Memo From Mac



The Emporia Gazette
Emporia, Kansas

It Did Happen Here 
June 25, 1948

Kansas ranks near the bottom among states of the union in the care of the mentally sick. Here's a reason why: An Emporia man last week was apprehended in Oswego, suffering from an acute mental disorder. The man was charged with no crime. By all the standards of modern medicine and psychiatry the man was merely sick just as men get sick with bellyaches, typhoid, or heart attacks. But Oswego officials did not call for medical care for this victim: they called the law enforcing officers of Lyon County and asked them to please swear out a warrant for the man's "arrest" and come and get him.

The warrant was sworn, the under sheriff, who is an efficient officer of the law but no psychiatrist, drove to Oswego and got the man. On the return trip the patient became violent and narrowly missed killing both himself and the officer.

By the time the patient arrived in Emporia, his treatment little resembled that given to a sick human being. He was, because of Kansas law, treated as a criminal. He had been "arrested" on a warrant issued by the county attorney. He had been forcibly brought into Emporia by the under sheriff.

Upon his arrival he was in such condition that an attempt was made by the harried officers to place him in Newman Memorial County Hospital, a tax-supported institution built to take care of sick people. Hospital heads said they had not facilities for the man's care. This may have been true because several years ago a special mental ward in the hospital was torn out.

This sick man could not be committed to the care of doctors and nurses and had to remain under the care of police officers, who have absolutely no business caring for the sick. The police did the thing they usually do with people committed to their care. They threw the man into a cell in the city jail to await his hearing. Imagine having to cool your heels in jail waiting for a hearing to determine whether or not you were "guilty" of appendicitis!

(Let it be state here that the county attorney, the sheriff's office, the probate judge and the city police up to this point had conducted themselves in the only manner they could under the law. Their action brings no reflection against them either as human beings or officials except that reflection which is cast on all citizens of Kansas for permitting such a thing to happen.)

The sick man went to jail Friday night. No hearing was held Saturday because the attorneys and doctors necessary for the hearing could not be assembled Saturday morning and because the state department of health takes Saturday afternoon off, it was decided it would do no good to hold the hearing then because the findings could not be reported to the state department until Monday anyway. Nor could the man be admitted to the state hospital at Topeka until after the findings of the hearing were reported to the department. Of course there was no hearing Sunday because in a Christian commonwealth no one works on the Sabbath.

Sunday evening the sick man, alone in his cell in the city jail, took the metal suspender clasps off his pants and slashed his wrists and cut his throat. There was much blood. Now, an important point in this story is that as soon as the patient began to bleed he immediately moved out of the criminal classification and into the sick classification. The hospital, which 48 hours before could find no facilities for his care, took him immediately.

On Monday morning, the Lyon County Probate Judge phoned an official of the state department of health in Topeka and explained the case to him. The official was not optimistic. He said that already that morning he had received 18 applications for admission to the already overcrowded state hospitals.

The probate court went ahead with the hearing. Two attorneys and two doctors met at the hospital, over the bed of the sick man, and after considerable red tape (all required by Kansas law) they determined that the man was "guilty" of insanity. This revelation could have been made days before by any psychiatrist and probably any intelligent M.D.

Once the hearing was over, efforts were made to get the man committed to the Topeka State Hospital for the Insane. Here, credit certainly is due to the Lyon County officials. Against terrific odds, because they knew the desperateness of the case, the local officers talked, threatened, bullied and swore and got their man pushed through the long waiting list and into the hospital before the sun when down Monday night. If Kansas weren't near the bottom in this matter of humanity, the man would have been in that hospital before the sun went down Friday night.

The blood of a sick man on the floor of a cell in our city jail, in the middle of the Twentieth Century, is not a pretty thing for Emporia, Kansas.

Editor's Note: This editorial was one in a series of news stories, feature articles, and opinion pieces that prompted changes in Kansas law to improve conditions in the state mental hospitals. The campaign earned Mac a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard University.

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