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.

Information about Martinez's whereabouts from his 1946 graduation from high school until his incarceration in 1955 is scant. What is known is that, other than being deaf, he wasn't much different from other young men: He pursued girls, moved from job to job and did some traveling as he sought his niche.

Martinez attended the Tucson Art School, but dropped out for unspecified reasons. He worked menial jobs in Phoenix, Tucson and Southern California, once saving enough money to buy a car.

In 1952, he visited three of his siblings in Los Angeles, where they had migrated. It would be their last contact with him until after the December 1955 disrobing episode.

Artie Martinez recalled the event during his deposition: "There was a policeman involved, one or two or three. One policeman grabbed me. I have forgotten a lot about that and with the hospital. . . . I disrobed, and I did it because it felt good."

His December 23, 1955, State Hospital admission papers said:
"Very nervous since last Friday. Restless--can't stay still in one place. Disrobed self at 52nd Street and McDowell, and was picked up by sheriff's deputies and brought home. Is a deaf mute since age of four years. Has periods when he is irrational and could be dangerous to himself and possibly others. He indicated that he (probably) heard the voice of God instructing him to disrobe on the street . . ."

A judge ordered Martinez committed "until sufficiently restored to reason or otherwise discharged according to law."

Doctors diagnosed Martinez as schizophrenic. It seems absurd now, but something stymied them from completing proper evaluations, then and later: They could not speak the language of the deaf.

"It is very difficult to converse with the patient since he is a deaf mute," a State Hospital doctor admitted in January 1956, "but from written notes, the patient confirms that he is nervous and also admits that he disrobed himself. [He] states that he did this because he was feeling nervous and wanted to call the attention of other people to his condition."

Martinez was released in April 1956, after treatment with drugs seemed to stabilize him. But he returned to the hospital less than a year later, after Martinez's parents told doctors that he paced the floor constantly, and didn't seem right.

Ed Martin visited his brother at the hospital around that time.
"Where [Artie] used to run and play and everything," Martin testified in a deposition earlier this year, "he came through the hallway like he had been drugged. . . . I think they said they had given him a shock treatment. . . . There was nobody there that could speak the language, sign language, so I would talk to him. . . . As time went by, I thought with the medication they were giving him he would get better. But he got worse every year that I saw him."

Martinez's parents visited him regularly until they died. But his siblings eventually lost contact with him.

"I couldn't see possibly how I could take care of him, if they couldn't take care of him inside," Ed Martin explained.

Martinez perplexed hospital staffers. Gary LaVigna noted in his 1993 report that records "contain accounts by staff of their frustration over the lack of options for Mr. Martinez and imply that he should not be in a psychiatric hospital. However, such an explanation never was a justification for his stay at ASH [Arizona State Hospital] and has little relevance today."

Martinez lived in the hospital's "open ward" until early 1968. Even in an asylum, he stood out as a quirky figure. He usually wore a rag on his head like a turban. He'd wrap newspapers around his legs like chaps.

Martinez was a loner, probably because he had few, if any, souls with whom he could communicate deeply. He drew in his sketchbook on occasion, sometimes likenesses of shapely women in states of undress, other times the Virgin Mary.

In the mid-'60s, doctors deemed Martinez well enough to allow him occasionally to visit his parents on weekends. The furloughs went smoothly, though he'd often be excitable and "act out" upon his return.

After Martinez's mother died in 1966, he became even more isolated and withdrawn. His father died in 1971, at which time his lifeline to the outside world essentially was severed.

In January 1968, Martinez was moved into a maximum-security ward after "he became aggressive and assaultive on an open ward."

Yet Martinez had learned how to manipulate the system. A hospital report during that era noted: ". . . He often would want to go into seclusion and restraint, claiming tension, anxiety and/or saying he 'cannot stand it any longer.' If he was not then placed in seclusion, he would attack other patients, knowing that this would lead to seclusion."

In the early 1970s, hospital officials began to release many longtime patients no longer considered a danger to themselves or others. Sadly, the "community" into which they were freed often meant ramshackle boarding homes and other substandard facilities.

Everyone agrees that releasing the mentally ill without adequate treatment and support systems often led--and leads--to their criminalization. In fact, people inside Maricopa County's health-care system aren't joking when they refer to the Madison Street Jail as the state's largest mental institution.

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