2/8/2016 6:04:06 PM

Lessons from Legal Legend

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

By Mary Barrett '14

Pre-Law students from Len Cutler, Ph.D.’s Criminal Law of the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments had the opportunity to engage in an interactive dialogue, titled “Mental Illness and Those Incarcerated” with the Hon. Sol Wachtler, J.D., former chief judge of New York’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals.

“Sol Wachtler is truly a legend,” said Cutler before turning the floor over to Siena’s Distinguished Jurist in Residence the Hon. Patrick Monserrate, who spoke highly of Wachtler and the work he has done in his current position teaching constitutional law and the first amendment at Touro Law School. Monserrate said that Wachtler has made, “an exemplary commitment to sharing his experiences with his students.”

Wachtler spoke with Siena students about the poor manner in which mentally ill prisoners are treated. He discussed how tactics which are frequently used, such as solitary confinement and various other forms of punishment, lead to increased mental and behavioral problems. Wachtler also explained that many mentally ill prisoners do not understand what they are doing wrong, and said that there is a lack of concern and compassion within the system for these problems.

Much of what Wachtler spoke about was supported by his own personal experiences. Wachtler suffers from bipolar disorder, a problem that he was originally ashamed of admitting given his high position as Court of Appeals chief judge. Due to the shame that he was feeling, Wachtler refused to see a psychologist and began to self-medicate.

During the time in which he was struggling with these problems, he began to act in a criminal manner, sending threatening letters to a woman with whom he had been having an affair. Those actions led to an FBI investigation and, in 1992, his well-documented fall from grace began. Wachtler was arrested on charges relating to harassment and threatening of his former mistress.

After taking full responsibility for his actions, Wachtler served one year in federal prison in a mental health unit. During his time in prison, Wachtler was sentenced to solitary confinement. He spoke about his experiences hearing the other inmates screaming and the way in which solitary confinement affected him, eventually causing him to begin to hallucinate.

Since leaving prison, Wachtler has been dedicated to changing the way in which people in the mental health unit are treated. He has been working to try to prevent the seriously mentally ill from being put into solitary confinement and to help these prisoners receive treatment, rather than imprisonment. Wachtler also wrote a book about his battle with mental illness titled “After the Madness.”

Siena students were interested in Wachtler’s story.

“Sol Wachtler was a truly inspiring and engaging speaker. He was boldly candid in sharing his personal life experiences and passionate about reforming the criminal justice system to better provide much needed treatment for mentally ill inmates,” said Pre-Law Society President Mara Afzali ’14.

Perhaps, in time, these students will be able to help carry out the change that Sol Wachtler has been fighting for, or at the very least, they’ll have a better understanding of how to work with those afflicted with mental illness.

Contact: Ken Jubie
Contact E-mail: communications@siena.edu

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