"I'm Marion Barry. Feel My Pain."

The psychodrama on the Potomac

Published May 8, 1996 8:52AM (EDT)

Washington, D.C. --

Marion S. Barry Jr., the recovering drug addict who is mayor of the nation's capital, is supposed to return to his post later this week after grappling with the "telltale signs of spiritual relapse and physical exhaustion" in a St. Louis clinic. Barry grandly titled his getaway "Rejuvenation!!" and suggested that he needed to lift his nose from the grindstone to keep it from falling onto the coke
mirror. Hizzoner later denied he was using anything stronger than
cigarettes, but he has been under a lot of stress lately. Even his closest friends, like boxing promoter Rock Newman, hinted broadly that a relapse had occurred.

Barry has looked somewhat green around the gills, both physically and politically, for several months. President Clinton last year installed a Control Board in the district, stripping the mayor of spending power, and lenders have been dubious, to say the least, about financing the city's $650 million deficit. In January, shortly after Barry emerged from prostate surgery, the Blizzard of '96 caught the city with two-thirds of its snowplows out for repairs, leaving streets blocked and iced over for weeks.

With winter turning to spring, and potholes rattling the axles on Embassy Row, Barry talked about a "transformation" of the city, which, among other things, entailed laying off 10,000 workers from the giant bureaucracy Barry himself had built over the years. So far he hasn't released a detailed plan. His staff did, however, awake members of the press with 2 a.m. phone calls last week, directing them to an airport news conference, where Barry told them he was leaving his Maryland retreat for a St. Louis treatment center. Why? So he wouldn't be hounded by the press.

All this comes just 18 months after Barry swept back into office, swathed in kinte cloth and penitence for his videotaped 1990 crack bust in a D.C. hotel, where the feds employed a former girlfriend as bait. ("The bitch set me up!") With this colorful record, it wouldn't seem like the wisest career move to engage in a public bout of demon-wrestling. But Barry's teflon is lot thicker than the coating on your average public official. He looks like a shoo-in for reelection in 1998 as Mayor-for-Life of a city where the potholes are bigger, the white and black middle-class flight faster, the water dirtier, the schools more chaotic, the dope and alcohol addicts more numerous --80,000 out of a population of 550,000, according to the city's substance abuse administration -- than just about anywhere else.

Why would the local electorate reward a man with so few apparent achievements? "They know I care," Barry said after being returned to City Council in 1992, fresh out of jail. "I understand them better than anybody else in elected office."

For a time, Barry looked good. In his early years as mayor, he wined and dined contractors, resulting in a downtown development boom in the 1980s. The good times, however, merely masked the disastrous underlying financial structure Congress had saddled on D.C. Unlike other cities, the district pays for its prisons, Medicaid, welfare, a university and other services that states normally handle. And two-thirds of the income earned in D.C. rides to its home in the suburbs every evening -- often aboard the safe, efficient, D.C.-administered subway system. When the bubble burst in the '90s, the district was staring at a huge budget deficit, which the GOP overseers simply handed over to number crunchers. It was enough to drive any mayor to drink.

"Barry's biggest skills were in political life, the wheeling and dealing to get development in the city,'' says Bernard H. Ross, chair of public administration department at American University. "With the Control Board in charge it cuts down his options, and a political player without options is wounded.''

Today, Barry seems tentative and increasingly steered
by his wife Cora Masters Barry, who has a Nancy Reaganesque
reputation in the city administration. (Loose Lips, the anonymous
columnist in the rambunctious weekly City Paper, calls her Lady
MacBarry.) The substance abuse treatment community is watching the mayor's latest struggle with sympathy, although some thought he'd be better off resigning. "I really wonder whether a person in
recovery can be mayor of a major city," says Marsh Ward,
clinical director of Clean & Sober Streets clinic. "The
political process is counterproductive to recovery, you know --
because recovery is based on honesty."

The political process has not been kind to other D.C. addicts, either. Most methadone and in-patient drug recovery programs in Washington have been shut down by Congressional cutbacks. About 100 addicts slept in the alley outside Clean & Sober one night last week so they could be first in the door the next morning: the private clinic is one of the only places left in town for the poor to get the cure.

Barry's absence, meanwhile, may provide a chance for officials to start getting the city's finances back in order. City Administrator
Michael C. Rogers used Barry's absence to strip the Department of Human Services of the power to authorize contracts within its $1.6 billion budget.

At city hall, politicos were laying bets on the likelihood Barry would return. "He should be given privacy to heal his soul,"
said City Council chairman David A. Clarke. "Welcome to
Washington, psychodrama on the Potomac," responded Harry Jaffe of
Washingtonian magazine. "See the monuments! Feel our pain!"

Arthur Allen is Washington D.C.-based journalist whose articles have appeared in the Village Voice and the New Republic.

"Oops, we killed him!"

Now prison officials have a name for restraint that gets out of hand

By Richard R. Korn, Terry A. Kupers and Corey Weinstein

If you're overweight, on drugs or easily excitable,
getting arrested could be particularly hazardous to your health. You may be at risk of incurring "Sudden In Custody Death Syndrome" -- a term newly minted by corrections officials for "Oops, we killed him!"

Thirty-three prisoners in California are officially listed as having died from the syndrome following the application of "standard restraint techniques," applied on inmates involved in situations that are judged potentially violent.

One of those deaths was caught on a 25-minute videotape, shot on July 25, 1995 in a Santa Clara County, Calif., jail and recently leaked to prison reform advocates by a prison source who insists on anonymity. The video, whose authenticity has been confirmed by county prison officials, recorded California correctional officials carrying out a routine procedure for transporting people under restraint. The videographer didn't know that the events he was taping would end in death.

The inmate, Joseph Leitner, who suffered severe and long-standing mental illness complicated by drug abuse, had been jailed on "outstanding warrants." He had informed the intake social worker that he was under county mental health care and that, when anxious, he tended to slap his own face. The social worker ordered that he be restrained and taken to a safety cell in the jail's psychiatric unit.

The video shows an unresisting Leitner being forced onto the floor face down by five guards and put into a double hammer-lock position. He cries out in pain. He is stripped naked. He injures his lip and begins bleeding from the mouth. The guards throw a blanket over his head and twist it at the neck, apparently fearful of coming into contact with the blood. Then with Leitner's body still in a double hammer-lock, the guards pull up on his arms and legs and carry him "suitcase" style to the psych unit. He bucks a few times.

Once at the unit, the officers heave Leitner, still in manacles, onto a
bed. Almost five minutes elapse before they return to check on him and discover he has stopped breathing. They apply CPR but he never regains consciousness.

The official cause of Leitner's brain death, Sudden In Custody Death Syndrome, is also cited as the cause of death for 32 other people who died in custody in California, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The term is increasingly used in cases where jail inmates or arrestees perish after being placed in restraints. Those at highest risk for the syndrome have, typically: just engaged in violent struggle; failed to respond to pain compliance controls; are handcuffed while in a prone position with their faces down; intoxicated, overweight or over 50; or have been silent for an extended period. The restraint techniques typically involve rough physical handling (such as "suitcasing") and/or the use of pepper spray.

Manufacturers of pepper spray recommend that persons sprayed with the substance be exposed to fresh air and not placed face down or left in a small, confined space such as a police van or jail cell. Nevertheless official procedure throughout California often involves spraying into a prison cell or chaining an inmate who has been exposed to pepper spray.

The Leitner video, say prison reform advocates, raises the possibility that comparable physical excesses may have been employed during some of the other incidents of Sudden In Custody Death Syndrome in California.

Others warn that as long as Sudden In Custody Death Syndrome remains on the books, overworked and often undertrained staff will have no incentive to apply alternative procedures -- such as on-the-spot psychological counseling or having a jail nurse apply tranquilizers. Instead, they will continue to use restraint techniques designed to protect them at any cost.

Richard R. Korn is a former corrections administrator and professor of criminology; Terry A. Kupers, M.D., is a forensic psychiatric consultant; and Corey Weinstein is a medical doctor who works with the Pelican Bay Information Project.

Pacific News Service

Quote of the day

One strike and you're out

"The underlying assumption of this bill is that once you have committed one crime of this kind, you are presumed guilty for the rest of your life. That, my friends, is contrary, whether we like it or not, to the constitutional mandates that govern our nation.We should not be presuming people guilty."

-- Rep. Melvin L. Watt, D-N.C., the only congressman to speak against a House bill mandating states to notify localities when convicted sex offenders settle in their communities.

By Arthur Allen

Arthur Allen writes on health, science and other issues for Salon. He lives in Washington.

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