Cooped up at Oregon State Hospital, Richard Laing became a frustrated and fiery critic of patient care and hospital conditions.
Despite evidence that he wasn’t mentally ill, Laing couldn’t get out of the crowded, run-down mental institution.
In late 2005, he took off. Given a solo pass to visit Salem Public Library, Laing hopped a bus and left town.
Nearly two years later, police collared Laing in Portland. His negotiated punishment for the escape: 32 months in prison.
Laing figured he got a good deal. As he saw it, serving prison time was preferable to being stuck at the psychiatric facility, and he would be free upon completing his sentence.
Much to his dismay, Laing now is back inside the hospital he hates. He was hauled back to OSH on March 18, the day he completed his prison sentence for the 2005 escape.
A hearing today before the state Psychiatric Security Review Board will determine whether Laing, 70, remains at the mental hospital or receives a green light to live in the community — subject to post-prison supervision and separate monitoring by the PSRB.
Laing’s bid to get out of the state hospital renews his long-running battle to prove he’s not mentally ill.
“If you’re not crazy, you don’t belong in a mental institution,” he said by telephone this week from Ward 50G in the hospital’s forensic psychiatric program.
Steve Gorham, a Salem attorney representing Laing, said his client should be discharged from OSH.
“It’s clear that he has been in the state hospital for years and not been treated for anything there,” Gorham said. “He’s not under any medication.”
Laing had no mental health problems while on escape status from the hospital and received no psychiatric treatment during his prison stint, Gorham said.
“It seems to me that there’s pretty good evidence that he doesn’t have a psychiatric illness,” he said.
Laing entered OSH in 2002 after getting drunk and hitting his Portland landlord in the head with a coffee cup. He was in the throes of an alcohol-induced psychosis.
Laing said he pleaded guilty except for insanity to avoid a 70-month mandatory prison term for assault.
In Oregon, criminal defendants found guilty of crimes but insane at the time go to the hospital’s forensic program for treatment instead of prison. More than 400 forensic patients are housed at OSH.
Laing was unable to get out of the hospital, even though therapists and staffers said he had no symptoms of mental illness.
The state Psychiatric Security Review Board, which monitors the progress of forensic patients and controls their discharge dates, repeatedly turned down Laing’s release requests amid concerns about his checkered participation in group therapy sessions, whether he would be accepted into a community-based program for drug and alcohol abusers and his prospects for staying sober on the outside.
In December 2004, the Statesman Journal profiled Laing in a story that raised questions about his hospitalization.
It reported that taxpayers had shelled out $300,000 for his stay at OSH and quoted Laing’s assessment of the tab: “You could put somebody in a Hilton Hotel for that kind of price. It’s just insane.”
The following November, the PSRB again refused to release Laing.
Fed up, Laing used his off-grounds pass like a ticket to freedom. Instead of going to the city library, he boarded a Greyhound bus to Portland.
The escapee stayed free for almost two years, sleeping under bridges and roaming Portland. His meager income came from selling newspapers and collecting cans and bottles for refunds.
Laing’s days on the lam ended in October 2006. By happenstance, he was spotted on a Portland street by Mary Claire Buckley, executive director of the Psychiatric Security Review Board.
Buckley called police and she followed Laing until officers arrived and put him in handcuffs.
Laing looks back on Buckley’s role in his capture with a mix of irony and disbelief.
“It was just a fluke. I’m walking around in downtown Portland and I just walked right into her,” he said. “She had her cell phone and called police. Of all the things.”
Laing served part of his prison sentence at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Eastern Oregon. Last year, he was transferred to the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem.
Laing got a break when about nine months were lopped off his sentence through a controversial early-release program approved by the 2009 Legislature. To save money on lockup costs, lawmakers approved an expanded “earned time” program for prisoners. The new law increased from 20 percent to 30 percent the amount of time many inmates could have shaved off their sentences.
Laing’s prison time expired March 18, but he didn’t go free. Instead, he was sent back to the mental hospital, pending the outcome of today’s hearing before the PSRB.
Returning to OSH has rekindled Laing’s hatred of the hospital. He describes it as a crowded and violent warehouse.
Laing said he was punched in the face last week by another patient, a sneak attack that came as Laing was watching television on Ward 50C. Two blows to the face broke his prescription glasses and left him shaken.
“I’m no spring chicken anymore,” he said.
By Laing’s account, the assault was committed by a patient assigned one-on-one staff supervision due to recurring acts of violence.
“In 22 months in state prison, this never happened to me,” he said. “I’m back here eight days and some nut hits me in the head.”
Laing faces two years of post-prison supervision once he leaves OSH. In addition, he will continue to be monitored by the PSRB.
As Laing hopes for board approval to leave the hospital, he is taking legal action against the state.
After being assaulted, Laing filed a tort claim notice with the state, alleging the hospital was negligent in failing to properly supervise his attacker. Laing said he intends to sue the state unless he’s offered an out-of-court settlement.
agustafs@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6709