Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Prison Inside One's Self

This is a trigger issue for myself, and possibly for others, so grab something to strangle while  you read.

I consider myself open-minded and accepting; hard to offend, most days. One of the issues that I can not abide, however, is the dominant societal image of mentally-ill people. It is true, even with the decades of progress and research that has gone into understanding mental disorders, it is still scarcely understood in popular culture, and misinformation, discrimination, and hatred run rampant. An article published by The Globe and Mail illustrates the kind of narrow-minded view that keeps people with mental disorders in the shadows, afraid of the "shame" of having a mental illness.

Their first case they refer to by a derogatory nickname, "headbanger", because he suffers from schizophrenia that compels him to harm himself. True, this is a prison situation we are discussing here, so some crudeness is to be expected, but the tone of the report continues on to discuss how mentally ill people were "flooding" Canadian Prisons, as if the tide of people being incarcerated would be better if they were not also diagnosable, and refers to them as "demented" which either means suffering from dementia (I hope we are not imprisoning too many Alzheimer's patients) or behaving irrationally due to anger/stress/etc. which describes likely all inmates, with the exception (Har. Har.) of psychopaths, who rarely act out due to emotions.

The news story continues, describing the plight of  "harried staff" who have to "gauge how dangerous they are and place them where they are least likely to run afoul of tougher inmates or try to take their own lives", which is not a problem they have with regular inmates, because no sane prisoner has ever harmed another or tried to take his/her own life. It continues to describe how they take up valuable space and eventually return to the streets, often untreated, to re-offend, again, not problems that occur with "normal" inmates.

Another problem is displayed with the suggestion that there are "other locations that would be preferable for these types of inmates"; true, help and treatment would be preferable, but suggesting that anyone with a mental illness is somehow not responsible for their actions is a dangerous and misguided belief. Many are responsible, and dis-empowering them by assuming they are helpless, ineffective, or broken is both backwards for their rights and our safety. (I can not believe I am arguing about why mentally ill people can be dangerous. I am the worst rights defender ever.)

Functionally, all the complaints leveled at the prison system about why mentally ill people are suffering (lack of care, resources, treatments) can be precisely equated to the case for inmates that are not diagnosable. If we considered therapy to help inmates, in the same way we struggle to help mentally-ill inmates, perhaps the recidivism rate would decrease. Implying that mentally-ill patients are deserving of better care is just creating a system begging to be taken advantage of by anyone who commits a crime and can Google "disorders". It also creates a system, like the problem described by the article, where individuals were in prison who could not even form the intent to commit a crime, since the justice system would just chuck them in prison, denying them a fair trial.

Rather than an article about the issues of mentally-ill people in prison, the whole story reads like a bigoted view of mental patients that could be extended to either anyone in prison, or anyone with a physical disorder in prison. There are so many problems with the prison system right now, it is ridiculous to single out inmates with mental disorders.

The title:
From the song "Prison" by Joseph Arthur, a very nice listen and reasonably related lyrics.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I'm sorry that I'm not entirely certain of the point you're attempting to make, but I understand that this is a difficult and provocative topic.
My take on this comes from a variety of places including sociology and psych courses on this very topic and conversations with a gentleman whose ability to forgive and walk by faith eclipse my own by orders of magnitude.

It is hardly news that people with mental illness are over represnted in prison populations, so are minorities and for some of the same reasons. The view of them by many members of the population as borderline subhuman and disposable is part of that too.

First, I am not a fan of our current prison system, and that bias likely colors my opinions here. Criminals with a treatable mental illness should be treated. In cases where the illness may precipitate the criminal act, then treatment is an essential part of criminal rehabilitation. Without it, rehabilitation is unlikely and release is just a chance to re-offend.

If every person in prison cries mental defect, then I have no issue with treating them, so long as they give up any chance for release if they cannot complete treatment and rehabilitation. You play that card, you go all in.

I actually expect that if treatment were the focus, we might see lower rates of re-offense, and possibly improvement in the state of mental health across society in general.

Prison inmates should be humanely treated, not for their benefit, but for ours. How we treat our prisoners says a lot about us. Granted, my definition of humanely may be minimal; bread, water, bed, physical activity and temperatures within human tolerances.

Set up the prison gym equipment as kinetic generators and tada! efficient food to electricity conversion! Prison education to make inmates useful upon release. Inmate labor can be used productively to benefit the society they attacked. Jobs too unpleasant or uninteresting for other people to chose...