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Label jars, not people: Mental Patient Liberation Alliance president Jim Rye (l), with George Ebert (r) and another member. Photo by: John Whipple

A Protest State of Mind
People labeled with mental illness hold a vigil for their rights and to call attention to problems with mental-health treatment

‘I never did this to myself until I took Paxil,” said Jim Rye, turning up his forearms to show scars criss-crossing them. “Me either,” chorused a few others in the group, offering a view of their own wrists. Over their shoulders, a sign taped to the Capitol steps read “Psychiatrists are drug dealers.”

From Sunday (July 11) to yesterday (Wednesday, July 14), the Mental Patients Liberation Alliance marked its 24th annual Bastille Day celebration with a 72-hour fast and vigil on the lawn of the state Capitol. Seventy-two hours is how long people can be involuntarily “held for observation” if they are suspected of a mental illness or substance abuse.

The alliance is a 30-year-old statewide organization of people who identify themselves as “psychiatric survivors.” Based in Utica, the group has hundreds of members, and staff say they have many more supporters who are too afraid of the stigma of “mental illness” to officially become members. The alliance opposes all forced mental-health treatment and the influence of pharmaceutical companies on the mental-health professions, and is outspoken about the questionable safety and efficacy of psychotropic medications and electroconvulsive therapy (aka shock treatment). The group advocates instead peer support, informed consent, and supportive services, especially housing. “The problem with psychiatry is that it’s coercive,” explained Anne Dox, executive director of the alliance.

Many of the roughly 20 attendees had horror stories to tell about the mental-health system. They spoke of being held in hospitals long after a suicidal episode had passed because they had argued with a therapist, of facing retribution while hospitalized because they exercised their rights to refuse medication or seek legal counsel, and of having children taken away despite no history or evidence of neglect or abuse. Most say they are currently noncompliant with their recommended drug regimens, and feel better and more functional for it.

“You have to recover from being hospitalized,” said Susan Mary, a Rensselaer resident, who said when she was younger and experiencing manic episodes, doctors were willing to prescribe electroshock therapy, and yet no one helped her with the basics of “making a plan for my life” that would have helped her handle the mood swings.

Another woman from Glens Falls said she was raped by a doctor in a mental hospital, and when she told her current therapist about it, he told her it was just a fantasy because she wanted to believe she was attractive to the doctor. If you’ve ever been diagnosed with a mental illness, you are assumed to be a liar, she said. She said she was also refused a pass to travel, accompanied, from Capital District Psychiatric Center to see a performance her daughter was in because Gov. George Pataki had her put on a list of “dangerous” patients, despite her never having acted violently toward anyone but herself.

J. David Seay, executive director of New York’s chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, agrees with the liberation alliance’s priority on housing, and said “We are as appalled as the Alliance is about any abuses of patients’ rights and any forced treatment of any kind without due process.” But NAMI, an organization that primarily represents family and loved ones of those diagnosed with mental illnesses, doesn’t “see eye to eye” with the Mental Patients Liberation Alliance on many other issues, said Seay, and believes such abuses are far less common than the alliance represents. “NAMI is fully in the mainstream of society when it comes to our understanding of the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, by which I mean we support science as interpreted by doctors and mental-health researchers,” said Seay, who added that “the approach of the alliance has the effect of driving consumers away from the help that is available to them, and that’s a sad thing.”

On Monday, five alliance members walked from their vigil site up to the legislative office of Assemblyman Peter Rivera (D-Bronx), chairman of the Assembly’s Mental Health Committee. After Pataki vetoed a bill to require reporting on the use of electroconvulsive therapy last fall, Rivera put together a task force to examine ways to improve the state’s “inefficient, fragmented and expensive system of service delivery.” Its report is due out in about three months.

Alliance members say that psychiatric survivors are not represented on the task force. They attended the task force’s second meeting and asked for a seat on it. According to Dox, Rye, and George Ebert, an award-winning activist who started the Bastille Day celebration, they were promised meetings with Rivera and his legislative director, Guillermo Martinez, along with a schedule of the meetings, but these never materialized. “I would have traveled to every single one of those meetings,” said Dox. Group members believe they are being explicitly kept out of the process because of their unorthodox views about psychiatry.

On Monday, they were greeted by staff member Jeff Rosenblum, who stepped out into the hallway for a tense but civil meeting. It ended with Dox telling Rosenblum, “Enough is enough. We would like something in writing within 10 days or we will take action.”

Reached Tuesday, Martinez said the alliance has always been welcome to participate in the meetings and testify at the hearings, but that the task force has gotten too big and other groups have been turned away from full membership as well. He said they have kept a “low profile” since the first meeting they attended. “They were told that they could participate in the group, and submit written comments, they have been told that on several occasions,” he said. “If they were active like the other groups involved, they are going to know what’s going on.”

“Offered all along? I’ve never spoken to the man. No one has talked to us about this,” said Dox. “They have our e-mail addresses.”

Seay of NAMI, which has two members on the task force, says that while he feels the task force is already “broadly representative,” he would have no problem with the alliance joining. “My opinion is all people should be heard,” he said.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Getting Down to Facts
Long-anticipated lawsuit filed by fired Albany Police commander

After many months of speculation and expectation, former Albany Police Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro filed suit against the city last Thursday over his firing in February.

The complaint charges the city, former police chief Robert Wolfgang, and former public safety commissioner John C. Nielsen with violating D’Alessandro’s First Amendment right to free speech and 14th Amendment due process rights, slander and libel, and breach of contract.

The suit charges that D’Alessandro was transferred, demoted, and eventually fired because he was researching overtime and compensation abuses in his position as detective commander. It claims that the Albany Police Department’s Standard Operating Procedures constitute a contract, and that the SOP’s provisions regarding disciplining and suspending employees were not followed. Finally, it charges that public statements by Wolfgang and Nielsen to the Albany Common Council and the media implying D’Alessandro’s involvement in the creation and distribution of a racist flier were “made maliciously and with reckless disregard for the truth” [“The Whole Truth?” Newsfront, March 25].

The suit says that as a result of his treatment, D’Alessandro’s “honor and integrity have been damaged,” his “career as a police officer has been irrevocably damaged,” and his “physical and mental health have been adversely affected.” The suit seeks D’Alessandro’s reinstatement as commander of the detective unit, a public retraction of defamatory statements, and awards of back pay, compensatory damages and punitive damages.

“We’re very supportive of Chris taking this legal action,” said Barbara Smith of the Coalition for Accountable Police and Government. “We’ve anticipated that he was going do to this, and we’re glad that through this legal process the truth will be revealed.”

D’Alessandro and his lawyers, Paul DerOhannesian and Meredith Savitt, declined comment beyond a written statement.

“It saddens me when improper actions are taken by those who are sworn to protect the public trust,” said D’Alessandro in that statement.

Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings said the lawsuit was “unfortunate, but at least maybe it will result in getting the complete story. I have always maintained that we would be willing to release the Internal Affairs investigation if he would sign a waiver. Now we’re going to go the legal route and spend taxpayer dollars.”

Sources close to the case say D’Alessandro and his lawyers wanted the Internal Affairs documents released only in a court of law so they could be cross-examined for accuracy before being made public.

“It wouldn’t take away from the lawsuit to let it out,” said Jennings. “In fairness to the department, he’s using strong words. It’s upsetting to many members of the department.”

On June 27 at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, several police officers hosted a legal defense fund-raiser for D’Alessandro. The keynote speaker was Frank Serpico, who became famous for speaking out against police corruption when he was an officer in New York City in the 1960s. In retribution, none of his fellow officers came to his aid when he was shot in the face while making an arrest. His story was made into the movie Serpico, starring Al Pacino.

Serpico praised people for turning out. “It’s truly encouraging in an age of TV 24/7, and most of us haven’t a clue what’s going on in our own cities,” he said. Serpico donated his pension check to D’Alessandro’s defense fund.

“Your commitment to stand with me today does not come without personal risk,” said D’Alessandro at the event. “Scores of tickets were purchased and donated by members of the police department, city government and community that feel too threatened to publicly attend.”

“I have not spoken to one single person who believes Christian D’Alessandro should have been terminated under these circumstances,” said Mike Farry, an APD detective-lieutenant who is currently on active duty with the National Guard, and who emceed the event. “We are not few, we span the entire rank structure, and I’m proud to be one of them.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Programming by the people: Schenectady’s public-access headquarters, Channel 16 studio on North Broadway. Photo by: John Whipple

Whose Programming Is This?
Cable contracts are up for renewal around the region, and one community—Albany—still lags behind in providing public access

By most accounts, the pro- cess of negotiating a city’s TV cable contract usually has a David-and-Goliath feel, pitting local governments with little experience in such issues against powerful cable companies with an army of lawyers at their disposal. Along with all of the standard financial haggling points, less- traditional benefits such as public-access broadcasting are now gaining importance among city residents. With so much on the bargaining table, many local governments are wondering how they can keep track of it all.

“You really want to know what you’re doing before you sit down at a table with a really large company,” explained Steve Pierce, independent-media advocate and instructor for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s department of science and technology. “If you go in there not knowing as much as possible about the choices available to you, you’re at a competitive disadvantage.”

Pierce’s expertise regarding often-overlooked benefits that can be negotiated [“Access Deterred,” Newsfront, June 5, 2003] was recently tapped by the city of Saratoga Springs. Saratoga’s contract with Time Warner expired in January 2001, and city officials have been relying on a series of six-month contract extensions to preserve cable service during negotiations.

According to Pierce, such delays in the renewal process are standard fare, with the most lucrative contracts often going to the cities that carry out protracted negotiations. Cities that breeze through the haggling, Pierce added, tend to end up with contracts that provide very little benefit to the city and neglect to take advantage of other services the cable company could provide.

“As long as the municipalities are working on [negotiating the cable contract], it’s a good thing,” said Pierce. “There’s really a lot at stake.”

While most municipalities already take full advantage of a state law allowing up to 5 percent of a cable company’s earnings to be directed to city coffers in return for having access to a municipality’s rights of way, Pierce and other media advocates have been pushing cities to increase providers’ support for local public-access broadcasting. Although cable companies are required to set aside channels for local programming, there is no requirement that any money be put toward public-access facilities or education in how to use them.

“People don’t use the channels because they don’t have the equipment or the training,” said Pierce. “So when negotiations come around every 10 years, cable companies just say, ‘Look, nobody’s using this.’ If you make [public access] easy to use and people know that it’s there, then people use it.”

In Schenectady, where public-access programming has been available since 1974 on local cable channel 16, city officials are exploring a unique approach to renewing the city’s cable contract, which expires in April 2005. While the contracts are typically arranged on a city-by-city basis, Schenectady lawmakers are looking to forge a countywide agreement. According to Catherine Lewis, chairwoman of the Schenectady City Council’s Public Service and Utilities Committee, the ideal arrangement would allow Schenectady to share a basic contract with the neighboring municipalities of Niskayuna, Glenville, Scotia and Rotterdam. The network could then link the local government and services of each region, with contract addendums addressing any community-specific needs.

“We already have the public access—now we would like to improve it,” said Lewis. “We’ve been trying to gather the municipalities for more than a year and a half, because I think we’d be better off acting as a team on this.”

Lewis acknowledged that such an approach is likely to encounter obstacles, as efforts to open up government to local scrutiny are not always well-received by community lawmakers.

With nearly 10 years separating a cable contract’s renewal and expiration, local officials are often ill-prepared to deal with experienced national cable providers. “I don’t negotiate cable contracts every day,” said Lewis, “but Time Warner does.”

To level the playing field, many cities have enlisted outside agencies or consultants specializing in cable- contract negotiation assistance. “Using a consultant is probably the way to go, because technology changes so frequently,” reasoned Lewis. “You need to have people that are well-versed in the terminology.”

Pierce, who was brought in to provide advice for Schenectady, Albany and other cities before undertaking the study for Saratoga Springs, is not the only consultant being tapped by local municipalities. In Troy, where the city’s cable contract expired several years ago, the California-based Buske Group was brought on in January 2002, and expects to present a finished proposal this fall. A nonprofit agency has already been created to manage the city’s public-access operation.

“It’s a very complicated process if done properly,” said Sue Buske, president of the Buske Group.

Yet for some cities, the looming expiration date has been met with a less certain course of action. After drawing fire for his decision to exclude local public-access advocates from the group assigned to negotiate with Time Warner [“Wanted: People Who Don’t Care,” Newsfront, July 31, 2003], Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings’ cable committee has met only twice since forming in August 2003. Albany’s contract expires in October.

While they have yet to determine what form the negotiations will take—whether depending on corporation counsel, consultants or a mixture of both—committee members have acknowledged that enhancing public-access potential will be one of the issues on the table.

“The current cable contract is not as good as it should be,” said committee member Councilman David Torncello (Ward 8).

Corporation counsel Gary Stiglmeier, a member of both the current committee and the one that negotiated the last contract, agreed that public access would be desirable, but seemed skeptical: “How are these things going to be paid for?”

Committee members remain uncertain as to what changes—if any—will be sought in the next contract. “It’s a very different scene this time around,” said Torncello. “Right now, though, we’re just on a fact-finding mission.”

The city of Albany’s committee will meet again July 22 at City Hall.

—Rick Marshall

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