The one promise a prison consultant should never make to his or her client is “You are guaranteed to never get hurt in prison.”
Over 30 years ago, states began shutting down mental health facilities around the country in favor of community mental health centers. The policy was created to help patients live closer to their families and live relatively independent.
Every federal, state and county jail has a routine time where prescription drugs are handed out to inmates. As I sat in prison for ten years, I noticed more and more inmates standing in line for medication. Apparently, states began cutting billions from their mental health budgets, closing clinics across the country. The result was thousands of mentally ill people were bouncing in and out of the nation’s jails. In many cases, it has sent the mentally ill right back where they started — locked up in facilities that are ill-equipped to help them. There simply aren’t enough psychologists, psychiatrists or staff members to close the gap between being a listening ear and thwarting suicide. The gaping hole often triggers violence by the non-medicated inmate who has no patience or knowledge of the mental illness living within the one being beaten or stabbed. I have an uncle who has been shuffled between mental hospitals for nearly 30 years and often ponder what his fate would be if confined in a correctional institution.
The basic question posed by a prison consultant to his client should be “are you currently on any medications for psychological reasons?” It’s a question that will be posed once he or she is inside of prison but an inquiry which will likely never be asked by other inmates unless it’s revealed in confidence. Unfortunately the yelling, screaming and banging on prison bars is a mere whisper in comparison to the ear-piercing voices blaring “If he looks at you wrong, tries to be nice, tries to calm you down, offers you food or even says excuse me, kill him.”
Most inmates described like this enter prison on minor offenses. Police have picked them up for petty offenses like acting out in front of restaurants, sleeping in abandoned houses, drinking in public or possessing drugs. They’re people with nowhere to go and nowhere to get medication. Some of them will stay for a few days; some for a few weeks. But statistically almost all of them will be back. Federal prisons generally house inmates with mental health issues longer due to sentencing guidelines.
Veterans who have faithfully served the country are often seen rocking back and forth, digging in their skin and pulling out their hair. Some have served in Vietnam while others in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prisons are not the place for these men. They’ve seen enough violence and will not hesitate to become confrontational in a moment’s notice. Inmates have no patience for the castaways of this country’s failed mental health system. Prison consultants who have served enough time in prison well know that the jails responsibility is to keep other inmates from hurting these individuals while often baby sitting and hoping they don’t kill themselves. Correction officers who work cell blocks or dorms alone are not equipped to handle 70 to 150 non-medicated inmates yet provide effective treatment for medicated inmates suffering with schizophrenia coupled with a history of violent tendencies.
It’s painful to watch inmates step up to get one or more drugs in a paper cup and pop them into their mouthes. Then they must prove it’s swallowed by opening their mouth again for inspection. If they are craving prison drugs, candy or other items, they will “cheek” the drug (Hide the drug inside the cheek of their mouth at that moment stick out their tongue) then sell or trade it later. Now there is a bigger problem because the same drug used to curtail certain behaviors is present in the system of another inmate while the mentally ill inmates’ psychological issues slowly become visible for the prison population to see.
After sitting in prison for weeks, months or years without consistently being on medication or receiving appropriate counseling some are released only to wind up in front of police again. How sad is it to speak to an inmate who has served time with you and returns again and again before you’ve had an opportunity to go home. When I asked an inmate what led him back into a life of crime after being out only one month he stated “I came back to get on my medication.” He was one of many who believed he hears Jesus who tells him “make everyone disappear.” You can’t survive among other inmates who believe you will make them disappear. They will beat you to the punch.
My job as a prison consultant is to shed light on this issue because society refuses to address it. Prisons will provide Thorazine and Geodon for schizophrenia and bipolar disorders and Wellbutrin for those with depression. There is no program to ensure that inmates can receive the proper mental health care upon release.
As county jails, state and federal prisons bust out the seams due to the closing of mental health facilities there are only two questions that remain: Do people care but do not know or do they know but do not care?
Unfortunately time has shown us the answer.