Chattahoochee is tucked into the hilly wooded north of Florida. A few miles off the highway, we twisted our way into a collection of gas stations, churches and old hotels. Taking a wrong turn, we wondered what Chattahoochee had to offer and found ourselves driving 15 miles per hour through manicured grounds and a compound of old plastered edifices built in the late-1800s – the Florida State Hospital, home to many state residents suffering from chronic mental illness. Many have entered through the criminal justice system.
About halfway through the compound, which we freely drove through (twice), we noticed a lit sign advertising: “T-shirts $15 – at the Chapel”. Really? They sold t-shirts? We turned around and got turned around in the process. Down the hill behind a huge building, two stories of chain-link fencing and razor wire enclosed a yard. People sat on benches and some stood in groups. We saw more razor wire around another building. This was the yard area for people who were convicted criminals with mental illness – the area for not guilty by reason of insanity and not safe to be outside the fences. Florida still has the death penalty so one of the jobs of the forensic psychologists is to evaluate a person’s competency to be executed. (Upon further research, it seems 32 states currently have the death penalty). Someone in a linens truck noticed us driving around and graciously offered to let us follow him to the chapel, for our t-shirts.
The chaplain was on the phone. We really wanted t-shirts. He finally came out to see what we needed.
“Can I help you?”
Lucy looked at me. She always looks at me. That’s how we accidentally prayed in a mosque earlier this year. We were supposed to observe. Instead, we were mistaken for new Muslims and participated in daily prayers (not okay if you’re not Muslim) but that’s another story. I was used to doing the talking. How to explain this one?
“We, um, saw the sign for t-shirts and were wondering how we could get one?”
The chaplain looked at us.
“Do you work here?”
We realized our mistake. The t-shirts were for employees, not for tourists.
“Um, no.” I felt like I needed to cover our tracks. “We’re traveling, we’re SOCIAL WORK students, and we just saw the sign for t-shirts….”
“So… you thought it would be fun to get a t-shirt from a state mental hospital?….”Sometimes, the way people word things really make my ideas sound silly. No going back now.
“Yeah, well, we do like to collect unique things so we can remember our trip and we thought you were selling t-shirts….” Lucy almost bought a glow-in-the-dark water bottle shaped like a penis in New Orleans. A t-shirt seemed tame but the chaplain continued to make his very valid point.
“So you wanted a t-shirt from a mental hospital…”
I changed tactics quickly. Lucy just looked at me and nodded. I explained that we were really interested in mental health but probably were mistaken to think the t-shirts were for tourists. He nodded. Lucy nodded. Thanks, Lucy. He told us that he only had 2X sizes left anyway and then explained that he was pursuing his masters in counseling. It didn’t sound like state mental health was for him either. We ducked out as soon as I could finish up the conversation and thank him. All the buildings where they taught residents trades back when the state funded rehab were closed. Lucy was happy to talk again once we reached the car. We asked Siri to take us to Orange Beach, Alabama, hopefully without any more embarrassing detours.