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Institutionalized sadism

(Via Atomic Nerds 2009-02-08, flip flopping joy 2009-03-03, and NPR.)

See if you can figure out what all of these cases have in common.

Trigger warning. The stories below involve verbal descriptions, and a news video below includes repeated displays of silent but very graphic footage, of extreme physical violence by adult teachers and male police officers against young men, young women, and girls under their authority.

In Idaho, an eight-year-old girl who has been labeled with Asperger’s Syndrome was taken out of a class Christmas party at her government-run school, because she was wearing a hoodie with cow ears and a tail, which she refused to take off on the arbitrary orders of her teacher. For this minor dress code violation, she was stuck in a separate room and intervened with by a pair of teachers. While she was under their power, she peacefully tried to walk out of the room through an open door, so the adult teachers physically grabbed her and forced her down into four point restraint; when she screamed and tried to get out of the painful hold they had put her in, the teachers then called in the county government’s police, who came in, grabbed this 54-pound girl, handcuffed her, marched her out to a police car, and took her to a juvie prison, for battering the teachers who were physically restraining her when all she wanted was to be left the hell alone. This sustained assault by several different adults, some of them heavily armed, on an upset child, which has left her with bruises, is dignified as a scuffle by the newspapers:

The mother of an 8-year-old autistic girl who was arrested after a scuffle with her teachers said it was horrifying to watch her daughter be led away in handcuffs from her northern Idaho elementary school.

Police in Bonner County, Idaho, charged the girl, Evelyn Towry, with battery after the arrest Friday at Kootenai Elementary School.

Even though prosecutors dismissed the case Tuesday, the family is considering legal action against the school. They say their daughter was physically restrained to the point of causing bruises and is now tormented by memories of the incident.

… Towry said Evelyn, who loves Spongebob Squarepants, told her she was put in a separate classroom away from the party, but when she tried to leave, the teachers told her to stay put. Evelyn did not listen, Towry said, and the adults physically restrained her.

She reacted in a violent way to the physical restraint, Towry said.

Towry said her daughter demonstrated for her how she was held down by her arms and legs. And Towry videotaped the thumb-sized bruises she says were left on Evelyn’s legs from the incident.

She said I was very scared, Towry said. She told me she was being hurt.

Dick Cvitanich, superintendent of the Lake Pend Oreille School District, which includes the school where Evelyn was a student, said the school called police because there was escalating behavior that resulted in what we perceived to be an assault on staff.

No doubt; but who, in this situation, was doing the escalating?

Teachers and the principal wished to pursue charges because they felt there were ongoing problems and this was the only way to resolve it, Lakewold said.

But Towry said her daughter thinks she got into so much trouble simply because she didn’t want to take off her cow costume.

When asked what she likes best about school, Evelyn responded quickly and emphatically.

Nothing, she said. I don’t like school.

— Sarah Netter, ABC News (2009-01-04): Parents Consider Legal Action After Autistic Girl, 8, Arrested at School

Meanwhile, in Occupied Seattle, a 15 year old black girl was taken to a government jail by the county government’s cops after she and a friend went on a joyride in her friend’s mother’s car. While under their power, according to the cops, she got quote-unquote real lippy over how they were treating her, and went so far as to call them some unkind names. Then, when she was being locked in a cell, the cops ordered her to take off her shoes; she kicked off one of the shoes towards the heaily armed cop who was about to lock her securely in a room she couldn’t escape from. Instead, he decided to take this escalating behavior as assaulting a police officer, which is of course a perfect opportunity for intervention — in this case, rushing the 15 year old girl, kicking her in the gut, slamming her against the wall of her cell, pulling her back by her hair, slamming her to the ground, pinning her down, and smashing her repeatedly with his fist while she was physically restrained by himself and his gang brother.

Meanwhile, in Texas, at the Corpus Christi State School [sic] — it is actually a government-run institution where about 360 people, ranging in age from 18 to 77 years old, are legally committed, temporarily or permanently, with or without their consent, for being labeled as mentally retarded, especially if they severe behavioral and/or emotional problems — about a dozen workers are under investigation after cell phone videos surfaced in which they rousted up some of the young men under their power, late at night, surrounded them, shoved them, kicked them, and goaded them into fighting each other for the entertainment of the trained, professional staff.

At a state institution for people with mental retardation in Texas, six staff members have been charged with taking part in staging what have been called human cockfights, using residents with mental retardation. . . .

The fights became known only because one of the workers lost his cell phone. It was found and turned over to an off-duty police officer. The phone had videos of more than a year of staged late-night fights, some as recent as this past January.

— Joseph Shapiro, NPR Morning Edition (2009-03-18): Abuse At Texas Institutions Is Beyond ‘Fight Club’

The criminal charges stem from allegations this week that Corpus Christi state school employees forced disabled residents into orchestrated, late-night fights over the course of more than a year. They were caught after they captured at least 20 of the episodes on a cellphone camera, one turned over to police.

Five of the suspects – Timothy Dixon, 30; Jesse Salazar, 25; Guadalupe Delarosa, 21; Vince Johnson, 21; and Dangelo Riley, 22 – are charged with injury to a disabled person, a third-degree felony. Their bail has been set at $30,000. A sixth suspect, 21-year-old Stephanie Garza, is charged with a state jail felony for allegedly failing to intervene in the fight clubs. Her bail is set at $15,000.

Arrest warrants obtained by The Dallas Morning News allege five of the employees encouraged, filmed or narrated the fights – which were documented in dozens of still images and 20 videos taken over six months in 2008. Riley is allegedly seen kicking a resident during a fight, while Dixon, who appears from the warrants to be the phone’s owner, is accused of doing much of the filming and narration. Four of the videos show residents sustaining injuries.

— Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning News (2009-03-13): State school worker linked to fight club scandal arrested; 5 others sought

Texas authorities are outraged. But they would like us to know that this is an Isolated Incident:

He said he hasn’t heard of fight club scenarios at any other state schools.

I haven’t heard any other allegations yet, he said. So far, these circumstances, these staffers, appear to have been the exception.

— Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning News (2009-03-12): Texas officials make surprise visits to state schools after Corpus Christi fight videos surface

Right — an exception. Just like the literally hundreds of other exceptions that we were discussing here less than a year ago, which The Dallas Morning News, among others, have documented at Texas state mental institutions in the last 4 years — the use of physical threats, headlocks, chokeholds, tackling, dragging, beating, raping, to please the whims of Mental Health staffers or to dominate and control the patients unwillingly forced to endure their care. Meanwhile, at Corpus Christi alone in 2008 alone, there were nearly 1,000 allegations of abuse, neglect or mistreatment in 2008; 60 reports were confirmed by the administrators. 60 confirmed reports is bad enough, but what’s worse is how many of those unconfirmed reports must surely be the result of the usual institutional cover-ups and white-washes. How much do you think you could get away with if all your coworkers could be counted on to get your back, and if reports of abuse by your victims could be waved off as literally the product of insanity or feeble-mindedness?

Several of the stories about this horrible case have gone straight for the agonized hand-wringing:

The accusations have raised questions about how workers trained and hired to care for some of the most vulnerable people in society could instead treat them with cruelty.

— Joseph Shapiro, NPR Morning Edition (2009-03-18): Abuse At Texas Institutions Is Beyond ‘Fight Club’

AUSTIN – Cellphone videos of Corpus Christi State School employees forcing mentally disabled residents into late-night prize fights have left Texas families and advocates for people with disabilities in search of answers – not just about security but about human nature.

How can one human being treat another in such a wicked way? Experts disagree on the roots of such abuse. It might be a byproduct of the stressful situations people are in. It could also be innate sadism.

— Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning News (2009-03-14): Forced fights at Corpus Christi State School raise disturbing questions

We are also told that maybe it’s a lack of education; maybe there’s something about the impersonal nature of large institutions; maybe it’s all peer pressure. But really, once the hand-wringing about human nature and peer pressure and all the rest is gotten out of the way, one explanation is always put forward, by those who have access to the media, as a matter of unquestionable consensus: obviously, Experts tell us, it’s the lack of training, the poor pay, and the lax supervision of the personnel who are put in the position of de facto prison guards for hundreds of institutionalized people. This is used as an entre into asserting the alleged need for more tax money, more prison guards, more Expert training — and insisting that these state institutions don’t have enough privileges and money from the state government; that they need even more money to hire and pay the very people who have turned their institutions into dangerous hellholes. E.g.:

But they [Experts] concur that the formula at Texas’ 13 institutions for the disabled – young, inexperienced and underpaid workers in charge of the state’s most vulnerable residents – lays the groundwork for disaster.

Left alone, human beings will engage in the most surprising kinds of misconduct and adjust their mentality to fit, said David Crump, a University of Houston Law Center professor who specializes in the psychology of evil behavior. We should expect this unless we take concrete and meaningful steps to prevent it.

Of course, if you’ve read this far, you’ll have no trouble believing that people are capable of all kinds of cruelty. But if you’ve read this far, you’ll also know that this kind of non-explanation is the worst sort of hogwash. People don’t, as a rule, pin and handcuff random little girls on the street; they don’t beat the living hell out of customers at their workplace who cop an attitude; they don’t run into college dorms late at night to intimidate and goad groggy students into fights for the purpose of bloodsport. Nobody but a lunatic does this sort of thing to people who can choose to interact with them or not to interact with them, or in social contexts where they are dealing with equals who have a right to make their own decisions about what’s for their own good and who can expect to be taken seriously if they complain about ill-treatment.

These horrors do happen, and people do them, over and over again, and they are perfectly predictable — but they are perfectly predictable only in a very specific social and political context. The NPR story acts surprised that in government institutions like jails and schools and mental wards — institutions that people are forced into, against their will, when they have been marginalized by their age or their psychiatric labels or by the socio-legal processes of criminalization — the people who, as the legally-designated enforcers of the government institution’s prerogatives, enjoy unaccountable power to restrain and order around the most vulnerable people in society, might abuse that power with this kind of cruelty. But in fact this is only surprising if you forget the fact that the people under their care have been made vulnerable, legally vulnerable, precisely in order to make the institution go on running with or without their consent, and if you forget everything you ever knew about how people act when they enjoy unaccountable power over victims who cannot leave, even if they pose absolutely no physical threat to anybody, and who will not be taken seriously if they should protest. This only looks like a surprise if, in short, you go on imagining that this sort of violence is an abuse of the systems of government institutionalization, rather than part and parcel of what these institutions represent. These things happen over and over again, not at random but specifically in nonconsensual government institutions, in the dedicated facilities of social marginalization and segregation under the auspices of State power. They happen not because of peer pressure or intrinsic sadism but because of power pressure and institutionalized sadism — and we hear about them, in every state of the Union and on every day of the week, one more Outrage after another, but without the dots connected, indeed with the dots carefully left un-connected, because of the enduring, and grotesque, faith that with just enough nonconsensual funding, with just enough careful training and professional dedication, you can somehow make a nonconsensual government institution run the right way, and you can somehow maintain the conditions of a prison camp without the violence that prison guards always exercise. In fact, these institutions are already running the right way, in a manner of speaking — this is Situation Normal. And there is only one thing that will ever change it — abolishing the conditions that nurture and sustain it.

The reality is that what is needed is not more money, or more guards, or better training, or even a culture change. A culture change would be a step forward, but the real solution that is needed is something that goes far deeper: a solution that strikes at the root from which that culture and these conditions grow. What is really needed is a power change, so that psychiatric wards are no longer artificially packed by court order, so that patients can leave and seek help through other means if conditions become unbearable, and so that supposed patients are no longer treated against their will and held down at the mercy of their helper-captors. If you make a hospital into a prison camp, then it should be no surprise when the hospital caregivers start acting like prison camp guards. The only thing to do — the only thing you can do that will not just recreate the same problem in a superficially different form — is to respect the will of patients, to treat violence against them as a real crime worthy of punishment, to repeal the laws that privilege and protect their captors, and to break open the doors and tear off the straitjackets that hold them back from living their lives as human beings, rather than as objects of pity and coercion.

— GT 2008-05-05: Texas psychoprisons

See also:

Texas psychoprisons

Trigger warning. The news report I discuss includes verbal descriptions of sexual exploitation and extreme violence by caretakers against male and female patients under their control. It may be triggering for past experiences of violence.

In the past, when I’ve written about violence committed by government police officers or prison guards, I’ve often written something like this:

Please note that if you or I or anyone else without a badge and a gun acted like this, the people around us would more or less universally conclude that we’re belligerent and dangerous lunatics. In fact, if you or I or anyone else without a badge and a gun acted like this, and it was caught on camera, we would soon be in jail for on a charge of assault and battery. When someone with a badge and a gun acts like this, and it’s caught on camera, with a very few exceptions, the worst that ever happens is that they might get fired. The most common response from the powers that be is either to do nothing at all, or else to give the pig a paid vacation and a verbal reprimand.

— GT 2008-02-18: Cops are here to protect you.

That’s a point that I stand by, and that I think is vitally important. But one thing you’ve got to remember when thinking about that point is that the class of government-privileged cops and prison guards is larger than the obvious cases you might first think of when asked. Badges and guns come in a lot of shapes and sizes and prisons can be found in a lot of places. Sometimes the badge is a gold shield and the prison is a penitentiary surrounded by razor-wire and high fences. Sometimes the badge is a white coat, the gun is a syringe, and the prison is the locked mental ward of a hospital. What matters is not the external form, but the underlying relationship of power, and when so-called caretakers have the legal power to restrain, confine, hold down, drug, shock, spy on, and otherwise coerce or violate a so-called patient, to treat her against her will, to force her to remain in a locked room even if she wants to leave, and to chase her down and force her back into that locked room if she tries to slip out without permission, then those so-called caretakers function as a jailers, and their hospital as a prison, no less than the corrections officers and correctional facilities of the official State prison system.

This is, by the way, a basic point that needs to be made, and needs to be accepted, whether or not one accepts presuppositions of institutional psychiatry, and whether or not one accepts the common practices of involuntary civil commitment, the imprisonment of criminals deemed legally insane in State-run psychoprisons, drugging patients through the use of force or deception, etc. etc. etc. If you accept those presuppositions and you support imprisoning and forcibly drugging people who, for example, try to hurt (only) themselves, or who have hallucinations, or who steadfastly cling to beliefs that the majority of people consider irrational, then you should go ahead and defend that. But that is what you need to defend–imprisonment and coercive force–not some sentimentalized helping professions myth in which caretakers are helping willing patients through a disease just like cancer or diabetes. If you have cancer and diabetes, and you decide (for whatever reason) that you’d rather suffer or even die from it than undergo the conventional treatments, nobody has the legal power to force those treatments on you against your will. And therein lies one of the fundamental political differences between real doctor-patient relationships and psychiatry as it is practiced today. If you want to try to defend psychiatry as it’s practiced today, that difference–the fact of psychiatric imprisonment–is something you’ll have to admit, and where you’ll have to start.

And for those of us who have spent some time watching how the official State prisons and their prison guards work, and who know that the pervasive violence and domination that runs through the system, even when it is judged excessive or abusive by the powers that be, should be dismissed as Yet Another Isolated Incident carried out by A Few More Bad Apples, but rather recognized as the natural and inevitable result of the kind of environment fostered by the unaccountable power of government enforcers–well, for those of us, things like the Dallas Morning News‘s recent report on intense, pervasive abuse of patients in Texas’s state psychoprisons should be an outrage, but (heart-breakingly) not at all a surprise:

Last year, one [Texas] state mental hospital employee tackled an adolescent patient who was sobbing for his mother, dragging him across the floor by his wrists and hair.

The year before, another brought a female patient into a hospital bathroom and sexually abused her.

And dozens more have participated in brutal beatings at the psychiatric hospitals since 2005, employee disciplinary reports show – using chokeholds, headlocks and threats of violence to restrain the patients under their watch.

In all, 72 employees across Texas’ 10 state mental hospitals have been fired in the last three years for allegations of physical abuse, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of state personnel records. Hundreds more have been terminated for other violations, the records show, from sleeping on the job to over-medicating mentally ill patients.

. . . Among the allegations of abuse and neglect state hospital workers have been fired for since 2005:

  • A worker at the North Texas State Hospital slammed a clipboard on a patient’s head, dragged her by her feet and kicked her in the legs and buttocks.

  • An employee at the Big Spring State Hospital failed to notice a patient who knotted her sheet and strung it around her neck. The patient was blue by the time staff found her.

  • At the Austin State Hospital, a male employee brought a female patient into a private room for her to carry out a sexual act on him.

  • An employee at the Austin hospital tackled a juvenile patient and pinned the patient’s neck and head to the floor, bloodying his lips and face and breaking his glasses.

Other employees were punished for offensive treatment, from using racial slurs on patients to making verbal threats and sexual advances. Some ignored patients’ cries for help while they watched TV, played video games and wrote text messages. Others stole state property and sold tobacco products to patients.

. . .

Jason Evans called 911 in November during a bipolar meltdown and was admitted to the Terrell State Hospital. Days later, the 34-year-old was dead – and his parents still don’t know why.

State officials told the Kaufman couple that their son, who was severely mentally ill but in good physical condition, had been disruptive that evening, and records obtained by the family indicate hospital workers medicated him before sending him to sleep. Mr. Evans was apparently found hours later in his bed, and was no longer breathing.

Lynn Evans, his mother, said psychiatric hospital workers attributed the death to natural causes, and doctors said her son had lost oxygen to the brain. But she and Mr. Evans’ father, a pharmacist, have been unable to get specific details about their son’s death. They believe Jason was effectively overdosed by hospital workers trying to restrain him.

It was a disease. Jason couldn’t help it, said Mrs. Evans, choking back sobs. In my heart, I will go to my grave knowing that hospital killed him.

Mr. McBride said that the agency is prohibited from confirming the identities of anyone in their care – but that any unexpected deaths are investigated by the Department of Family and Protective Services or by local law enforcement.

There were no deaths among Terrell State Hospital patients last fall from anything other than natural causes, he said.

— Emily Ramshaw, Dallas Morning News (2008-05-04): Reports show systemic abuse at Texas’ psychiatric hospitals

And anyone who has followed the official response to past prison abuse scandals (cf. GT 2008-02-21: Mississippi Corrections, GT 2008-02-05: Rapists in uniform, GT 2007-10-28: Corrections officers, etc.) should be outraged, but not at all surprised, by the fact that state Mental Health officials have responded to the threatening, neglecting, assaulting, raping, and torturing of imprisoned patients in the usual way that prison bosses respond. That, when the administrators are forced to admit that abuses have happened, the individual psychoprison guards are usually administratively disciplined, or at worst fired, rather than arrested or sued like the violent criminals that they are. That, when asked, the official mouthpieces of the mental health prison system reply by lying, covering up, whitewashing, isolating, or minimizing the extent of the violence against patients, by making excuses for the perpetrators, and by telling a bunch of sob-stories about the hard luck of supposed trained professionals who are expected to actually do their tough job without hurting people.

State officials say there will always be some reports of abuse and neglect in an institutional setting. And they say they take any allegations of mistreatment seriously. But the records show that as in other state-run facilities, abuse and neglect are systemic.

. . .

The state’s juvenile prisons, group homes for the disabled, and state schools for people with mental disabilities all came under fire last year for reports of widespread physical and sexual abuse.

. . .

Officials with the Department of State Health Services, the agency that runs the psychiatric hospitals, say abuse and neglect are absolutely not pervasive – and verified cases are actually dropping.

In the last two years, they confirmed 15 Class I cases – the most serious abuse. On average, investigators substantiate 5 percent of the more than 2,000 allegations they examine annually. And 90 percent of patient deaths since 2005 were attributed to natural causes, agency spokesman Doug McBride said. Five were suicides, and none were the result of abuse.

Keep in mind there are about 7,400 employees, 18,000 patient admissions and probably hundreds of thousands of staff-patient interactions in a year, Mr. McBride said.

State officials acknowledge that the psychiatric hospitals are stressful environments; there are times, Mr. McBride said, when employees do not handle a situation appropriately. But they say the rules for reporting abuse and neglect are stringent – and confirmed cases of physical and sexual abuse are reported to police.

And they balk at the suggestion that conditions bear a resemblance to the state schools for people with mental disabilities, where the U.S. Justice Department has intervened twice in recent years.

The state psychiatric hospitals, which have about 2,500 patients daily, had 137 confirmed abuse cases in 2007. The state schools for people with disabilities, which have twice as many residents, have an average of 300 confirmed abuse cases per year.

But some advocates fear the mentally ill patients may face greater risks. Patients of the psychiatric hospitals are largely indigent, transient and not connected to their families, so they have few allies as they bounce through the mental health system.

It’s a population that’s easy to abuse because they’re not on the radar in any way, said Richard Hansen, a Texas mental health advocate who was chemically restrained, shackled and beaten to the point of broken ribs years ago while suffering from bipolar disorder in a New York mental hospital.

. . . Mr. Hansen said many employees are conscientious, but conditions vary from hospital to hospital and ward to ward. Some are simply warehouses, where patients are often overmedicated and ignored. In others, patients frequently turn up with unexplained injuries, he said.

— Emily Ramshaw, Dallas Morning News (2008-05-04): Reports show systemic abuse at Texas’ psychiatric hospitals

Besides the fact that it is just a lie to claim that a problem that has involved hundreds of employees in the last three years alone is somehow absolutely not pervasive, one of the most important factors simply goes unmentioned here — that it is really, really easy to get away with far more violence and abuse than crops up in verified official reports, simply because guards tend to stick together against any allegations made by inmates, and because they can act with an incredible amount of impunity when officials will never trust a victim’s testimony, and will happily wave it off, whenever it’s convenient to do so, as the product–literally–of feeble-mindedness or insanity. No wonder that 5% (and dropping) of the 2,000 abuse allegations filed every year end up getting verified by the officials.

And, to cap it all, no matter how bad and how widespread the abuse may get, the administrators can always count on the pro-establishment wing of their supposed critics to go to the public and to the legislature to beg for even more tax money and even more prison guards to be sent into the psychiatric prison system, so that the very people who created these maddening prison-ward hellholes can be rewarded for their institutionalized violence by being allowed to take even more money from taxpayers to go on doing the same old thing:

The state psychiatric hospitals, like other systems for vulnerable Texans, are chronically starved for cash, advocates of more state funding say, and services at the local level can’t keep up.

. . .

You get what you pay for, said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who has bipolar disorder. When you financially dumb something down, you make services cheap, something’s got to give. Unfortunately, it usually ends up being a mentally ill or disabled Texan.

. . .

Aaryce Hayes, a mental health policy specialist with Advocacy Inc., said the Department of State Health Services is working to improve the state hospital system, from incorporating trauma-informed treatment into care regimens to increasing employee empathy training. It is also trying to reduce reliance on restraint and seclusion to keep control of patients.

They get it, she said. They want to see a culture change.

But it’s hard to improve when the state hospital system is so overburdened, Ms. Hayes said. Right now, the state funds just 27 percent of mental health needs in the community – meaning everyone else rotates in and out of crisis care. There are more than 450,000 adult Texans with serious and persistent mental illness, everything from schizophrenia to major depression, Ms. Hayes said.

If we said we were serving just 27 percent of people who had cancer, or diabetes, nobody would be comfortable with that, Ms. Hayes said.

Money is a persistent problem. In 2003, lawmakers stripped $100 million from the state’s mental health budget, Mr. Coleman said – funding that has only partially been replaced.

The Legislature approved $82 million last year to improve community mental health crisis services, said Robin Peyson, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Texas chapter. But Texas ranks 48th in the country in per capita funding for people with mental illness, so that money only begins to address the shortfall.

There are not services at the community level and there are not enough beds in the system, she said. If you have inadequate funding, you’re just supporting this cycle, this revolving wheel.

— Emily Ramshaw, Dallas Morning News (2008-05-04): Reports show systemic abuse at Texas’ psychiatric hospitals

The reality is that what is needed is not more money, or more guards, or better training, or even a culture change. A culture change would be a step forward, but the real solution that is needed is something that goes far deeper: a solution that strikes at the root from which that culture and these conditions grow. What is really needed is a power change, so that psychiatric wards are no longer artificially packed by court order, so that patients can leave and seek help through other means if conditions become unbearable, and so that supposed patients are no longer treated against their will and held down at the mercy of their helper-captors. If you make a hospital into a prison camp, then it should be no surprise when the hospital caregivers start acting like prison camp guards. The only thing to do — the only thing you can do that will not just recreate the same problem in a superficially different form — is to respect the will of patients, to treat violence against them as a real crime worthy of punishment, to repeal the laws that privilege and protect their captors, and to break open the doors and tear off the straitjackets that hold them back from living their lives as human beings, rather than as objects of pity and coercion.

Free the Texas 2,500!

Free all psychiatric prisoners!

Further reading:

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