At The Atlantic, writer Andrew Cohen visits (as he has so often in the past) the state of the lives of people with mental illness in the US prison system. In his piece One of the Darkest Periods in the History of American Prisons, published yesterday, Cohen describes four lawsuits filed in the past 3 weeks against prisons in 4 US states: Florida, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana.
I would tell you how I feel when I read Andrew Cohen’s pieces about what life is like for incarcerated people with mental illness, but how do I communicate inarticulate terrified screaming via text on a screen?
The actions and neglect alleged by the lawsuits are almost too terrible to comprehend, and in some cases would be sufficient to cause thought and mood disturbance in most mentally and emotionally stable adults. They cite cases of abuse of solitary confinement for months or years at a time; lack of protection from violence, particularly sexual assault; and excessive force by prison guards.
Mental health care in the prisons was described variously as “clearly inadequate,” “[not] even rudimentary,” and “grossly inadequate.” In discussing the ways in which the abuse of solitary confinement and inadequate staff make a horrific situation for mentally ill inmates even more dire, Cohen writes:
The federal report [filed by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department] describes a prison [in Pennsylvania] in which mentally ill prisoners are locked away so thoroughly that what few mental health professionals are available are unlikely to see the very inmates who need the most care. And what are such rare visits like when they occur? “Cell-side visits at Cresson [Prison] involve mental health staff standing outside prisoner cell[s] attempting to speak to the prisoners through cracks in door frames or food tray slots, amid the commotion of the unit.”
The results of these living conditions and inadequate (or absent) health care are predictable: suicide attempts and suicide completions; self-harm; homicide; decompensation. Cohen describes inmates with profound mental illness who have lived without treatment for years, even decades, and who will soon be eligible for release. Mental illnesses are not static. In most cases, they are progressive without appropriate treatment. When we lock sick people up, if we don’t treat them, we release much sicker people two or 10 or 30 years later.
And yet…did you know? Are you aware? The largest mental health care provider in the US is the LA County Jail. There is so little care available for people with mental illness that, ultimately, they get care (or not) in a a jail or prison, if they survive that long. If psychiatric care is not available in our communities, on our street corners, next to the offices where we have our kids immunized and our bronchitis diagnosed, if there are no beds in the hospitals for people facing serious psychiatric illness, do we assume those very sick people will all go home and be sick where we will not see them? Or see the error of their ways and just quit being sick?
Of course, many will go away. Some will take their own lives and we can comfortably view those deaths as family tragedies rather than the social failures many of them are; some will live life on the streets or in shelters as triple victims of their illnesses, the system, and the violence that is so prevalent on the streets; and some portion of people will become so ill, or have so many other confounding factors (cognitive impairment, little or no family support, homelessness, bad luck) that they will enter the criminal justice system.
Once they are locked up, we might treat them better than the abandoned pets in animal control shelters all over the country, but we might not. It depends on where an inmate is, and what his or her state has invested in treatment for prisoners, and a thousand other variables, down to whether or not the guard in charge of a prisoner on any given night “believes in” mental illness.
This is why, among the predictable bogeymen living under my bed—the possible horrors Carter may experience, from the likely to the remotely possible—incarceration is among those with the biggest, ugliest teeth. Sadly, the deck is stacked against him. His illness disturbs and distorts his thinking, makes him paranoid, aggressive, and sometimes seriously (frighteningly) weird. For now, I can compel him to accept treatment (and he wants that treatment), but the storms of adolescence and early adulthood are coming. For too many people with serious mental illness, normal teenage rebellion becomes treatment refusal, a “right” that we protect, which leads to more serious illness, which leads to the cycle of incarceration-shelter-streets-incarceration that is the undoing, and often the end, of far too many seriously mentally ill people.
You will never hear me make the argument that mental illness excuses any crime, but you will also never hear me make the argument that we do not hold in our collective hands a duty to care. We have a duty to see our incarcerated citizens as human beings, not necessarily because they always act like humans (I am not so idealistic that I don’t know the horrors people sometimes visit on each other.) but because we are.