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The Sanka Party Brews Activism Inside A Mental Hospital

The Tea Party has become a fixture in American politics. But the Sanka Party? Not so much. Other than an interest in hot beverages, the two activist groups have little in common. The Sanka Party got started last summer near Tacoma, Wash., in the unlikeliest of places: inside the walls of the state’s largest psychiatric institution.

Privacy laws make it hard to find out what goes on inside the Center for Forensic Services at Western State Hospital. It’s the hospital’s criminal side: Mentally ill defendants go to the center to find out if they’re competent to stand trial. Should a judge find them not guilty by reason of insanity, they’ll serve their sentences there while having their mental illnesses treated.

It’s not easy to get in to the forensic side of Western, even for the people who work there. Staff have to lock their keys inside a safe to keep them from winding up in the hands of any patients. Then they go through a security checkpoint and pass through two consecutive doors that only open one at a time, like an airlock.

All those measures aim to keep potential weapons from getting in and the patients who live inside from getting out.

Daniel Gautier is one of 270 patients who live on the criminal side of the hospital.

“It’s a place to live if you have a mental illness,” Gautier said. “It’s a good place to live, and we want to fix it.”

Gautier founded the Sanka Party.

“We just got fed up with so many of our privileges and rights being stripped away,” he said.

I met Gautier on a rainy day in February on the covered patio where the center’s best-behaved, least-dangerous patients get to meet visitors. The fenced-in patio is just inside the high-security entrance. Hospital officials wouldn’t let me go any farther into the center. Spokeswoman Kris Flowers said it was the third time in 25 years that the hospital had let a patient be interviewed by a reporter there.

Gautier has been at Western State Hospital since 2006. In 2004, he murdered his wheelchair-bound uncle, Timothy Short, in Shoreline, Wash. Gautier was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a severe mental illness that typically brings delusions, anger and voices in the head. Since he was admitted, medications and therapy have helped Gautier recover enough to be one of his ward’s highest-functioning patients.

Patients at Western have various diagnoses and varying degrees of mental illness. As they show signs of recovering from their illnesses, they earn privileges, like in-person family visits or the right to have their own MP3 player. Until recently, those farthest along the road to recovery got to walk on the hospital grounds and go on supervised trips into the community. In places like Wal-Mart or the Tacoma Mall, they’d get practice at integrating themselves into society again.

The hospital and the state legislature took away many of those privileges in the past three years in the name of safety. Like many mental hospitals, Western has struggled to keep patients from assaulting each other or their caregivers.

Escaping Eastern

Western’s sister hospital near Spokane has also had safety problems. In September 2009, Eastern State Hospital patient Phillip Paul escaped during a field trip to a county fair in Spokane. He’d been committed to Eastern 20 years earlier, after killing a woman near Yakima.

Paul’s escape led to a statewide manhunt and breathless news coverage. Police tracked him down three days later.

The escape also led to a new state law less than six months later. It prohibited any patients from leaving the forensic side of the state’s mental hospitals. Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima, cosponsored the bill; he testified before the House Human Services Committee in January 2010.

This state failed the victim of Philip Paul when the Department of Social and Health Services took him on this outing. This should have never happened, and we can never let it happen again.

State hospital patients today must endure severe restrictions even to go to a different part of their own hospital campus. Every Western State Hospital forensic patient who goes on a medical appointment outside the Center for Forensic Services building is put in shackles.

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Western patients have also lost other privileges, like receiving packages from family members, or drinking coffee during their treatment groups, where they spend hours each day.

Hence the activists’ chosen name: the Sanka Party.

Most recently, after a patient at Eastern State Hospital strangled another in November, Western patients, from the safest to the most dangerous, had anything with a cord or string taken away. So no more shoelaces, belts or necklaces.

“It takes patients to voice up and say this is broken and we need to fix it,” Gautier said. “They should not have taken our rights away like they have. We’re going to be a continual voice until we get all of our rights restored.”

Activism On The Inside

The Sanka Party started meeting with Western administrators, then their higher-ups in the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. Eventually the patient-activists convinced their state legislators to visit. (Since patients found not guilty by reason of insanity aren’t convicted of their crimes, they still have the right to vote, unlike convicted felons.)

Western State Hospital has restored some privileges, like receiving packages, already. Marylouise Jones, Western’s clinical operations director, said the hospital welcomes patients becoming their own advocates.

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“We’ve been really wanting to support the Sanka Party,” Jones said, “but at the same time, certainly, we’re always having to balance safety with being able to increase freedoms and comfort. It is always really a tightrope to walk.”

Jones said the ban on bus trips into Tacoma was a big loss for patients, but it would take a change in state law to resume them.

In what may be a first for a group of mental patients, the Sanka Party managed to get legislation introduced this year. Hospital staff and advocates for the mentally ill said it’s given patients hope.

“It made us feel very good,” said Gautier. “It was like our egg hatching and our baby being born.”

The bill would repeal the law that stops patients from taking supervised trips into the community.

Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood, a mental health nurse who used to work at Western, introduced the bill. She said it wasn’t warmly received by her committee colleagues.

“Initially, it was sort of like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Green said. “There is a lot of fear and stigma around this population. People are afraid of folks that have committed crimes when they are mentally ill, and some people believe that they can’t recover.”

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Green’s bill didn’t make it out of committee.

Without the ability to take field trips and other baby steps toward re-entering the community some day, Green said, mental patients will have a harder time recovering from their illnesses and staying healthy once they’re released.

Very few patients—less than 1 percent, according to Green—who graduate from Western’s forensic side ever wind up back inside. That’s a much lower rate of recidivism than prisons can claim.

She said people need to know that mental illness is not a character flaw: It’s a medical condition.

“When these crimes were committed,” Green said, “these people were mentally ill—acutely mentally ill. Once they recover, and we can get them stable for a long period of time, they really are quite safe.”

Mary Gautier, Daniel Gautier’s mother, isn’t convinced. Daniel murdered her brother Timothy Short. Mary said she visits her son monthly at Western and is proud of his efforts with the Sanka Party. She said she has no safety concerns about him going on supervised day trips, but “if he ever got out and got conditional [long-term] release and decided to go off his medication, that would be a disaster.”

She said there’s no way her Shoreline neighborhood would let him move back there.

Mary Gautier said she had tried to get help for Daniel’s mental illness over the years. “He once went to the psychiatric unit at Harborview, but they only keep you about 12 hours,” she said. “Unless a person is a threat to himself or others, they won’t help you."

One impact that Daniel Gautier and the Sanka Party have already had, far from their Western State Hospital home: Across the state, patients at Eastern State Hospital held the first meeting of their own Sanka Party last week.

See the Sanka Party's complaints, and Western State Hospital's responses, as recorded by hospital staff:

Year started with KUOW: 2009