Dr Benjamin Gilmer is a family physician, professor, and advocate who focuses on bringing attention to the social injustice of mass incarceration, scarcity of mental health care, and global and rural health disparities.
A former neurobiologist turned rural family doctor, Benjamin Gilmer is a family physician, professor, and advocate.
Fresh out of medical residency, Dr. Benjamin Gilmer joined a rural clinic only to find that its previous doctor, Dr. Vince Gilmer, murdered his own father. The deeper Benjamin looked into Vince’s case the more he became convinced something was amiss and Vince’s mental and physical health. Benjamin started to research Vince’s cases and even worked with Sara Koenig of “Serial” to get to the bottom of the mystery, which inspired This American Life’s “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde.” Through the show, they discovered the myriad of conditions that led Vincent toward these terrible circumstances. Moved, touched, and inspired, Benjamin went on to continue fighting for Vincent’s clemency until Dr. Vincent Gilmer’s release.
His recent book, The Other Dr. Gilmer, and an upcoming feature film project continue Benjamin’s mission to highlight and transform the atrocity of mass incarceration of people with mental illness.
In this conversation with Jay, he brings attention to the social injustice of mass incarceration, scarcity of mental health care, and global and rural health disparities.
Benjamin Gilmer: we’re kind of, wed to this notion of punishment, and we’re not wed yet to this notion of like actually healing people.
Jay Ruderman: Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and welcome to All About Change, a podcast showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.
Jay Ruderman: And today on our show, Dr. Benjamin Gilmer
Benjamin Gilmer: unbeknownst to me. I inherited this practice that had been started by another Dr. Gilmer, and then I had started learning all about him because we shared patience.
Jay Ruderman: Dr Gilmer is a physician, and I guess in a way all doctors are activists, they literally devote their lives to making people feel better. But his true foray into activism began completely by chance. Fresh out of Med school he took on a small rural practice in North Carolina only to find that its previous doctor shared his last name.
Benjamin Gilmer: I learned that everybody was confused about it, as was I, and learned that my patient still believed in this man..
Jay Ruderman: Curious to learn more, Dr Benjamin Gilmer started looking into the dark past of his predecessor – Dr. Vince Gilmer. And the deeper he dug the more troubled he became.
Benjamin Gilmer: Of course, in, in my mind, I’d imagined all these images of who Vince Gilmer might be. But when I saw him, he was, he was none of those things. He, he looked like a decrepit old man who’s, he’s only a few years older than me. he was clearly sick, like he was clearly ill mentally or, and or neurologically.
Jay Ruderman: Dr Gilmer went on to spend many years fighting for Vincent’s clemency and release.
Benjamin Gilmer: I had never been to a prison before. I’d never witnessed suffering in in prison. And you know, as someone who grew up as, you know, in a privileged community, like most of us don’t see those things. and and, and for me it was, it was a, a, moment that changed my life.
[00:02:05] Jay Ruderman: Benjamin, thank you so much for joining me on my podcast all about change.
[00:02:12] So, Dr. Gilmer, you were raised by parents who were called to service, both spiritually in the medical profession, mental health. Can you talk about how your parents, perhaps laid the foundation for you and your sense of activism and altruism?
[00:02:28] Benjamin Gilmer: Yeah, I, I have great memories of both. I have two sets of appearance. My stepfather ran a mental health center in the small community where I grew up. And so we were always inundated with, with him being on call and reaching out to people, especially who were suffering from mental illness and seeing his daily ritual of, of like being in, working in service.
[00:02:50] Um, that was really informative. Like to my, my path is a, is a, is a child. My father was a, an amazing person who. Who was a little bit of everything. He was a union psychotherapist, an Episcopal priest, but his greatest work was serving in the hospital, so serving people, around the time of their death.
[00:03:11] so I got to witness a lot of work that he did as, as someone who really committed himself to service both in, in the church and in the hospital. And, and that was, that
[00:03:20] was always really powerful for me to see as example,
[00:03:22] Jay Ruderman: And what, Part, do you think spirituality plays in the practice of medicine? Because sometimes, you know, there there’s seen as a separation between spirituality and modern medicine, but do you think there’s a connection.
[00:03:37] Benjamin Gilmer: Absolutely. I mean, this is something my father has spoken to me about is, you know, my whole life, Yeah, the the trilogy of, of mind, body, and spirit
[00:03:46] is, you know is universal. you know I have, I’ve witnessed how if you, if you can’t connect with people’s hearts,
[00:03:53] then you, you can’t connect with their overall wellness.
[00:03:56] And oftentimes as physicians, were afraid to, to delve into the, the,
[00:04:00] spiritual of, of a patient. But it’s so important.
[00:04:05] and that’s spirituality could be. You know, it could be Christianity, it could be Buddhism, doesn’t matter, like it’s delving into the spiritual heart of a, of a patient is, is supremely important to understanding how their belief systems are formed and how, how their sense of hope is instilled.
[00:04:23] And that’s, that’s so critical to, to fighting illness. My wife is a yogi teacher, and so I’ve, I’ve witnessed her ability to heal through, Yoic practice and, and connecting with, with a deeper sp spirituality. my father always spoke about the collective on consciousness, which is a big part of Carl.
[00:04:41] Carl Young’s philosophy.
[00:04:43] Jay Ruderman: Mm-hmm.
[00:04:43] Benjamin Gilmer: And that, that is very important, I think, to understanding the depths of where pathos, you know, comes
[00:04:49] from, like from the
[00:04:50] collective unconsciousness. And Jung himself believed
[00:04:54] that the spirituality was, was part of the centerpiece of, of our collective unconsciousness.
[00:04:59] Jay Ruderman: So true, and I am a big believer in that but you seem to have embodied the fact that medicine is more than just seeing a patient for a few minutes and. And diagnosing them and, and, and moving on, which a lot of modern medicine has, has become, more of like a factory. And, and I think that what you have embodied, was really connecting very deeply with your patients and giving them the time to speak to you and to really understand what they, what they were going through.
[00:05:31] Benjamin Gilmer: What, this isn’t unique to me. This is, this is unique to, to family medicine and community medicine. And public health, and this is what we strive for in family medicine, family med medicine, and, primary care in general is about, is about relationships and about connecting relationships within families and understanding them more deeply and having a, a longitudinal relationship with them.
[00:05:57] That’s, that’s, it’s so important to understanding someone’s, struggles. And helping them to heal and build trust with them. So yeah, this is something we take very
[00:06:06] seriously in family medicine is our, our ability to, to appreciate and really commit ourselves to, not only our, our patients, but to the overall health of our community.
[00:06:16] And that’s sort of the essence of, of public health.
[00:06:19] Jay Ruderman: You know, I was intrigued by your practice and, did you make a conscious decision? I, I understand you grew up in the country. Did you make a conscious decision to want to work in medicine, the country serving people, you know, in that part of our commu, uh, our country,
[00:06:36] Benjamin Gilmer: You know, I, I’ll have to admit, no, I would, my plan originally was to do urban emergency medicine, and then I, I discovered what rural medicine was, but even, in practicing medicine in the developing world, which is really powerful, you taught me many powerful lessons along the way, but I. After graduating from residency, I really wanted to, uh, to be a teaching physician.
[00:07:02] And the only job available at the time was this rural practice, so I kind of wanted to stay in the city. so it was, it was by, by a random chance that I ended up in that clinic, but it was so fortunate for me because I. Practicing rural medicine and teaching rural medicine and running a rural fellowship has, has been a big thread of my life in, in discovering the joys of rural medicine and discovering that, you know, this is what America needs right now.
[00:07:29] But it wasn’t. It wasn’t because I intentionally chose it initially, it, it really sort of fell into my lap as
[00:07:35] did the crazy intersection of, with Vince Gilmore’s life. But I feel so grateful now that, that it did happen this way.
[00:07:42] Jay Ruderman: So I want to get a little bit into that, you know, which, is obviously.
[00:07:47] You know, started out with a recording of this American Life and then in the book that you’ve written, the other Dr. Gilmer, two Men, a Murder and An Unlikely Fight For Justice. So you are Dr. Gilmer and you are interviewing to take over a practice of Dr.
[00:08:05] Vincent Gilmer. Can you tell us a little bit about the story for those listeners who haven’t heard It and who are yet to read your book? Because it, it, it, it is truly a bizarre story.
[00:08:18] Benjamin Gilmer: It was, it was certainly bizarre for me starting my, my career, sort of following the footsteps of a presumed murderer. But that’s, that’s what, uh, the beginning of, of my, profession. Career was unbeknownst to me. I inherited this practice that had been started by another Dr. Gilmer, and then I had started learning all about him because we shared patience and I learned that he brutally killed his father and was, was to life in prison in Virginia.
[00:08:48] And I, I learned that everybody was confused about it, as was I, and learned that my patient still believed in this man. And I, you know, it was a very dissonant time for me starting this career. I. Really just trying to learn how to be a doctor and then being, living in this kind of shadow world where everybody wanted to talk about, about the other Dr.
[00:09:09] Gilmer because no one made sense of, of the murder. And so over time I started becoming more and more curious about what happened to him and, you know, started forming my own little theories about what happened. but I, I learned remarkably like. From his patients who wanted to tell his story. And then ultimately I learned that if I was going to continue in that practice that I needed, I needed to know what happened to him.
[00:09:37] I needed to dig a little bit deeper and discovered, you know, why this good doctor by everyone’s account, why his brain went, excuse me, went awry, and why he killed his father. So that was, that was the baptism of my career, was trying to figure out this, this crazy mystery.
[00:09:55] Jay Ruderman: my understanding is that Dr. Vincent Gilmer was
[00:09:58] According to your patients, and some of the stories they told you was a very unique individual. didn’t always, wasn’t always paid for. His services received corn, as payment, uh, helped out people start, their jobs that, you know, or their, their small businesses that they didn’t have the money.
[00:10:15] And, and the more you heard about him, the more you thought like, this, is a, a man who, what happened, which. You know, he killed his father and cut off his fingers to, to hide the identity. It just didn’t, it didn’t match up. but I believe that What was the impetus for you to start to look into this was sort of a fear or a paranoia when a patient came to you? and said, oh, he’s gonna get out and he’s not gonna be happy that you are running his practice.
[00:10:48] Does that sound right?
[00:10:50] Benjamin Gilmer: It’s, it’s true there. There were many. aspects of, of discovering who Dr. Gilmer was, that, that were perplexing and I didn’t anticipate being, developing paranoia about, about him after learning that he might be getting outta prison and coming after me. Because I didn’t want to believe that, like I wanted to believe the stories that his patients were telling, that he, he was an, an agent of change in that community.
[00:11:15] That he was, you know, practice medicine for all the right reasons. He was, he was the benevolent country doctor who committed his life like to serving that community. Those were the things I wanted to believe. But as I learned more about some of the darker sides of him, I,
[00:11:31] I started getting more paranoid. And, and at that point I had, my family was asking me to be more careful and to maybe even leave the community. And that all felt very dramatic. But I, I wanted ultimately To To know who he was and to, figure out what had happened to him so I could continue on without living in this shadow of paranoia.
[00:11:54] Jay Ruderman: So my understanding is that when, when you started to look into, Dr. Vincent Gilmer and no relationship at all between you And, the other Dr. Gilmer, in terms of relations, but but when you started looking into it, it was done in conjunction with Sarah Kanig. of NPR who was producing an episode of this American Life and that the two of you began to investigate this together in real time.
[00:12:20] Benjamin Gilmer: That’s right. She reached out to me to do a story and I first said, no way. I would, that’s the craziest thing I would ever want to do. But later learned that, that I needed some help. I needed some str, some structure. I needed a partner to kind of delve into this. And she was, she was that person. She was amazing. and we both did a deep dive, is part of the pathway towards advocacy in, in my mind. Like you’d become curious about something and then you have to pursue a, uh, in a very intentional, inquiry process of, of inquiry. And Sarah helped me with that. She helped, helped to teach me some things about journalism and writing.
[00:12:59] And together we really. Pursued to understand what, what happened to this man?
[00:13:04] Jay Ruderman: And my understanding is the first step is that people that you were interviewing or she was interviewing, uh, former detectives and, and, and people involved in the case were convinced that he was lying, that he was guilty, uh, that it was sort of an open and shut case. And I remember a point in the recording where she came to you and said, It really sounds like he, this was all premeditate premeditated that, he wasn’t insane.
[00:13:35] that this, you know, he’s guilty. and at, at what point did you start to question that, and say, well, I think there’s more here than what everyone else is thinking.
[00:13:45] Benjamin Gilmer: Well, I, I always wanted to believe there was something else. That was my, my deep intuition and part of it is, is just being born an optimist, I think, and never having. Experienced much trauma myself. I wanted to believe that there was something wrong that explained why his, his behavior changed so dramatically, but it wasn’t until actually like setting foot in the prison and seeing him as a person.
Of course, in, in my mind, I’d imagined all these crazy images of who Vince Gilmer might be. But when I saw him, he was, he
[00:14:19] was none of those things. He, he looked like a decrepit old man who’s, he’s only a
[00:14:24] few years older than me. he was clearly sick, like he was clearly ill mentally or, and or neurologically.
[00:14:31] And so at that point I, you know, when you see someone who’s suffering like you, You know, we’re sort of, have been practicing in medicine like to, you know, to identify with him as a patient, which is what I started doing is seeing him as a patient. And once, once I made that shift, everything changed everything about how I envisioned him.
[00:14:53] His, his, the act that he committed. It was clear that he was a man who was suffering in, in prison and that was, That was the hook. That was the big hook for me to really delve into his supporting
[00:15:06] him and advocating for him, and ultimately making a diagnosis that did explain what happened to him.
[00:15:13] Jay Ruderman: So my understanding is that at one point you visit the prison and there’s a psychiatrist who’s accompanying you. and can you tell the story about what happened as you were exiting the prison after visiting him with the psychiatrist?
[00:15:25] Benjamin Gilmer: Yeah. It’s funny what happened to see. To your mind when you are trying to shed a belief that’s so ingrained. And the belief for me was that he had, he was a murderer. And so take taking a psychiatrist, we kind of bandido a psychiatrist into, Dr. Steve Bowie with me to the prison. And I was still experiencing this dissonance between weather events was potentially a sociopathic person versus someone who was like neurologically ill
[00:15:54] or psychiatrically ill. And, and it, I wanted to have this third opinion to look at Vince. And so walking, as we were walking out of the prison, you know, Dr. Bowie said There’s no way in hell that he’s faking these symptoms. When Vince was tried, um, during his trial, he was branded a malinger, that he was faking these symptoms and the whole time he had been incarcerated
[00:16:20] over a decade at that point, he was believed to be. Faking, and Dr. Bowie immediately like, observed that that was, IM impossible, that that was the case. And so while we were exiting the prison stuck between two doors, the two, doors that closed behind each other, he, he was the one who first postulated, oh my gosh, does he have like a neurologic illness, like Huntington’s?
[00:16:42] And then it was like a, you know, a. Bolt of lightning before, before my eyes, because I had, I had been thinking about a, a very broad differential, and Huntington’s had been on the list at one point, But at that point it became very clear that he could have Huntington’s disease, which, which would’ve explained many of his symptoms, his delusions, his emotional liability, his depression, his anxiety, part of his ptsd, t so many, so many things.
[00:17:08] that was the, the pivotal moment that really changed. Everything in terms of turning towards Vince as a person who needed advocacy and treatment rather than incarceration.
[00:17:20] And for me, this was a big experience because I had never been to a prison before. I’d never witnessed someone suffering in in prison. And you know, as someone who grew up as, you know, in a privileged community, like most of us don’t see those things. and and, and for me it was, it was a, a, moment that changed my life.
[00:17:40] Jay Ruderman: But my understanding is that you were able to finally, Get him diagnosed. that, that the facility, I think he was moved from a general prison to a hospital prison, but he was eventually tested and came back positive for Huntington’s disease. and, and then after that he began to see, to receive some medication that actually improved his condition. because on this American life. you hear recordings of him. Where before he is diagnosed and after he starts to receive the medication to deal with serotonin, and it seems like two completely different people.
[00:18:20] Benjamin Gilmer: Yes. He became a new person. It’s interesting when you think about, and firstly, he, Vince was moved to, another prison that was more psychiatrically centric. Although there’s, their psychiatric services are pretty limited. It’s still prison. He still lives in a cell that’s eight feet by, you know, by six feet and.
[00:18:41] You know, it’s an, I’ve always wondered like how much of the change in his personality was because of the, just starting a simple, um, ssri which we used for anxiety and depression and patients. Or was it that his first experience to have hope again, or his first experience to understand what had happened to him and to begin believing that he wasn’t this monster that everyone was telling him. So it’s, it is a very
[00:19:06] complex moment for Vince because he had. He didn’t understand what was going on in his mind. He didn’t understand why he was hearing voices or why he would have lightning bolts in his brain, or why he was more clumsy and and couldn’t find his words like he. He was just as lost as, as we were more so.
[00:19:26] So it’s interesting when you instill hope in someone, I mean, you spoke about the spirituality aspect of healing. Like for him, this was a, it was a spiritual diagnosis too, because it meant that he was enabled to shed. The stereotypes that he had been branded with for so many years that he was simply a cold-blooded murderer, which is how the judge described him.
[00:19:47] Um, and now he was beginning to see himself as, as someone who was suffering or others were beginning to see himself as someone who was suffering, someone who was, who was ill, and that he was a patient, not just an incarcerated person.
[00:20:02] Jay Ruderman: You know, the story is so bizarre and you d you dive into many different aspects in including aspects of before you were actually involved personally. But as a former prosecutor, the trial sounds. Crazy that, that, that, that a judge would allow someone who clearly was exhibiting signs of mental illness to fire his counsel and to represent himself at trial. That, and, and the fact that that wasn’t, that that trial wasn’t overturned is just mind boggling.
[00:20:39] Benjamin Gilmer: It’s, well, it’s more than mind boggling. It’s, it’s, it’s tragic. And as a prosecutor, you would, you would find great sorrow in, in reading the 800 pages of the trial because it was. Was, it was just a terrible example of our, of a constitutional mechanism, you know? because he, he was floridly mentally ill throughout the trial and everybody knew.
[00:21:02] Everybody knew it. They all watched it painfully. So, you know, like the lawyer that he fired described it as like watching someone commit suicide with a butter knife. That’s how excruciating it was. and in the, Vince asked the judge for another opportunity to be evaluated by a medical
[00:21:17] provider, and the judge denied that and said he had.Had ample opportunity to do that, before, but you could, as the trial went on, you could see Vince continuing to spiral and it was, it was just a horrific thing for all people, you know, if, I think for the prosecutor, her herself, it was,
[00:21:37] You know, it felt like an, an ugly experience to be, um, to see this man who was clearly ill to be flailing, so desperately, so it, It was not a great act of, a constitutional trial.
[00:21:50] Jay Ruderman: No, I think there were so many officers of the court in
[00:21:52] that case that could have stepped up. The judge, the prosecutor, so many people that could have said, Hey, this is not right. and and perhaps, you know, the, the most serious crime that can be prosecuted in a court is, is. Is first degree murder.
[00:22:08] And in that case, when the stakes are so high and someone’s life is at risk of incarceration, that no one stepped in and said, something’s going on here. We gotta get a professional in here to do an evaluation because this is just not normal.
[00:22:24] Benjamin Gilmer: It’s, it’s not normal and it’s not. oh, it’s not moral is what it is. I mean, we, I, the example that I give in medicine that’s, that’s sort of a parallel to this legal experience is, you know, someone who, who comes in, who’s diagnosed with a very complex cancer and before a surgery is performed, or, or chemotherapy, typically you have a, what’s called a cancer board, and you have an an interprofessional group of people that look at this case.
[00:22:50] And really think about it from different angles so that that patient can have the, the best treatment, whether it be chemotherapy or surgery or radio ablation. And So You know, I, I love that example because it’s, it’s something that we could be doing better
[00:23:05] in, in the legal system as well. Like, it’s, it’s, it’s hard for me as an outsider to imagine committing someone in the expenses of committing someone to
[00:23:14] life in prison with only one psychological evaluation.
[00:23:18] Like that, that seems crazy to me that there wouldn’t be multiple opportunities for people to intervene and evaluate
[00:23:25] that patient, that that person who’s on trial. Because we know that, you know, the mind changes and Vince’s mind changed quite a bit, like through the trial as the pressure built. But there, there was not a, there was not an interdisciplinary approach to where there was not a clinical approach to, to vents during this process.
[00:23:43] And I think there are some lessons that we could learn from medicine in terms of. Of how you think about a, a person who’s being, you know, considered spending the rest of their life in prison. For me, the sort of spin is, is thinking about it through a clinical lens, and I, I propose in the book to that we could potentially heal crime, and that that really means exactly this.
[00:24:07] Like looking at the, the person who is, who’s on trial as someone. And looking at their whole person as we would through, through a clinical lens, through different perspectives and, and trying to see
[00:24:20] the humanity in that person too. Because, you know, after someone commits a, a crime, it doesn’t mean that they’ve lost
[00:24:26] their entire humanity. That means that they’ve, they may have had a lapse
[00:24:31] of their, their mind, but they haven’t lost
[00:24:34] their entire humanity. And that’s something that we have to preserve if we want to make change in our system.
[00:24:41] Jay Ruderman: Is this what you talk about in chapter eight when you say, you have to take the whole story and nature of truth into account? this what was happening to Vince? That, that they weren’t taking the whole story? I mean, he did. Murder his father, but they weren’t taking the whole story of who he was And the impact of a lifetime of sexual abuse.
[00:25:04] Um, the, the, the trauma that, That, had on him, the, the disease that, that he had at the time that no one knew or diagnosed, is that what you were talking about?
[00:25:15] Benjamin Gilmer: Yes. I mean the, the whole story would. Would demand of the prosecutor to, to look for the whole story. And as you know, like prosecutors and defense attorneys, they have their very specific jobs. The defenders are, are trying to defend their clients. The prosecutors are trying to, put them away and in general terms.
[00:25:36] And so, you know, if we. If we opened our eyes a little bit and and shifted the perspective for both parties, for the defense attorneys and, and prosecuting attorneys, it would’ve made a big difference in Vince’s case for sure. You know, there was, there was no intentionality, of course, from the, the prosecuting attorney to ask the question.
[00:25:55] Wow. Is, Is Vince mentally ill? Is that something we should consider? His father was mentally ill. We know that schizophrenia runs in families. We know that his father was in a mental hospital the day before he was killed. We know that maybe we should be considering a family history. Like these are like very basic things that a first year medical student can compose.
[00:26:16] And, and there was, you know, the, the prosecutor was not. It was, it was not part of her job and Vince didn’t have a, a defense attorney, so, and didn’t have the, the cognitive ability to, to
[00:26:29] ask those questions himself. So you can see there was a lot lost in the, in the history taking of this trial.
[00:26:36] Jay Ruderman: right. Although as a former prosecutor, I would say in that situation, the prosecutor has the obligation as an officer of the, the court to stand up and say, Hey, something’s not quite right here. I have a role to play in this court, in this trial. but let’s have a sidebar and talk about this. Cause this seems like.
[00:26:55] And injustice and, and that that wasn’t done in this case. but I wanted to ask you another question about preconceptions because in chapter 11, you write a sentence that preconceptions can blind us from the truth. And, and how do you think in this case, especially preconceptions of Vince, and who he was, affected? him and, how does it affect us all, in our daily lives.
[00:27:20] Benjamin Gilmer: Well, this is a such a fascinating question for me because if you look deeply, Everyone. We live within a world of preconceptions, our own preconceptions. This is the, the natural design of our, our prefrontal cortex to make sense of the world, to do it efficiently, to do it in a way that makes sense with our own aligned values.
[00:27:42] You know, we see this play out in politics. We see it play out in religion, plays out in every, in every conversation. But, um, This is the birth of racism. This is the birth of why we, you know, our civilization is struggling so desperately right now because preconceptions are cemented. And this is, this is just part of our natural biologic design.
[00:28:03] And I think it’s, it’s helpful to, to recognize that, that we, we all come with our preconceptions. Mine was, was that Vince Gilmer had a traumatic brain injury. And I was so committed to that idea and blinded to other ideas because I, that was my master’s thesis, was. Traumatic brain injury. And so, you know, if, if you really look at yourself deeply, you start to see all of these different preconceptions.
[00:28:29] And think building a great awareness being, being an observant, The person in general requires, like, looking at these deeply seated preconceptions and, and if we, if we don’t have an intentional practice to do that, then we won’t, we won’t get to the next step of change. And this is where, I mean, we, I, I, I’m blinded every day in medicine.
[00:28:51] Like I, I walk into an exam room and before I even hear the patients, Story in my mind. I know exactly what’s going on with them. And so it takes a lot of intentional effort to get out of
[00:29:02] that circuitry that we continue to
[00:29:05] lay tracks
[00:29:06] over. And, and that,
[00:29:08] takes a lot of work. And oftentimes it takes a lot of
[00:29:11] external work, like seeing a therapist or, being an an active listener. These are the things that,
[00:29:17] that can lead to change And, You know, I’ve been really curious how the book would, would affect some of these preconceptions that
[00:29:24] others have had about Vince, about
[00:29:28] why, you know, what happens to
[00:29:30] people after
[00:29:30] they’ve committed murder? Why they commit murder in the first place. Preconceptions about punishment
[00:29:36] and, and treatment. a, I’ve learned that it’s, Sometimes insurmountable, like to, to change people’s preconceptions, but that is the, the, my, the great, gift I think that I’ve received from readers is that it, this book has helped them to start seeing mental illness in a different light.
[00:29:53] It’s helped them to start imagining how master incarceration could be different. It’s helped them to start, imagine and question why we lock up our most vulnerable citizens. The, the mentally ill.
[00:30:06] That’s the, that’s the great work I think that, that I would like for this book
[00:30:11] to seek, seek up upstream change in that regard.
[00:30:15] as you can see, Jay, it I’ll, it boils down to our preconceptions
[00:30:20] on so many levels.
[00:30:21] Jay Ruderman: how many people in the United States are incarcerated and out of those people that are incarcerated, how many of them have issues of mental health that could have been dealt with or could be dealt with outside of a prison system, but they are?
[00:30:38] Essentially locked away.
[00:30:41] Benjamin Gilmer: Well, all people who experience mental illness, Can be treated. I mean, I think that’s something we have to make as an assumption that there’s effective treatment for mental illness. That this requires long-term treatment. Not not just acute crisis management, but when you look at the numbers that, and this was like something I knew nothing about.
[00:31:03] I I, I had no. Idea after 16 years of, you know, education, I had no idea that there were 2 million people in our country
[00:31:14] locked up.
[00:31:16] Um, I was blinded to that and I certainly didn’t know that 40 to 50% of those people
[00:31:21] have mental illness. So that. You know, that’s like 800,000
[00:31:25] people today with severe mental illness reside in our prisons.
[00:31:30] That’s a a staggering number. That’s, it’s just hard to even fathom that. I did not know that, that there are 10 times more people with mental illness who live in prisons than in our own
[00:31:41] hospitals because we have such a positive
[00:31:44] of, mental health. Centers for
[00:31:46] long-term treatment. I had no idea that the three biggest mental hospitals in our country were Rikers Island in New York, cook County Jail, and Chicago and the LA County Jail.
[00:31:56] are, that, that just blows me away. so those, those were things that, that also
[00:32:02] really led to inspired, that inspired me to, to wanna write about them.
[00:32:07] Jay Ruderman: So what is the solution here? The solution is to take people out of the traditional prison system and to get them the help that they need in order for them to improve their lives and perhaps be. able to, reenter society and not to house so many people, you know, and lock them. up just because they have issues of mental illness.
[00:32:30] But that seems like a, like a huge task. How, how does that begin? What can people do after reading your book and listening to you? What can they do to try to address this massive issue in our country?
[00:32:46] Benjamin Gilmer: I was hoping you were gonna tell me, Jay, You know, this is a question that I think is really, it’s interesting to think about because. If you try to delve or tackle a question like this, you’ll just get overwhelmed by it. And this is,
[00:33:00] Jay Ruderman: Sure.
[00:33:01] Benjamin Gilmer: a barrier to
[00:33:02] advocacy. Knowing that
[00:33:04] you know, this is just not right.
[00:33:05] What we’re doing with mass
[00:33:06] incarceration, it’s, it’s morally wrong. It’s a racial
[00:33:10] injustice. It infringes upon our most vulnerable people, like we know that
[00:33:14] that’s. Wrong. How do
[00:33:16] we change it? And, you know, when I got involved with Vince Gilmer, I wasn’t thinking at all about like, changing the system. Like I, I
[00:33:23] just wanted to get this man outta prison and, and I wrote this book for the Governor of Virginia
[00:33:29] And, and that was, that was my very monocular view of
[00:33:34] it. And now that I’ve, been in, learning so much more
[00:33:37] and have committed to this pathway of advocacy, which, which ultimately, You know, you get curious about something, you do a deep inquiry, and then you start to become transformed and, and getting to know events transformed me.
[00:33:50] And then at some point you have to arrive at this stage of visioning. And this is where a lot of people get lost. This is where I get lost. How do we change the system? And I was very intentional about not being prescriptive in the book about, okay, these are the. Top 10 things we can do to change our system.
[00:34:07] There, there are many books written about that, a fantastic one called Healing. I wanted to firstly sort of try to reach into people’s hearts to, to sensitize them to this greater issue. That was, that was my first intention. But when you think about, and to, and to start referencing, you know, the, to really change the system, we have to, We have to think far, far upstream, and that
[00:34:32] Jay Ruderman: Right.
[00:34:33] Benjamin Gilmer: thinking about the fetus in the womb.
[00:34:34] That means paying our kindergarten teachers more, having the access to social workers in all of our schools. Those are the things that will lead to this change. But you think about healing crime and, and you realize that, Other people, like in Norway for example, their intention for incarceration is, is rehabilitation.
[00:34:56] And their success is based on actually doing that and getting someone through an incarcerated state in, back into the, the general public. And they do that twice as fast as we do. And their numbers for recidivism are twice as good as ours. So we know. It can work. We know that that model is out there, but this, we have to first sort of shake our notion of our, our historical inherent need to punish people, which, you know, is, which comes from the roots of slavery in this country.
[00:35:29] And that’s, that’s a, a, a bias or a preconception that many people have that we’re kind of, wed. To this notion of punishment, and we’re not wed yet to this notion of like actually healing people. We’re seeing someone who’s committed a crime as a, as a someone who might be ill as a victim, even so that there’s so much work to be done and there’s so many great people doing this work and there’s, there’s so many active changes and legal systems.
[00:35:57] In judiciary systems and hospital
[00:35:59] systems that are trying to divert people from the prison pathway to a hospital pathway
[00:36:05] Um, so there’s great work that’s happening, but you can see
[00:36:08] That, the, the fundamentals of this problem lie in our history
[00:36:11] and our need to punish. And the fact that,
[00:36:14] um, jails are, were, prisons are,
[00:36:17] are a lucrative business in America.
[00:36:19] Just like, just like healthcare is a lucrative business.
[00:36:22] Jay Ruderman: right. So we certainly love to lock people up and I think that, you know, while there’s been some slow movement on the stigma surrounding mental health in. Popular society, especially with with me sports figures and celebrities speaking out about, about mental health. And it’s a, it’s a major discussion.
[00:36:40] It hasn’t yet filtered through to. Incarceration and how we deal with people, you know, charged with crime, which I think is an, a
[00:36:48] very important discussion to have. not only based on the, the, the waste of human lives, but also the, the tremendous cost that, we bear in just housing people, in the millions.
[00:36:59] Um, let me ask you, cause I know we, we have a short period of time left. Um, What I understand that, that that, Vince ultimately received, clemency from the governor of Virginia, but has not yet become a free man.
[00:37:07] Benjamin Gilmer: Yes. Thank you for asking that question. This has been the most, one of the more disheartening aspects of this advocacy journey is that, you know, I thought that the governor was gonna grant clemency immediately. I had no idea that we would have to face two different governors. I had no idea that it would be so hard to get Vince out of prison after the, the governor did grant his clemency, so he’s.
[00:37:31] This happened in j in January of 2022. And so Vince is probably the, the person who’s served the longest time in prison a
[00:37:40] as a free human. And the the root of the problem is that,
[00:37:46] hospital and mental health system is completely broken. the state of Virginia, the
[00:37:51] Commonwealth of Virginia, has not enabled us to get him.
[00:37:54] To a hospital in Virginia,
[00:37:56] they, it that requires the Department of Corrections and their Department of Mental Health and they have
[00:38:01] refused to collaborate with us. And so that shuts, shuts the door on that, on
[00:38:05] the whole state. Since then, I’ve gone after many hospitals and we did a hundred, uh, fundraiser.
[00:38:13] Thanks to, to one 1500 people who donated, we raised a hundred thousand dollars to pay
[00:38:18] for Vince’s care, but we can’t even find a hospital now who will accept
[00:38:22] the money. so we’ve tried for-profit systems, we’ve tried public systems, and now we’re, we’re currently aiming at the, the Veteran’s Affairs, the VA hospital, who’s been very cooperative.
[00:38:32] This is after several failures with, with two very large hospital systems that, You know, after months of negotiations, eventually decided not to take Vince because they were concerned about, PR risk. So, a patient like Vince can only go to a few places in, in each state, namely the public mental HO hospitals.
[00:38:52] And those hospitals will not even entertain an application until Vince’s lands in North Carolina. So you can see there’s, it’s a, it’s a difficult situation. but we’re, I’m very hopeful that the VA system who’s been very responsive over the last. The last two months, and it’s currently in the office of the General Counsel that we’re going to get movement over the next few weeks to get him to a hospital.
[00:39:17] It’s been one of the most frustrating things in my life, and people wonder how, how is he still in a prison and not in a hospital? It’s because hospital system is completely broken
[00:39:29] and it’s, it’s another story that, that we’ll need to tell on a different time. But, Yeah, it’s, as a physician, like watching him suffer in prison, knowing that there’s a mental hospital across the street from the prison, where he is at is, is, it’s a violation of the eighth amendment, cruel and unusual punishment.
[00:39:47] It truly is. I can’t think of another example
[00:39:49] that would be more stark than Vince’s right now, but fingers crossed we’re gonna get ’em out like very, very soon.
[00:39:57] Jay Ruderman: Well.
[00:39:57] good luck. I’m sure his, his physical condition is not the best, these days.
[00:40:02] I, there’s so many things I’d like to talk to you about as a doctor and, and, and, and healthcare in America and, and, and insurance and stuff like that, but we’ll leave that for another time. Um, Dr. Dr. Benjamin Gilmer. It’s so, um, it was a pleasure having you as a guest on, on all about change, and thank you for your advocacy and, and for the continued impact you’re having, in your community and, and, and our society in general.
[00:40:13] So thank you so much.
[00:40:15] Benjamin Gilmer: Thank you. Jay, and thanks for, for your podcast. this is the type of media that, that we need to be focusing on is.
[00:40:20] all about chain. Jen, thinking about
[00:40:23] the positive ways that we can influence the world right now,
[00:40:27] Jay Ruderman: Thank you.
Jay: All About Change is a production of The Ruderman Family Foundation. This show is produced by Yochai Maital and Mijon Zulu.
As always – be sure to come back in two weeks for another inspiring story. I’ll be talking to Evon Benson-Idahosa, who will tell us how she went from fancy boardrooms in NYC to small villages in Nigeria. Evon is a leading expert and advocate against modern-day slavery and sex trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa and our episode will focus on that very troubling and important topic. In the meantime, you can go check out all of our previous content – live on our feed and linked on our website – Allaboutchangepodcast.com
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