Video diaries reveal life for those committed to St. Elizabeths

A local actress and producer help men with mental illness and criminal histories share their reflections about the hospital with the outside world.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 9:05 PM

People at St. Elizabeths aren't often asked what they think about life in the District's public psychiatric hospital.

So when a local actress and producer Joy Haynes came calling last year, with the idea of helping a handful of patients tell their stories on camera, it didn't take long for the hospital to find a few people eager to be heard.

Haynes, who counts at least a dozen short films among her credits, was thrilled. She couldn't wait to meet the men who had agreed to participate in her video diary project.

Then she did.

And as she learned who the patients were and what had brought them to St. Elizabeths, Haynes was stricken with flashes of doubt.

One of the men had killed his wife. Another had raped and killed a young Senate aide. Collectively, the five patients had spent more than 150 years at St. Elizabeths, each committed after serious and, in some cases, heinous crimes for which they had been found not guilty by reason of insanity.

"It was, to be perfectly frank, pretty emotional," said Haynes, who is 37 and practices immigration law alongside her artistic endeavors. "I questioned myself, as far as what I was doing and exactly who I was giving voice to."

But she said she thought about why she wanted to do the project. For her, the diaries were about helping the men by allowing them to share their reflections about St. Elizabeths beyond the hospital's campus in Southeast Washington.

"I wasn't there to pass judgment," she said. "I was there to create the story that they wanted to tell."

So the filming went on and continued for weeks under the direction of Haynes and co-director Ellie Walton. Bit by bit, the men learned to record themselves and the worlds they inhabit, and to craft the footage into a series of introspective narratives.

On Saturday night, the 57-minute film, "Saint Elizabeths Hospital: Voices From Within," will premiere in front of nearly 250 people, including the five subjects of the film - Lewis Ecker II, 68; Ronald Embry, 53; Kevin McCain, 54; Calvin Neal, 57; and James Snyder, believed to be 79.

Interest in the film has been picking up and every seat in the hospital's auditorium is already taken for Saturday's premiere, which Haynes hopes will be the first of many screenings.

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