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Basilica forum aims to inspire action on the incarceration of people with mental illness

Robert Tennessen
MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner
Robert Tennessen

A significant number of inmates in Minnesota’s prisons and jails — 2,300 in 2008, according to U.S. Department of Justice — have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

A group of parishioners at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis want to start a community conversation about whether it’s appropriate for the state’s correctional system to house so many people struggling with mental illness. Inspired in part by the stories of fellow parishioners who have experienced mental illness, incarceration and hospitalization, the group, which includes members of the Basilica’s Voices for Justice and Mental Health ministries, decided to organize a public forum on the topic.

The event, titled “Prisoners or Patients: A Mental Health Forum,” will be held Saturday, April 16, at 1 p.m. in the lower level of the Basilica, at the corner of 17th Street and Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. Presenters will include Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI-Minnesota; Sen. Kathy Sheran (DFL-Mankato), chair of the Senate’s Health, Human Services and Housing Committee; Ian Heath, M.D., a former psychiatrist at Minnesota Security Hospital and current psychiatrist at Hennepin county Medical Center; and Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek. Update: Julianne Ortman, chief of staff for the Office of the Sheriff, will replace Stanek at the forum. Three individuals with personal experience with mental illness and incarceration will also speak. The event is free and open to the public.

Robert Tennessen, a former DFL legislator from Minneapolis, is a Basilica member and one of the event’s organizers. He explained that his group decided to hold the forum in the hope of spurring community activism around the issue.

“What we want to do is to motivate anybody who comes to this event to get involved in finding a solution to this problem,” Tennessen said. The penal system is broken, he added: “With this forum, we were trying to focus on one aspect of the state’s criminal justice system and provide a program that would educate our members and the public about ways to bring about some solutions.”  

Tennessen and his fellow ministry members believe that the incarceration of people with mental illness points to a larger problem in the state’s penal system. Prisons are not designed to treat the mentally ill, he said. Many people with mental illness end up behind bars because they have slipped through the cracks and aren’t getting adequate psychiatric treatment. When their symptoms flare and they act out, they are incarcerated, sometimes simply because there is nowhere else for them to go. This problem has increased in Minnesota since most of the state psychiatric hospitals were closed in the 1960s, Tennessen said.

“Now that the hospitals are closed, we’ve not developed the community services that are needed to adequately deal with this problem,” Tennessen said. “I think that if we are going to address the problem by just putting people in jail, then we have to have more services available, more hospital beds and other things, in order to deal with it.”

Janice Andersen, Basilica director of Christian life, said that activism around current social issues is central to Catholic social teaching. Because of that fact, this forum is well timed.

“Our faith calls us to look at the world by holding the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,” she said. “We are focused on the intersection between our faith one what’s going in the world right now. How we live our life and act as people of faith is through that intersection. Right now we see so many things in our world around what’s wrong with the criminal justice system. We want to act, but we feel the call to know more about this issue, to be fully informed first. A forum like this one will give attendees an opportunity to learn about this issue from the experts.” 

Full schedule

The forum promises a packed lineup. Beginning at 12:30, there will be an information fair with tables staffed by organizations centered on prison reform and social justice. The formal event will begin at 1, with an introduction by Andersen, followed by the presenters, a mix of experts combined with people with real-life experience with the issues. There will be a mediated question-and-answer period at the end. The information fair will remain open until 4:30.

Julianne Ortman
Julianne Ortman

The organization of speakers is deliberate, Tennessen said. The group wants to set up the issue for attendees, and then go in-depth on strategies for change: “We want Rich [Stanek] [Update: now Julianne Ortman] to describe the problem. Then we’re following with Sue [Abderholden], who is going to describe some of the services that already exist and what needs to be done to improve them. We’ll also hear from Ian Heath, a psychiatrist who treats prisoners with mental illness. And then Sen. Kathy Sheran will talk. She can talk about what the state might do to make lasting changes in the system.”

The expert presenters’ range of experience and perspectives will help educate forum participants about the issues surrounding mental illness and incarceration, Tennessen said.  

“In the broader context of the criminalization of activity in the United States, this is just one part of the bigger problem,” he explained. “Our presenters know their stuff: Sheriff Stanek has been talking about his problem for a long time. He’s got the biggest prison in the state. About 30 percent of his prisoners have serious mental health issues. There are a lot of reasons why that occurs, and he and his fellow presenters will begin to explain why.”

Andersen said she believes that the contributions of the three individuals with firsthand experience with mental illness and incarceration will be key to expanding attendees’ understanding of this thorny issue.

Sue Abderholden
Courtesy of NAMI-MN
Sue Abderholden

“The Basilica has been very blessed to have people who are willing to be honest and vulnerable about their stories,” Andersen said. “We wanted this discussion to be not just theoretical and intellectual. We wanted it to be personal, too. Including real people’s contributions alongside the experts helps us to be able to do that.” 

The hope is that the mix of speakers will inspire forum attendees to action. The information fair will provide opportunities to take that inspiration to the next level.  

“We wanted to be able to provide some real specific next steps,” Andersen said. “We’ll have organizations at tables to provide people with ways that they can help. There will be volunteer opportunities, other ways to get involved. We also hope to provide a concrete action like a post card that attendees can fill out and send to their representatives.”

Why the Basilica?

Is a large urban Catholic Church like the Basilica an appropriate place for a forum on mental illness and incarceration? Andersen and Tennessen both say it is.

“At the Basillica people come to our door all the time,” Tennessen said. “We have food ministries, clothing ministries, employment ministries. We see these issues every day. We want to help, but we know that we can’t solve this problem by ourselves.”

It is fitting that a Catholic congregation take on this issue, Andersen said. It is not something that can be ignored.

State Sen. Kathy Sheran
State Sen. Kathy Sheran

“As people of faith, we are called to act for justice and live kindly. This is an important issue in our society right now. The Catholic Church has a very strong and articulate social teaching: The primary role of the laity is to transform the social order in light of the gospel of love. How do we do that? How do we make the world more loving? This is one step we can take in that direction.”

And, moving beyond the larger world, there is also the personal impact that these issues have on individuals within the Basilica’s congregation. 

“The basilica has over 12,000 members,” Andersen said. “We have people in our congregation who face these real-life issues every day. For us, this is not a theoretical discussion.”

Tennessen agreed.

“I think everybody in our society has experienced mental health issues in their families,” he said. “I’ve had that experience myself. It’s an issue that hits home.”  He hopes that the forum will help attendees — himself included — move beyond theoretical musing to direct action.

“This is a major societal issue,” he said. “If we could draw attention to the issue as a group, and start thinking about ways to solve it, that would be great. I’m not going to propose a solution on my own, but there are a group of people who are a lot more expert than I am, and this Saturday we’ll get to hear from them.” 

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