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.

Nothing went Martinez's way. In late October 1987, a deaf priest visited him a few times, but quit coming by. The budding friendship's failure crushed Martinez.

"Arturo suffered several losses within the last year which appear to have directly affected his behavior," Klabe wrote.

But Martinez truly couldn't communicate what he was feeling to those around him. During an April 29 deposition, Elliot Glicksman asked Cholla ward psychiatrist George O'Connor if he knew sign language.

"Not well enough to be an official interpreter," O'Connor replied, "but I know sign language."

"Did you ever sign with Arturo?"
"Yes."
"If I asked you to sign for the word 'help,' could you show that to me?"
"No, I couldn't."

In 1988, the State Hospital lost its annual certification and, with it, a few million dollars in federal assistance. The blow largely came because of the Cholla ward--"a danger to staff and to patients," a federal report said.

The hospital won recertification in part because Cholla underwent a face-lift. By then, however, the patient-to-staff ratio had careened dangerously out of whack, causing new safety concerns.

Artie Martinez in 1988 still was legally considered a danger to self and to others. But, according to hospital records, "the patient was doing very well and basically keeping to himself and enjoying full grounds privileges."

Officials didn't just allow Martinez to leave the Cholla unit for supervised strolls around the hospital grounds, located at 24th Street and Van Buren. They provided him clippers, shovels and other garden tools after he showed an interest in horticulture.

According to hospital records, he did nothing to betray their trust with the potentially dangerous implements.

"I just had exercise and walking," Martinez explained to his attorney in late 1994. "That way I wouldn't have that many people bothering me. . . . I didn't have any friends. I mean, everybody is gay and I'm not gay. I just didn't want to be around them."

Congress in the late 1980s mandated nonprofit legal agencies to investigate incidents of abuse and neglect in psychiatric institutions.

Artie Martinez got a rare stroke of good fortune when the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest became the watchdog at the State Hospital. (In 1995, the center renamed its mental-health component the Arizona Center for Disability Law.)

In 1991, a staff advocate for the center named Maureen Zeeb learned about Martinez, and that the hospital didn't have an interpreter for the deaf on staff.

The center argued that, under the new law, Artie Martinez deserved services that weren't being provided. Its attorneys advocated for Martinez like no one ever had: They negotiated to get interpreters for Martinez. They noted that Martinez, though troubled, hadn't been diagnosed as seriously mentally ill for years, and asked the hospital to devise a discharge plan.

Concurrently, hospital officials had started to make decisions about its long-term geriatric patients. A senior center was developed on the grounds, and many patients were allowed to spend time at a similar center in Phoenix.

In 1993, the Arizona Legislature appropriated $2 million with an eye toward shrinking the State Hospital's geriatric population. That money led to the formation of the Foundation for Senior Living, a nonprofit entity which now operates 11 group homes.

About 70 longtime State Hospital patients were discharged from the hospital in 1992-93. Artie Martinez wasn't among them.

"Unfortunately," the Center for Law's Leslie Cohen wrote in September 1992, "there has been little progress made in either providing Mr. Martinez with effective means of communication at ASH, or performing appropriate evaluations in order to facilitiate his discharge from ASH."

Hospital officials complained that Martinez resisted services they did provide.

Countered Cohen, who now is executive director of the Center for Disability Law: "Given the history of neglect of Art's communication abilities and his mental illness, it is not surprising there is some resistance and embarrassment on Art's part at this point."

In that September 1992 letter, Cohen also told the Arizona Attorney General's Office that the center would sue unless Martinez's situation was resolved.

The following January, she informed State Hospital officials that, according to hospital doctors, Martinez was fit to be released.

It's not that he'd made a miracle recovery. If anything, hospital records show Martinez had deteriorated mentally: Institutionalization, aging and abuse had taken a steep toll.

But doctors hadn't tagged Martinez with a "serious" mental illness for years, which gave the center more justification for insisting on his release.

In December 1993, however, the hospital's George O'Connor diagnosed Martinez as "seriously mentally ill."

Though he denied it in deposition, it appears O'Connor's new diagnosis was done for nonmedical reasons: Such a designation was necessary before Martinez could move into a Foundation for Senior Living home.

In an irony befitting his extraordinary odyssey, Martinez was released from the State Hospital four months after O'Connor had diagnosed him as the sickest he'd been in years.

On April 5, 1994, Artie Martinez left the State Hospital, probably for the last time. The hospital's final "progress note" about its longtime patient recounted his parting comments:

"Moving, moving. I'm ready to leave. Let's go!"
He was 65 years old at the time.

Artie Martinez's life in the three years since his release hasn't been the stuff of Hollywood.

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