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The Mental Health Crisis in the Prison System

The jails are overflowing because we think we can just punish people in order to stop [dysfunctional] behaviors. When the behaviors are driven by the pain they carry, by the shame they carry, the terror they carry, and it's not going to change by punishing people. Sometimes the punishing cracks them open and they can do some healing but that’s sort of by accident”- Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.

America’s approach to punishment often lacks a public safety rationale, disproportionately affects minorities, and inflicts overly harsh sentences. (James Cullen, 2018). An estimated 64% of the prison population suffers from mental illness, and there is not enough being done to reduce this statistic as the prison system is comprised of overcrowded facilities often lacking in services and resources to properly address the issue. The treatment an inmate receives while incarcerated can be described as a “dehumanizing” experience as rights are often violated and basic needs are regarded as a luxury. Being housed in a cell that is half the size of a small bathroom along with high sodium, unhealthy processed meals, and unsanitary conditions greatly contribute to the development of mental disorders. Instead of producing productive, reformed members of society, the prison system is contributing to a bigger and more complex issue.

Being incarcerated can be one of the most difficult things to endure mentally because inmates are isolated from society and confined to a small cell most of the day. The Department of Corrections does little to ensure one’s physical health and mental health are being properly managed during this time. Inmates describe the meals as “disgusting” and “horrible”, the environment feels unsafe and abusive, and the facilities themselves are often unsanitary. Communicating with loved ones can become a financial burden, with one 15 minute phone call costing an estimated total of $4. Inmates are housed in crowded conditions without access to proper medical treatment which has recently become more of a concern due to the COVID-19 pandemic; “It feels like standing in the middle of I-95 in New York, right in the middle of the road… cars zipping by me in both directions, and it’s only a matter of time before I’m hit” (Louis Reed, 2020). Under these circumstances, it takes a lot of mental endurance to wake up every day and not fall into a cycle of depression and anxiety.

There is a great sense of hopelessness and abandonment even with the anticipation of being released because no real plans are developed to help inmates integrate back into society which ultimately defeats the purpose of recidivism. Though many inmates suffer from mental illness and are medicated, others work on trying to maintain some sort of sanity by reading books, meditating, exercising, and keeping in contact with their friends and family. Having faith and belief in a higher power is something that gives hope to many; “you have to believe in something bigger than yourself when you have very little control” (Sanon Rival, 2020)

Addressing mental health can be a benefit to both the inmates and the prison system. It can greatly increase recidivism rates which would contribute to lower incarceration rates. With a reduction in incarceration rates, the system is able to provide more programs and services to the overall population, keeping inmates sane and healthy.

For the purpose of increasing awareness of the mental health crisis in the prison system, seven inmates from Walker-MacDougall Correctional Institution in Suffield, CT were interviewed. They were asked how they maintain their mental health while incarcerated and what the DOC could do to encourage better management of mental health needs:

How do you maintain your mental health while incarcerated?

“Read, workout. Some may embrace a religion.”- C.M.

“Maintaining contact with my family (i.e. visits, phone, letters, pictures), music also helps at times.” -S.S.

“By exercising to release my mind from being inside of these walls”- Anonymous

“Reading, listening to music and playing sports. Sometimes I like to write down everything that’s on my mind and send it to someone that I trust just to vent.” -Anonymous

“By reading, working out, and staying focused on what’s in front of you. It’s easier said than done but you have to have discipline.” -Anonymous

“I try to take my mind off things by reading or watching TV and to occupy my time. I also try to remain calm and positive because stressing or any type of negativity does not help while incarcerated.”- B.B.

“I meditate, play chess, and maintain a spiritual connection with my God. I also speak with loved ones at least 1-2x a week.”- Anonymous

What is the biggest threat to your mental health while incarcerated?

“Being idle and stressing lost time that we don’t get back. Missing my kids and family.” -C.M.

“Something happening to my family and having no control over the situation.”- S.S.

“The biggest threat to my mental health while being incarcerated is being locked in a cell 21 hours a day and being treated like an animal by correctional staff.”- Anonymous

“Myself. Getting stuck in my own head, not being able to connect with peers or being around other mentally unhealthy people.”- Anonymous

“Stress!”- Anonymous

“I would say the fact that I am being away from my family and I am missing out on significant family events, such as the birth of someone in the family or holidays.”- B.B.

“Well for me personally, I worry about my father who is an elderly man, but in good health. If anything were to happen to anyone that I love while I’m incarcerated it would be hard to deal with." – Anonymous

What could the DOC do to encourage better mental health management?

“Provide better access to programs, and allow internet access in order to help us prepare for jobs and housing.”- C.M.

“Have meditation classes at every facility, video visits, and groups. Give more opportunity to further one’s education such as college courses and trades.”- S.S.

“The DOC can give more rec time instead of having us locked in a cell like caged animals.”- Anonymous

“They could offer more groups where brothers could get together and build, like an activity that’s educational and to keep your mind stimulated.”- Anonymous

“By allowing inmates to facilitate [groups] or meetings because they are the only ones who can understand each other.”- Anonymous

“The DOC should give us activities that could help with releasing stress or allow us to indulge ourselves in programs that help with coping. They could also make sure that all inmates have regular check-ups with someone who is a mental health professional.”- Anonymous

“Bi-weekly questionnaires and/or monthly check-ins with inmates. Helping inmates get set up with programs on the outside in order to better adjust. Being incarcerated for a long period of time can cause anxiety and PTSD; this is why a lot of inmates fail after they are released, and parole officers don’t provide much support." - Anonymous

Contributions to this post were made by Sanon Rival.

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