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Jail psychiatrist Schiff has seen and heard it all

Laurence Schiff, photographed Friday at the Starbucks on Kino Avenue.

KINGMAN - Laurence Schiff has a story to tell.

"I took one of my students to Apache County Jail for four hours, and the inmates couldn't have been nicer to her," said Schiff. "When we were coming back, she asked, like they all do, about an inmate she said was absolutely gracious to her. She wanted to know what he was there for. I said 'he's a serial killer.' She was just stunned."

For Schiff, 62, who lives in Kingman, the story isn't unusual. As the director of psychiatry for seven jails and prisons in Arizona, Schiff has seen and heard it all from the inmates and can spot a phony a mile away. While that might drive many people to other types of work, it only makes Schiff love his job even more.

"Early in my career, I bounced around in clinics," said Schiff. "When I found jail and prison work, I found my niche. I enjoy it. And I pride myself on toughness. You have some little guy who comes to your office and schmoozes you. How do you know he wasn't in a pod and some big guy with tattoos told him he would protect him if he could get the doctor to give him medicine? You get a sense and sniff things out. It's all about understanding how jails and prisons work."

From jail to jail

Schiff should know. He currently works eight hours a week at the Mohave County Jail, which houses about 550 short-term inmates, and 20 hours a week at the Arizona State Prison Kingman Complex, which holds about 3,500 long-term inmates. He visits the La Paz County Jail every two weeks, and regularly has teleconferences with inmates at the Flagstaff Jail, Nogales Jail, Apache County Jail and the Restoration to Competency Program in Yuma County.

Originally from New York City, Schiff received his medical degree in 1975 from Autonomos University of Guadalajara in Mexico. He interned as an obstetrician and gynecologist, and completed his residency in psychiatry after realizing he liked the hours and field more. From there, he went to work.

Schiff ran the psychiatric emergency room at Elmhurst Hospital in New York City, was chief of staff at Nevada Mental Health Institute in Reno and taught psychiatry at the University of Nevada Reno. In 2000, Schiff moved to Kingman after he was sponsored by Kingman Regional Medical Center to open a private practice. But two years later, he got a call for help from the Mohave County Jail after a man hung himself there. Schiff began visiting the jail for two hours a week and fell in love with the job. As the hours increased and he added new facilities, his private practice shrunk. He rarely sees patients outside of the jail and prison setting now.

Saving lives

"My job is very rewarding," he said. "I save lives. I get people who are trying to kill themselves, have undiagnosed medical problems or are on drugs. Some of these people request to be seen, and others are noticed by guards and referred to me.

"I get a lot of people who come in and have never been arrested. They go before a judge with a serious crime and hear the maximum time they can get. Then they hear they'll get raped or killed there. They are referred to me quickly because they're scared, and are given medication. I put their mind at ease."

Schiff said the vast majority of inmates who commit suicide do so within the first 24 hours of incarceration. Of the jails and prisons he serves, he said, there have not been any successful suicides during his career. On the other hand, he gets plenty of inmates complaining about feeling anxious so they can get medication. Schiff said he doesn't give pain or sleeping pills to inmates because there is rampant abuse of some medications in jail. In fact, said Schiff, inmates quickly tell the newcomers not to ask for medication because they won't get it from him.

It's his job, said Schiff, not to make jail or prison comfortable or pleasurable, but to keep inmates safe from themselves and others so they don't reach their end destination in a box.

Schiff said it's not his job to judge the inmates. He remembered a man at the Mohave County Jail who was incarcerated for killing a baby. Schiff said he looked the man in the eye and spoke pleasantly to him when he was asked to determine if there was treatable mental illness.

"I can relate to the inmates," said Schiff. "They're people, and I like to talk to people. I go out on the pods and talk to them. And I like helping people. I dress up every day for work because I did the same in my private practice and believe the people here should get the same treatment."

Schiff said his goal in prison is to manage the supply of medicine, keep his eye on everything and pick out that one person in 500 who fell through the cracks and is seriously mentally ill. For him, it's much more rewarding than running a private practice.

"Here, it's a different skill," said Schiff. "I know the system inside and out, and I'm good at balancing medication and money. I save the jails and prisons hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on unnecessary medicine and get the inmates what they really need."

Schiff also has other interests. He received a degree in economics from Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y., and has been involved in politics all his life, currently serving as president of the Republican Men's Club. He has written for "National Review," a conservative commentary on American politics, news and culture. Schiff also discusses politics every four weeks on Gary Sheler's popular Morning Show in Bullhead City.

As a child, he was considered a prodigy by those who knew him, reading thick books such as "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" by the time he was in third grade. Schiff graduated high school when he was 16, and always wanted to be a great athlete. He translates Italian and Portuguese, speaks fluent Spanish and is the official interpreter for the jail and prison. Schiff also is an expert on Russian history.

He and his wife, Virna, from Colombia, South America, have been married 16 years and have a son, Timothy, 15.

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