09 July, 2010

So what now for Cuba?

By Jorge Reyes

When Raúl Castro took on the reigns of power Cuba, many people though skeptical actually had hopes that some political opening would take place in Cuba. I, like them, were wrong.

The Cuban government under him has continued to harass and jail political dissenters—even as the blogosphere, egged on by TV stations in Miami, provides new ways for some Cubans to express their criticism.

A couple of days ago, the Cuban government announced that fifty-two political political prisoners will be released, after a decision made after the archbishop of Havana and the Spanish foreign minister interceded directly with Raúl Castro himself. The announcement is good news and a welcome relief to many observers, not to mention the prisoners' families. They have been through enough since their arrest in 2003.

According to Freedom House, this is a welcome posture but don't forget that there are 167 other political prisoners of whom very little has been spoken about. 

Is this a new willingness by Castro to tolerate dissent? To stop harassing people whose only crime is simply to act and think differently?

Some have seen this as a major concession by the Castro government, and in many ways it is. Whatever this may ultimately lead to, let's see what this is not about.

Throughout the years, there have been many negotiated releases with very little political change. 

In 1984, Jesse Jackson convinced Fidel Castro to release twenty-six political.  In 1996, Bill Richardson secured the release of three.  In 2002, Jimmy Carter got one prisoner released. In 1995, the Human Rights Watch managed to get half a dozen released after six grueling hours of negotiation with Fidel Castro in 1995. Pope John Paul II has been the most successful negotiator thus far, who in 1998 obtained the release of eighty jailed dissidents.

Those prisoner releases were also welcome news at the time each occurred. But they did not bring an end to repression in Cuba. The government never stopped locking up its critics and stifling dissent on the island. There is little reason to think this time will be different. Since Raúl Castro took over from his ailing brother in 2006, the Cuban government has jailed scores of political prisoners, including journalists, human rights defenders, and ordinary citizens engaged in “counterrevolutionary” activities. None of these newer prisoners are among the fifty-two the government now plans to release.

In any case, for now, only five of the fifty-two will actually leave prison—and apparently not for their homes, but rather for forced exile to Spain. “They will go directly from the prisons to the planes,” Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote on Wednesday, citing “a gentleman who keeps his ear glued to the radio” listening to “the prohibited broadcasts from the North.

"The ability to rid themselves of the inconvenient," she continues, "the skill to push off the island platform anyone who opposes them, this is a talent in which our leaders are quite adept…. [S]o many Cubans find themselves caught between the walls of prison and the sword of exile.”

Also, Yoani's sentiments are equally shared by many editorials worldwide.  As Daniel Calingaert, deputy director of Freedom House said: "we’re concerned that these prisoners are being forced to leave Cuba as a condition of their release and, in this way, the Cuban government is trying to physically remove political opposition from the island. The Cuban government should respect the right of its citizens to return home.”

There are no easy answers when it comes to Cuba.

I, for one, has stopped thinking of possible scenarios. What is true is that the release of political prisoners won't do anything to solve any of Cuba's political problems. I was always of the belief that by simply opening an immigration valve allowing Cubans to leave the island, we were doing more harm against the cause of Cuba's freedom than not.  It doesn't solve anything.  It leaves a vacuum for any meaningful and strong dissent. 

Now these 52 released political prisoners are forced to leave Cuba and live somewhere else, like thousands of other dissidents have done. The other political prisoners will remain locked up, their voices muffled, and the dissident movement as weak as ever.

That has always been the problem that has plagued the Cuban nation; those who should stay behind and fight leave by choice or are forced to leave. Others simply remain to whatever they can do to solve a seemingly intractable situation; their voices barely audible in a din of repressive revolutionary distopia.

01 July, 2010

Changes are needed in how our judicial system treats the mentally ill

By Jorge Reyes

Not long ago, I had a chance to meet Judge Steven Leifman, a circuit court judge who is also an advocate for the mentally ill inmates. In a speech in 2007 he said, "When I became a judge I had no idea that I was becoming a gatekeeper to the largest psychiatric facility in the state of Florida - the Miami-Dade Jail." And since that time, indeed he has.

Judge Leifman was instrumental in drafting and presenting a massive report to judges and legislators titled "Mental Health: Transforming Florida's Mental Health System" about mentally ill patients and how they have become the forgotten few in our legal system.  The 170-page report is hair-raising.  It highlights in detail how the legal system treats under its case mentally incompetent defendants. 

The report itself was so grim that a local TV station reporter, Michelle Gillen, did an investigative documentary called "The Forgotten Floor."
Here are some statistics taken right out from the report:

"On any given day in Florida, there are approximately 16,000 prison inmates, 15,000 local jail detainees, and 40,000 individuals under correctional supervision in the community who experience serious mental illness (SMI). Annually, as many as 125,000 people with mental illnesses requiring immediate treatment are arrested and booked into Florida jails. The vast majority of these individuals are charged with minor misdemeanor and low level felony offenses that are a direct result of their psychiatric illnesses. People with SMI who come in contact with the criminal justice system are typically poor, uninsured, homeless, members of minority groups, and experience co-occurring substance use disorders. Approximately 25 percent of the homeless population in Florida has an SMI and over 50 percent of these individuals have spent time in a jail or prison.

"A 2006 report by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) Research Institute reported that the State of Florida ranked 12th in the nation in spending for forensic mental health services. Today, this estimate is likely to be considerably higher as this ranking did not take into account the state’s investment earlier this year of more than $16 million in emergency funding allocated by the Legislative Budget Commission and the addition of $48 million in annual funding to add 300 desperately needed treatment beds to the overflowing forensic system. Individuals ordered into forensic commitment are now the fastest growing segment of the publicly funded mental health marketplace in Florida. Between 1999 and 2007, forensic commitments increased by 72 percent, including an unprecedented 16 percent increase between 2005 and 2006.

"To put this in a more acute perspective, the State of Florida currently spends roughly a quarter of a billion dollars annually to treat roughly 1,700 individuals under forensic commitment; most of whom are receiving services to restore competency so that they can stand trial on criminal charges and, in many cases, be sentenced to serve time in state prison. Furthermore, the treatment provided in Florida’s forensic hospitals is funded entirely by state general revenue dollars, as Federal law prohibits Medicaid from providing payment for psychiatric services rendered in such institutional settings. As a result, the state is investing enormous sums of taxpayer dollars into costly, back-end services that may render a person competent to stand trial, but will do nothing to provide the kind of treatment needed to facilitate eventual community re-entry and reintegration.

"Roughly 150,000 children and adolescents, under the age of 18, are referred to Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) every year. Many of these youth have been impacted by poverty, violence, substance abuse, and academic disadvantage. Over 70 percent have at least one mental health disorder, with females experiencing higher rates of disorders (81%) than males (67%). Of youth diagnosed with a mental health disorder, 79 percent meet criteria for at least one other co-morbid psychiatric diagnosis, the majority of whom (approximately 60 percent) are diagnosed with a co-occurring substance use disorder."

These are just some of the highlights of the report. There is more, much more, and the more you read it the more alarming this issue will be to you, too.

I ask you to read it for yourself.

Changes are obviously needed, and fast. The problem is that at a time when there are so many budget cuts across a wide variety of services and programs, I feel that the report will simply be an irritant to our legislators who are fully aware of the problem, yet are unable to do much to lead by example and do the right thing.

To read or download the report, please click here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/pub_info/documents/11-14-2007_Mental_Health_Report.pdf