them would have me guest blogging inside your blog.

The first issue is that of the justice system. The truth is tha tit has nothing to do with justice, it have everything to do with winning. The prosecution wins if it convicts the accused, the defense wins if it clears the accused. At no time and in no way shape or form is there ever any attempt to achieve justice or, heaven forbid, determining the truth. My wife is a lawyer and several friends are lawyers - so I am not entirely speaking form cynicism.

The next issue is that of regarding the worth of an individual. I strongly believe that all persons must be treated and accorded the dignity which is theirs by virtue of being human. I know in some cases this can be extremely difficult and the desire is to view the person as something less than human. I think we are best served by remembering Marcus Aurelius' meditation on this, "When men are inhuman, take care not to feel toward them as they do to others."

Another issue is that of danger to society, when people are under extreme stress they can behave in a completely irrational manner. I am not familiar with John Hinckley. I have no idea if his is a chronic madness or a temporary one.

Then there is the whole issue of whether prisons are actually useful. Certainly they keep (we hope) those who are a danger to society away from society, but the have no remedial value whatsoever. They are simply holding pens.

Plato / Socrates had an interesting take on justice at the beginning of the Republic. I agree with the definition, however, I disagree with Plato's ideal of a perfect state.

The whole thing really boils down to whether or not he is a danger to society or any part of society. I despise dehumanization of any person (regardless of how horrid they might be), but I also accept that some people must be kept away from society in general.

I could blog for hours on this.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Richard -- You can be my guest blogger any day! We share many of the same thoughts and frustrations. One detail which you may or may not have understood is that Hinckley has been in a hospital for the mentally ill (St. E's) for the past 25 years. As Matt indicated, probably better than a Federal prison. But even so, what a life for anyone who is not really a zombie. I continue to want to find the good in humanity and wonder if there might be some somewhere in this person who did an awful thing in 1981.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Mother of Invention said...

I guess I have no problem with his visits with family as long as he is well-supervised, although I have no idea how they do this. maybe nothing is foolproof and guaranteed.
The human mind is difficult to "get into" totally and highly unpredictable, hence the worry about what might happen.

11:21 PM  

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