There is no Mental Health When Incarcerated

There is no Mental Health When Incarcerated

My Screams for Change Must be Heard

A mental health jail or prison is an oxymoron. Being incarcerated with a mental illness is equal to being bullied in the schoolyard for being different. In the judicial system there isn’t a way to feel safe enough to share your diagnosis with anyone. From arrest to arraignment, you feel the need to protect your diagnosis for fear of being treated differently. I was diagnosed with bipolar in 1993 on Riker’s Island.

My experience in the system was made clear the moment I had a breakdown after arraignment. They were saying, “She’s crazy, what the heck (not exactly those words) is wrong with her, she’s faking it.” Meanwhile, my addiction and mental illness attacked me at the same time, pushing and shoving, and I was reacting to protect myself. I was being hit from all sides.

My arrival to Riker’s had me ushered to the infirmary where I was given medications to relax. The medications had an adverse effect, which led them to try to figure out how they screwed up. Mental health and incarceration look like this.

The jail system is not equipped to respond to people with these challenges. It was never designed for treating people; remember that I said that. Jails are about controlling incarcerated individuals, not about meeting people where they are. The business of incarceration doesn’t have a plan in it that deals with the mental health population. We are forgotten as soon as the paperwork is done and we are identified as having a mental health concern. I remember being in my cell with depression and not wanting to come out. They forcibly removed me while I vainly tryed to explain what was going on inside of me.

“Mental health” in prisons and jails is designed to further destroy the people who suffer while locked up. The stigma is still present. People are dying literally and figuratively.

People that are incarcerated with mental illness are at an all-time high. The NYC Department of Corrections data shows over 40% of incarcerated individuals have contact with mental health professionals and/or enter the system with a diagnosis. They are mistreated, misdiagnosed, medicated inappropriately, and their voices are not heard. They’re abused in a system designed to mistreat them. Society has deemed this vulnerable population at the low end of the totem-pole because the most vulnerable are black and brown people, people who don’t trust the system due to abuse and trauma condoned by a society that does not recognize their value as human beings.

I have had many unfortunate experiences on Riker’s Island. I came off the Island many times worse than when I went in. I am still experiencing nightmares from my stay at Riker’s, traumatized some days beyond repair. As I am typing I am literally visualizing the assaults I received at the hands and batons of the corrections officers. The bloody lips, the black eyes, the denied visits. Who is going to listen when I have been deemed crazy, unstable, and screaming from the top of my lungs for redemption? Who is going to listen as I cry?

Mental health and incarceration won’t ever go together, not in this society, not in the way the prisons are set up, not in the society we live in. There are people who understand that this madness needs to stop, and to those people I am forever grateful. I feel like they can hear my scream for redemption. I feel like they hear my plea to humanize the system.

The truth is out. The public is becoming aware. The advocates are screaming and protesting at the horrific treatment endured by people with mental health concerns. I am proud to be part of a powerful and loyal group of people who understand that proper mental health treatment and a well-trained staff must be part of the equation. I am forever traumatized by my many stays on Riker’s Island; however, my trauma does not control me. I am forever a work in progress and I am grateful to be that.

Pullout: “As I am typing I am literally visualizing the assaults I received at the hands and batons of the corrections officers….Who is going to listen when I have been deemed crazy, unstable, and screaming from the top of my lungs for redemption?”

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