Mental Health & Incarceration

Despite the fact that the mental health treatment program I’m in provides services to, in part, people who have been through the prison system, despite sitting in groups and sometimes lunches with them, I have to wonder, how much do I really know about how this two things intertwine?

When we woke up this morning, WBAI’s show “On The Count” (a show that deals with prisoner’s rights and the prison-industrial complex) was playing and our friend Vikki Law was being interviewed. Eric & I have known her through her involvement with ABC No Rio, I think primarily. She’s also done lot of work with Books Behind Bars, and has also launched a zine and book project collecting stories, artwork, and poetry from women who are in prison. Anyway, this morning she was also talking about mental illness and incarceration. From the bit I woke up to hear, thanks in part to Bloombuck’s fund-slashing to various programs and hospitals, Riker’s Island had become the largest psychiatric facility in New York.

And poking around online revealed, a pretty lousy one at that. Solitary confinement is common. In 2012, a robbery suspect, Jason Echeverria, swallowed a ball of toxic soap, likely hoping to be taken from solitary to medical. Instead, he was ignored by the guards over the next 20 minutes, as the soap killed him. By late 2013, more articles surfaced criticizing Rikers’ treatment of mentally ill inmates, from the likes of the Guardian and the NY Times. More recently, a 2014 article from Solitary Watch states that although Rikers has purportedly ended the practice of placing the mentally ill in solitary confinement, abuses are still rampant.

A lot of this may bring up some uncomfortable questions within Mad Pride activism. A lot of us are focused on de-stigmatization and challenging stereotypes that all mentally ill (or neurodiverse, or whatever suits you best) are dangerous and violent. And it’s important to challenge those beliefs. But…what about people with mental illness who have done something that got them in trouble? In the On The Count interview (which I admit I only woke up for the last 15 minutes or so of) Vikki made some connections between the lack of mental health help available on the outside and incarceration. She spoke of one woman she had interviewed who’d had difficulty finding the help she needed, until her illness and stress reached a boiling point and she got into an altercation with someone, leading to jail time. Could this have been averted if better treatment had been available to this woman?

In my own experience, getting help can be very difficult when you’re economically disadvantaged. (And for many, having a mental illness can become an economic hindrance.) The city hospitals didn’t seem interested in doing much beyond over-medicating their clientele, and many of the programs that will take Medicaid were full or losing funding. I feel fortunate to have gotten into the program I’m in, which offers services to the homeless, ex-cons, or just very poor (like me) who have mental health and substance abuse issues. There seems to be an unspoken etiquette there that you don’t question anyone on why they may have been in prison, any more than you would on where various scars or cuts may have come from. Here in the land of the recently ended stop-and-frisk, where cops can demand you empty your pockets,  I imagine way too many people get in trouble for something fairly petty anyway. The bulk of them aren’t mean or disrespectful people, and the staff, (and even other clients!) will address it if someone is.

I’d like to go back and listen to the show in it’s entirety, WBAI has them archived, including today’s program:





5 thoughts on “Mental Health & Incarceration

  1. Pingback: Jerome Murdough In L.V.X. | Notes From The Devil Dollhaus

  2. That would be a good idea, but prison in the US at least hasn’t actually put rehabilitation at the top of it’s priorities. And now with the increasing privatization of prisons here it’s becoming more and more about profit. The New Jim Crow is a recent book examining this stuff, at least in the US,that I should probably check out.


    • I know. I think my friend’s interview just got me realizing there’s a mental health crisis within prison walls as well. How do we address the points that not all mentally ill people are criminals, nor is mental illness the sole cause of violence, but not exclude this whole other faction of the neurodiverse population?


      • I think we need to take people as they are. I feel like it shouldn’t be complicated but it’s complicated because of how society has built everything up.

        I can’t help but think that if you are in prison you need some sort of mental health support. You’re going through major life changes and need to continue to make them to avoid future incarceration.


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