Deaf and Damned

If Artie Martinez weren't deaf, he might have talked his way out of the Arizona State Hospital. Instead, he was locked up there for nearly 40 years.

He answered in sign language, hands and fingers cutting through the air.
"I think so," Martinez said. "They gave me dope with shots, to my body in shots. All together, God, [it] is hard to remember. . . . In the hospital, I was hit. They wouldn't let me out. Finally, they did let me out."

A legislative committee approved an out-of-court settlement in the Martinez case last month. The sum remains a secret, though the fact that the committee had to okay it means it was for more than $150,000.

"This is Artie's chance, finally," says his Tucson-based attorney, Elliot Glicksman. "Money is not an issue. He can take fishing trips in Mexico if he wants, go to ballparks, have someone take him to see artwork. He has the chance at somewhat of a life until he dies."

Most of Martinez's days pass uneventfully, watching closed-captioned television, puttering around the backyard (when it's cool), flirting harmlessly with one of his caretakers, Valerie Blair. He gets away from the home once or twice weekly--always supervised--to eat at restaurants, spend time at a day-care center for geriatrics, visit a mall, maybe sit in a park.

"While in the hospital, all of Mr. Martinez's life skills atrophied," Elliot Glicksman wrote in a letter to a court-appointed mediator last July 18.

". . . When he left [the hospital], he was wholly dependent on the facility to survive. He was periodically assaultive, he destroyed property, he urinated and masturbated in public, he did not dress himself appropriately, he had no personal hygiene skills, and virtually no social skills. . . . In short, Mr. Martinez's entire life was taken away from him."

Many who know Martinez's story blame his deterioration on the mental-health system that kept him incarcerated for so long.

"It's not just Artie, but other people, too," says Wes Wilson, clinical director of the Foundation for Senior Living. "This is the experience that we have with the rest of the people--they don't have their skills anymore. . . . Because they spent so long having everybody do these things for them in the institution, they lose them."

he Artie Martinez case cannot be painted in black and white, although the evidence against the State of Arizona was damning.

Subtle shades complicate the landscape, as often happens in mental-health cases.

For one thing, Martinez's caretakers at the State Hospital weren't cruel toward him in the tradition of a Nurse Ratched, the antagonist in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. To the contrary, many staffers did little favors for him--gave him extra cigarettes, let him sneak an extra bowl of ice cream, tossed a ball with him, that sort of thing.

Joel Dvoskin, a forensic psychologist hired by the State of Arizona as an expert in the Martinez case, offered this perspective during his deposition:

"It's a question of balancing different interests of freedom, community safety, his own safety, et cetera. . . . There were other deaf people in the hospital who came and went. So obviously, it wasn't just that he was deaf--there was something else about him.

". . . Generally, I think that [hospital staffers] cared about him, I think that they worked very hard to communicate with him. At the time [before his release], there was not an expectation that there would be now about the availability of interpreter services."

A stark truth is that Martinez probably would have had nowhere to go in Arizona during much of his long stay at the State Hospital. That was true even after the landmark 1980s lawsuit of Arnold v. Sarn won, at least in theory, funding of community treatment programs for Arizona's seriously mentally ill.

Moving as many State Hospital patients as possible into the "community" seemed a noble way of freeing people from the shackles of government psychiatric incarceration. But for a variety of reasons--lack of money, inferior service providers, inattentive politicians--the reduction of the hospital population in recent years hasn't been a panacea.

When Martinez first was committed to the hospital in 1955, warehousing patients for years on end was the norm. Most asylums still favored techniques such as electroshock therapy, and wrapping a patient's body in cold towels to slow brain functions. Thorazine--the granddaddy of antipsychotic drugs--had been available for only a few years.

Such was the maelstrom into which Artie Martinez was thrust after he took off his clothes on a Phoenix street.

He was the third of six children born to Ernina and Brawlio Martinez. The Mexican immigrants were poor, but were very close as their kids grew up in a home south of downtown Phoenix.

Born on June 1, 1928, Martinez was a happy, normal child. When he was 4, however, a near-fatal bout with meningitis left him permanently deaf.

When he turned 8, Martinez moved to Tucson to attend the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind for the next decade. There, he became proficient at American Sign Language, played sports, was active in the Boy Scouts, and showed an artistic bent. High school photographs of Martinez depict a handsome, debonair young man.

He'd return to his family in Phoenix during summers.
"We'd play ball, play basketball, and we could talk very well together," Martinez's younger brother Ed Martin (he legally changed his name) said in his April deposition. "We would fight, we would play. And I always had a lot of respect for him because he was very handsome, strong and he was very athletic. And I admired the fact that even though he couldn't speak and he couldn't hear, he was very, very independent in his thinking and he was very intelligent."

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