Don’t know about books. As for how difficult it is to get one civilly committed:
I used to work as a civil attorney in a large county attorney’s office in Washington State. One thing all the civil attorneys had to do was handle involuntary civil commitments, a job we were each assigned in two-week rotations.
At least in Washington, a person who is mentally ill may find themselves commited as follows (and I think the procedure is generally the same throughout the U.S.): A concerned person, like a police officer or a family member brings the patient to the emergency room for examination based on concern about the patient’s mental state. The patient must be examined by a mental health professional within three hours. If the MHP believes the criteria for involuntary commitment are met, he or she may file a petition with the local court to have the person commited for no more than 72 hours. The grounds for commitment are (1) that the person presents a likelihood of serious harm (a/k/a “danger to self or others”) or (2) that the person is gravely disabled (a/k/a “cannot meet his/her ADLs [activities of daily living]”). All that is required for the initial 72-hour hold is the MHP’s petition and affidavit.
Within 72 hours, a due process hearing must be held to inquire as to whether the person may be further involuntarily held. This is required because the deprivation of personal liberty is considered a grave constitutional matter, and a court must determine whether or not it will be allowed. That’s where we would come in: The mental healh hearings always had an attorney for the State (the party seeking commitment, that was our role); a public defender; a judge; the mental health professional who committed the patient; usually the mental health professional who was treating the patient; and sometimes family members or other witnesses. These were real legal hearings, but they were conducted in the conference room at the facility where the patients were held (there were three in the County in which I worked), instead of in a court room. At this hearing, the parties would put on witnesses and enter evidence either for or against further involuntary commitment of the patient.
Because we lawyers were not MHPs, we deferred almost entirely to the MHPs. This means that if the MHP thought the patient was stabilized enough to be allowed back to the community, we dismissed the petition. We never tried to hold someone who the MHPs didn’t think needed to be held. This means that the very vast majorityof hearings at the 72-hour mark resulted in further involuntary commitment of the patient – because if there wasn’t pretty persuasive evidence of a need for further treatment, we didn’t hold the hearing at all.
At that hearing, the patient could be committed for up to an additonal 14 days. At the 14 day mark, another hearing had to be held to see if the patient could be/should be committed for up to an additonal 90 days. Those 14 day hearings were much bigger deals, because the potential commitment was three months. If a person was committed at that point, then they would recieve a new due process hearing every 3 months.
Where I worked, 72-hour holds and 14-day holds meant the patient was treated in the community – at the hospital or at one of two clinics set up for mental health treatment. If the patient was committed on a 90 day hold, which usually indicated a need for longer term treatment, the person would be committed to Western States Hospital – the state mental hospital.
Getting out is a matter of showing you are not a danger to self or others, or gravely disabled. Things that were looked at included (but aren’t limited to): being compliant with medication and therapy; eating and sleeping appropriately; absence of obvious acute mental health symptoms (like hallucinations, pressured speech, paranoia); and personal insight into the situation.
Generally the cases were very clear cut: the people who were involuntarily committed were, in a word, crazy. Clearly crazy. Very crazy. Lots could be stabilized within 72 hours and released; the vast majoirty could be stabilized and released within 14 days.
The most difficult situations were: (1) the agony of parents who did not want to admit that they could no longer take care of their mentally ill adult child. I would have to tell them, Look, if you tell the judge you can take care of him, the judge will release him back to your care. You have to tell the truth: that you can’t deal with this child, that you’re worried about him and scared of him. “But he’ll be so mad at me!” (2) Alzheimer’s patients without support systems, like family or resources. These people were clearly gravely disabled, but not technically “mentally ill”. It was very hard to get them appropriate placements (i.e., a dementia nursing home), but being on the mental wards wasn’t really the place for them either. (3) People who were having acute mental illness issues for the first time – who had decompensated more or less out of the blue. This is unfortunately common with schizophrenia in particular. These patients did not have existing mental health services in place, or a history of mental health treatment, and they frequently had families who were either completely devastated by the situation or who refused to accept the gravity of it.
It depends on the placement. Is the person acutely decompensated and a danger to self or others? Because then they are likely to be in the proverbial padded cell. Suicidal individuals (although they are rare) are put in a quilted one-piece smock, akin to a hospital gown but much heavier and that you cannot rip or tear, called a “turtle suit.” They may be allowed literally nothing else, not even a blanket.
Out on the ward? Sure there are books. And games and TV and craft supplies, all to help the patients pass the time. Word processors? No; never saw one of those, though perhaps bigger facilities have them.