More Links in News & Events

Mentally ill get prison, not couch

Violet Popadich doesn't look at newspapers anymore - not after what they said about her son.

The "Midtown Madman," as the tabloids called him, killed a woman in Elmwood Park, then drove to Manhattan and plowed his car into crowds of pedestrians. One victim later died.

But it wasn't so much what the media said about Ronald Popadich that upsets his 80-year-old mother. It's how she's constantly reminded of what he did that February week three years ago.

Ronald, a 42-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

Now, his mother is suffering along with his many victims.

"I feel like I'm in a prison by myself," said Violet Popadich of Garfield. "I just sit here and worry about my son."

Little was done to help him - until he ended up killing people.

It's all too common. More and more, law enforcement is locking up people with schizophrenia, depression and other mental disorders that were previously undetected or ignored. By the time that happens, it's often too late.

  • In 1997, 15-year-old Sam Manzie killed an 11-year-old boy who was selling candy for a school fund-raiser. Just three days earlier, Sam's parents had asked an Ocean County judge to admit him for treatment. The judge refused.
  • In 1999, Andrew Goldstein, a schizophrenic who failed numerous times to get treatment, pushed a woman to her death in front of a Manhattan subway train.

In New Jersey, the mentally ill population in state prisons has jumped 60 percent since 2000.

Roughly 80 percent of those inmates were undiagnosed prior to incarceration, said Matthew Schuman, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.

"In this state, more people with mental illness are in prison than are in mental hospitals," Schuman said.

Other states have reported similar increases.At some point in their lives, one in five Americans suffers from some form of mental illness, yet only a third of those diagnosed receive assistance, according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

The untreated tend to be poor: More than half of the nation's mentally ill population makes less than $10,000 a year, a recent alliance survey found. Most can't afford a sleek rehabilitation center with soft couches and support groups. They lack the capacity to speak for themselves or to hire high-priced lawyers to represent them.

Relatives often become caregivers, but they're too overwhelmed and unqualified to manage the mentally ill. They lose hope - and sometimes suffer, as their loved ones steal from them and take drugs.

"Most don't have access to private health insurance," said Ron Honberg, the alliance's legal director, "and even if they do, it doesn't cover the services they need."

Those who seek judicial relief find few remedies from the courts. Community-based services are overcrowded, unaffordable or unavailable.

In New Jersey, the number of state-funded, non-prison beds for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled has dropped from nearly 6,700 in 1996 to fewer than 5,500, according to the state Department of Human Services. Other states, such as Texas, have had similar reductions.

Codey seeks services

Acting Gov. Codey has proposed adding $40 million for mental health initiatives. The funds would expand staff at mental health screening centers, clear waiting lists for psychiatric services and create programs that provide alternatives to jail for people with mental illness, he says.

Codey also talks of establishing a $200 million housing trust fund, using leftover bond proceeds, that would create 10,000 permanent housing units over the next 10 years for the mentally ill.

Whether this will be enough to make a difference is an open question.

Elsewhere, agencies have obtained federal grants to expand mental health services. Bexar County, Texas, for instance, recently received a $900,000 grant to set up a program that identifies people with mental illness at the point of their arrest and immediately shifts them into treatment instead of jail.

New Jersey, on the other hand, has operated without such aid. In response, Codey said that he's directed his staff to explore federal funding opportunities.

His term as acting governor ends in January. Yet Codey said he would continue to promote his proposals as a state senator.

"I still have enough clout, so I can follow through on everything," he told The Record in a recent interview.

Most prisoners return

Nationally, the majority of ex-prisoners eventually commit another crime and are brought back. Jails in Los Angeles and other cities report that anywhere from 72 percent to 90 percent of people with mental illness return. The prison system, as a result, often shoulders the burden of a population whose options are shrinking elsewhere.

It's an enormous responsibility. In New Jersey, the cost of providing mental health services to inmates doubled in 2005, to $50 million, from the year before. The cost of caring for a mentally inmate is $45,000, compared with $28,000 for other prisoners, said Schuman, the Corrections Department spokesman.

Elsewhere, sentencing the criminally insane to death seems to have become a more viable option.

Nationally, more than 300 people currently on death row suffer from a mental disorder. An additional 31 have been executed since the 1960s -19 of them in the last five years, according to the National Mental Health Association.

"I think this is how juries look at it: Because they're mentally ill, there's no hope for them to be rehabilitated," Honberg said.

'Insanity' as a shield

Critics believe that criminals cry "insanity" as a way to hide their deviant behavior. Some argue that the insane have no hope anyway. A stiff penalty is the only solution, they say.

Maureen Kanka of Hamilton Township believes that's true about pedophiles.

Jesse Timmendequas raped and killed his 7-year-old daughter, Megan, in 1994.

He was convicted and sentenced to death.

A decade ago, Kanka successfully lobbied New Jersey lawmakers to pass Megan's Law to provide community warnings about sex offenders.

In court, Timmendequas' lawyers argued that he didn't have the mental capacity to stop himself. He didn't deserve the death penalty, they said.

But Kanka has little sympathy.

"It doesn't matter what the defense said," she said. "They use anything they can in court to defend dirtbags like him."

Others see the situation differently.

They believe society has a duty to help everybody. Or they know the killers personally, and have seen a human side before the real trouble began.

Sure, people in the neighborhood weren't surprised by Ronald Popadich's rampage. They said he was unpleasant, and acted strangely.

But his mother wasn't one of them.

Popadich's brother died two years ago after spending 40 years in Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital. His father dead, Popadich took care of his mother and drove her to the store to buy food.

In 2002, Popadich fatally shot Lisa Gotkin, a married mother, after she had rejected his sexual advances. Later, he carjacked a woman in Secaucus and shot a New York City cabdriver in the head. The cabbie survived.

All in all, Popadich injured at least 26 people.

Now that he's in jail, he calls his mother and they talk. She misses him.

"I'm so glad to talk to him," his mother said. "I love him."

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top