“What is and what should be”
Kenneth E. Hartman
This essay by Kenneth Hartman creates a picture of what prison is like on a day-to-day basis. He discusses the constant tension that runs through the prison, and how lockdowns negatively impact incarcerated people’s mental health. He also notes that these lockdowns are particularly hard on those who already struggle with their mental health.
THE TENSION cuts through your clothes and into your skin like a jagged shank. Another alarm goes off, its pitched wailing, yelling out: there’s trouble over here, be careful, be concerned, stay vigilant. The prisoners, all knotted up into little groups deﬁned by skin color and tattoos, warily circle before sitting down. Each group watches the others closely. This could be a diversionary tactic to draw the guards off to a far corner of the compound to launch a sneak attack. The tower speaker is blaring a constant refrain, “Down on the yard, down on the yard.”
The guards go running off to where a blue light is ﬂashing. It could be anything from a false alarm to a full—on attempted takeover of the building or anything in between. Clubs drawn, pepper spray canisters in hand, they pour into the open doorway. On the yard, each group is sizing up its relative position. Because the alarms are essentially random, you never know where you might be when one goes off. It is a Russian roulette version of the chairs game. If the guards come out with combatants of different hues or conflicting tattoos you might get caught sitting on the ground, out of your seat, with your head kicked in. The longer it takes the guards to come back out, the sharper the tension gets. This happens multiple times every day. After a While, everyone is a raw nerve. The guards be- come so hypervigilant they react to everything with overwhelming force. The prisoners are so stressed they become landmines, trip-wires extended out in every direction. Fear, masked as aggression, suppresses the higher modes of thought resulting in a defensive stance so rigid that all slights and perceived incursions provoke a mindless, out—of-proportion reaction. This goes on for years.
The breaks in this lunacy come in the form of periodic lock-downs that last for a day or a week or months, usually without any easily comprehended distinction. One stabbing could be a lockdown of a week, another a month. At first, the feeling on all sides is one of general relief. From having to watch hundreds of potential adversaries to only your cellmate is a diminution of stress by orders of magnitude. In those few cases when you are truly compatible with the man sharing your concrete box, the relaxation is invigorating. Normally, as the choice of who lives in your space is never truly voluntary, this is not the case. Now, whatever irritating peculiarities exist become heightened. Body odors and irrational hostilities come to the fore. It often devolves into a wary dance around hard-to- understand psychological problems and complex, deep—seated fears and resentments.
Regardless of compatibility, within a few days most prisoners begin to suffer an odd form of cabin fever, a depressive rage against the powerlessness of being trapped behind a steel door that only opens unpredictably and infrequently. Some men sleep all day, slipping into a self-induced semi-coma state of passive resistance (…) For many, the cabin fever expresses itself in the loss of rationality. This is particularly true for those with preexisting mental health problems, a startlingly large percentage of modern prisoners. For these unfortunates, the lockdown becomes too much to bear. Door kicking, random shouts, radios played at full volume for days on end, stopping up toilets to ﬂood the tiers, and other similarly irrational behaviors proliferate throughout the buildings. Like a virulent, highly contagious disease, once a few men slip the constraints of civilized behavior, a general disorder is unleashed. Cell fights start to occur more frequently because there is no other way to escape intolerable situations. Asking for a move is tantamount to being an informer in the bizarro world of prison. Even if you do, the guards normal response is “show us some blood.” Suicide attempts increase during these periods. The cell starts to shrink down on some prisoners until it is little more than a concrete coffin, squeezing out the desire to continue. In most prisons, a man spends more time on lockdown than off‘. This goes on for years.
“Prison is no place for innocent people or mentally ill people”
This piece details the atrocities that befall severely mentally ill incarcerated people. Not only are they more likely to be incarcerated, but the environment that they are placed in is conducive to self-harming behavior as well as outbursts. Many mentally ill incarcerated people lack basic necessary health care and are thrown into segregation often.
It’s obvious that innocent people shouldn’t be in prison but what about mentally ill people? The worst place for them to be in jail or prison. So, why are innocent people and mentally people in prison? It’s because the U.S. enjoy jailing and imprisoning its own citizens. We have some prosecutors who do everything in their power to obtain as many convictions as possible, regardless of the actual guilt or innocence of a person. We need prison diversion programs for the mentally ill. Adequate mental health care for these guys are often lacking in our prisons. It’s hard for mentally ill people to follow prison rules, as a result, they could end up in segregation a.k.a the hole. Over the years, I’ve heard so many unbelievable, horrible stories about the mentally ill that are housed in segregation. Some of them are labeled s.m.i, severely, mentally ill. The ones that are housed in Pontiac seg are known for throwing and spitting feces on eachother. As a seg gallery worker in Menard, I got to witness some of the things that I once had only heard of. I lost count of how many guys arms I’ve seen full of self-inflicted scars. I have seen guys who had a habit of smearing their feces all over themselves and their cell. I have seen a guy who refused all of his food trays and when asked what are you going to eat? He took out a tray of his feces and began eating it. I have seen guys who could only be fed finger food because if you gave them a fork or spoon, they would stick it in their penis or up their rectum. I know a guy who mutilated his genitals and had to be rushed to the outside hospital where he stayed for some days. When he was returned back to Menard, he had to be rushed to the hospital again because he removed his staples. These people need help. They shouldn’t be in prison.
“Yea I call myself that you see”
The author of this essay calls himself “Crazy Davy Whitecell,” a reflection of the environment of prison that enhances mental illness rather than providing rehabilitation.
Why is everyone so stressed out why are these sickos, the Doctors, always trying to heal me? I’m not ill? Or am I? What do I suffer from a language barrier, or was I just labeled a criminal and a psychopath and thrown away at 52 to spend the next 21 years in prison for my mental breakdown. Well if you wish to call flipping someone off a major crime, you see today I received my appeal from my attorney appointed by the state.
It’s crazy how so many people just stand around like there’s nothing left to do. They are in a men’s Maximum Security State Prison and most on this yard or “snake pit” are labeled with a designation of E.O.P. enhanced outpatients. It’s like if you’re mentally ill but you could be one or the other, just coming in or on your way out. It’s funny if you try to make sense of it all, you kinda have to be well versed, ‘cause if you’re not on the ball, these people are very penny wise and vindictive.
Some men as well can be very pleasant to be in contact with others well let’s just say I try to avoid at all costs. It’s laughable how some will call me a j-cat. That in California is meant as an insult in the Mental Health world in prison, when you size up most men. That’s the kettle calling the pot black, so to speak.
The prison guards zookeepers, the mental and medical staff veterinarians. This is my world, a chemical war, spiritual warfare, mental illness, a pond. I wait for the still of the night for silence to be able to have some peace.
The mental health system a complete failure, yesterday’s “Real News” 4000 homeless mentally ill on the street in San Francisco, what are they going to do? Start filling the county jails? It’s at crisis level.
“Gray Sorrow: Depression in Prison.”
Ryan M. Moser
Moser uses poetic language to describe how incarceration and the poor conditions that incarcerated people endure can lead to new or worsening symptoms of depression.
To truly explain the depression one experiences while in prison is difficult. It’s like a sadness so deep within that it can never be lifted; a heart of heaviness which mere words cannot express. It becomes an exercise in futility to seek a promise land when you’re cut off from society, taken away from your family, separated from your friends, co-workers, peers, and isolated by yourself. There’s an underlying feeling that the illogical pursuit of happiness is unavailing, and just waking up everyday becomes a struggle. You are surrounded by rue and stampeded into the darkness of shame and hopelessness, and there is a gray sorrow following everywhere; hammered and forged on an anvil of regret. Most times, it feels fruitless to search oneself for some future endeavor of consequence (for the hour has passed and the candlelight’s dim) so we grieve for our last hope once again. It is hard to continue on…. Depression (a major affective disorder that affects almost all men in prison at one point or another) causes anxiety, lethargy, obesity, Vapidity, and feelings of loneliness. Every second of every minute of everyday becomes torment in the abyss. We sit here alone and ponder our mistakes — knowing that we can never turn back time or change our fate, and not fully believing that we have the power to control our future and lead life to a better place. The grueling nature of suffering bears its teeth and takes a bite out of the present moment regularly, reminding us of the constant battle to try and stay in one piece. Things drag on as the world outside spins and spins and spins while we stand still. The emotional disturbance in our minds can be temporarily abated by positive activities like exercise, reading, chess, yoga, puzzles, correspondence, meditation, writing, music, and other things to take your thoughts away from prison, but at the end of the day we remain in a world of hurt and confusion; at the mercy of our oppressor’s whip and the bars of the cell door. There is nowhere to run from this agonizing pain. The discontentment which arises from our previous poor decisions can follow you for years, and the physiology of the disease of depression weighs on top of that like an elephant, adding to the moroseness. There is no real cure for depression as of yet, only pharmacological assistance to help keep symptoms at bay, but medicine and therapy are only an option i F you want to be classiﬁed as a psychiatric inmate and be transferred to a facility which accommodates those with much worse problems than depression — homicidal/ suicidal tendencies, schizophrenia, mental retardation, and more. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to find a rope that we can pull ourselves up out of the pit with – by any means necessary. It comes down to strength, warrior-spirit, tenacity, positivism, right outlook, and most of all, hope…things that are sometimes, but not always, out of reach while serving time in the Department of Corrections.
“How I plan to remain a healthy, productive, and valued member of the community when I parole (AKA, Relapse prevention plan)..”
David J. Terway
In this section of his essay, David Terway details his mental health diagnoses. He understands his mental state to have been worsened by past drug use, family trauma, and perhaps most significantly, the time spent in solitary confinement and lack of humane treatment while incarcerated.
My mental illness diagnoses are Pedophilic Disorder and Other Specified Personality Disorder. Depression is a mood disorder. The pedophilia is a thought disorder. I was about forty-four years old when I realized I had a mental disorder. This was a few months after being arrested (my arrest was May 19, 2005). This realization came about from a combination of finding myself in prison and pondering what got me there, as well as the receipt of a letter from my older sister in which she told me that if I sought long-term mental health treatment she might continue to stay in touch, otherwise she’d have nothing to do with me.
My symptoms have included two severe anxiety attacks (December 2015 and June 2017), banging my head against the wall and floor and cell door without regard for the damage it might cause to me (four separate instances, all in 2017), not eating or drinking for up to four days (on three occasions, all in late 2017). When I wasn’t eating or drinking, I wanted to die; I did not wish to experience what I had been experiencing for another moment longer. I wanted it all to end. I cared about nothing. I realized that I had been depressed for years near the end of 2017 during my crisis bed stays. I had become accustomed to the depression.
I have no doubt that my marijuana and alcohol use, along with the abuse of other drugs (cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, and mushrooms) likely played a part in bringing on my mental disorders. Also, I never received any therapy when my father passed away right before my twelfth birthday. My family told me that I refused to speak at all for more than a week. When I started using drugs, my Dad’s death was part of my justification. If my substance abuse didn’t bring about my mental health issues, it at least certainly amplified or worsened existing conditions.
I realized I was depressed when I had my first anxiety attack in late 2015. It was brought on by a constant and unfruitful search for reward while serving my prison sentence. This invalidation of my good behavior took place over the ten years I had served until that point; I was at the CCCMS (CDCR Clinical Case Management System) level of care that entire time. I tried so hard to show that I was not violent, that I could follow the rules, and that I had insight into the nature of my crime and its impact on my victim and my victim’s loved ones and on society as a whole. I tried to show that I was no longer antisocial. I went to Atascadero State Hospital (henceforth referred to as “ASH”) from February 2016 to June 2016 and got a lot better. But then after six months at the EOP (Enhanced Outpatient) level of care after ASH, my treatment team (at Valley State Prison, Chowchilla) decided, without my input, that I was ready to go back to CCCMS. I, on the other hand, had made clear that I was doing well at ASH and needed to be permitted to complete what I had started there, including substance abuse and CBI (Cognitive Behavioral Intervention), and that I needed DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) for my entrenched black-and-white thinking, all-or-nothing thinking, interpersonal relationship effectiveness, emotional regulation, etc. I even filed a formal grievance, to no avail. I ‘freaked out” at my team because they didn’t care what I had to say. Furthermore, the team told me they were sending me to CCCMS because they were being pressured by CDCR to reduce the EOP population. I ended up banging my head against the wall and floor repeatedly until it bled profusely. From there I went to crisis bed after crisis bed as my EOP team continued to insist I ought to be at the CCCMS level of care. I came back to ASH on October 31, 2018.
In this piece, Barrett describes his experience in the “thunder dome,” the nickname given to Oregon State Penitentiary’s Intensive Management Unit. He specifically mentions the psychological warfare employed by both the staff and incarcerated people, describing an environment that assaults the mind and causes many to fall mentally ill.
Often prisoners are already experiencing a multitude of mental and emotional ailments that subject them to vulnerability but in solitary their issues become exacerbated. Triggering them to act out isn’t a difficult task for the bored. Some guards look for the chink in someone’s armor and then verbally attack. More often than not it is the same group of guards. And they always take their time mentally fucking with guys. They know they have you in a cell for years. If you have a confrontation one day with one of them you may not get fucked with for a few weeks or more. But it will come. If you get moved to another unit they will have one of their coworkers insure you get fucked with. Punishment from the guards is just like gang retaliation. It works on the buddy system. Prisoners see it and it is part of the convict code: we act in the same way they model. Door kicking is just the first symptom that guards are warming up to fuck with someone long term. Sometimes it is just a prisoner having a psychotic break. The pressure of solitary closes in on them and they snap for some genuine reason or for no reason at all. They start kicking their cell door and screaming incoherently.
Door kicking is sometimes used as psychological warfare against other prisoners to break them down. If someone isn’t liked, for whatever reason, several prisoners will get together and kick the doors day and night causing him and everyone sleep deprivation. A few minutes of kicking here and there, then silence just long enough for the person to start reading or doing other work, then kicking again. They’ll watch his sleep schedule and kick as soon as he lies down and make sure he doesn’t get so much as a nap. All while yelling, “Sleep when you can, not when you want to.”
Usually, within 24 hours, the prisoner is kicking his own door begging the guards to move him to a new cell or unit. They wont. He’ll stay right there until he floods out his cell, cuts up, or tries to hang himself. Some prisoners won’t break though. They will endure the noise and sleep deprivation, sometimes for months. And that, in itself, has its own psychological consequences. It is within the OSP IMU that the art of door kicking and psychological warfare have been perfected and taken to a level that CIA interrogators would appreciate.
I begin to feel as if I am being eaten away mentally. I can’t sleep on a normal schedule, I’m constantly bombarded by noise, and those watching me gaze on day after day as if it has no affect on me. My anger for them grows toward the guards and my hate for myself grows as I feel a deep toxic shame for where I have dragged myself.
“What prisoners learn”
Andrew Jackson Smith
This piece describes the neurological impacts of incarceration on individuals. It discusses how the prison environment can affect a wide variety of neurological processes and contribute to the development of mental illness.
Helplessness is defined as a feeling of dependence, powerlessness, defenselessness, or depression. Learned helplessness is defined as a passive fatalistic behavior that one cannot influence one’s environment, or alter one’s existence. The condition may arise as a result of depression, fears, or loss of functional independence.
The ideal breeding ground for instilling learned helplessness in people is the prison environment in America. This penal institutional system is also ensuring generational racism; creating horrendous psycho sociopaths, and developing career paths to failure. America’s prisons harbor depression, fear, and loss of functional independence.
Helplessness is a behavior in both thought and action. Behavior is a definable function produced by the brain. Learning acts upon the brain to formulate this function of behavior described as helplessness. Learning is the acquisition of new information that is subject to memory and recall. Memory may be unconscious (implicit) or conscious (explicit).
CHANGES IN THE BRAIN
Plasticity of the brain involves changes anatomical in structure and/or physiological in function. Learning can produce synaptic changes and contribute to stored memory. Memory is consolidated by repeated experience (enhanced by emotional components) over time Which transform short term memory into long. Emotional components are formed by many internal and external environmental factors, such as attention, fear, social cultural setting, neurotransmitters, stress, sleep, etc.
Learning involves encoding, storage and recall of information, much by way of long term potentiation. When synaptic pathways increase excitatory postsynaptic receptors in “the hippocampus, long term potentiation occurs. Excitation can occur by quantitative means (cooperativity) and/or qualitative (associativity). This is a very abbreviated and generalized comment; long term potentiation involves many factors beyond the scope of this paper. However, the learning process involves long term potentiation resulting from anatomical and physiological changes at the neuronal level.
Argument continues today over biological and environmental mechanisms affecting learning and ultimately behavior, both normal and abnormal. Both social and biological mechanisms act upon the neuronal aspect of the mind. In the future, the field of psychiatry, as we know it, will not exist. Psychiatry will be transformed to neuropsychiatry and then only to distinguish signs (neurotic manifestations) from symptoms (psychotic manifestations), both attributable to structural and physiological characteristics at the neuronal (or lesser) level. Furthermore, emphasis upon the creation of abnormal (disease) will need to take center stage as we acknowledge the ever increasing effects of society upon society. And prisons in America are the experimental playgrounds to alter mentation in human subjects under strict governmental and regulatory guidelines.
It is obvious and over simplistic to note that may regions of the brain are involved in cognition. The reward system involving dopaminergic neurons and the basal ganglia and insula with pathways to the anterior cingulate involving will power. The ventral striatum receiving inputs from the hippocampus, amygdala, and entorhinal cortex communicate with the ventral and rostral medial pallidum, and rostrodorsal substantia nigra pars reticula. Pathways of neurons continue to paramedian of the dorsal nucleus of the thalamus and back upon the anterior cingulated cortex. All this to ultimately impact executive function involving the prefrontal cortex (and limbic structures). Reinforcing stimuli account for the cascade of events culminating in long term potentiation of learning associated with motivated behavior.
There is nothing new or remarkable in this explanation, and it is surely better demonstrated through graphics, if not computerized three-dimensional models of the brain. Less emphasis is placed upon the detrimental effects of our environments than should be, unless a definitive diagnosis has been established as a result. And so when noble soldiers venture into war and return with a diminished or absent ability to conform to the norms of society, we label the post traumatic experiences as a stress disorder. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis certainly plays a role with the release ultimately of stress hormones capable of neuronal death and malfunction. Changes in the amygdala specifically can be seen often. And future studies will prove many other regions affected and altered by these experiences.
In a previous paper entitled Mass Producing Mental Illness in America’s Prisons, I alluded to the structural and functional changes occurring in the brain and attempted to suggest how devastating this phenomenon will be upon America’s civil communities exponentially over time. I believe we are living in outcomes of the prediction now.
The most frequent responses to the paper I received were of the following nature: ( 1) Criminals are already exhibiting the behavior consistent with the anomalies of pathology described, (2) If these changes for ill are caused by a nefarious environment like prisons, then when the subject returns to well society, the effects will reverse, (3) The ill mental effects upon prisoners is warranted as punishment for their crimes and of little concern to society, and (4) not all persons subjected to adverse stigmatizing environments are adversely affected, in fact, some transform for the better, thus showing improvement. And these comments have led me to further evaluate the issue at hand, although I remain convinced in the initial paper’s (mentioned) findings as fundamentally and methodically correct.
I will comment on number one first. There is a percentile of the general population diagnosable with psychosocial pathology. This term here utilized in a general and broad sense to include several specific disorders or sub-types. If we view the number of persons with such, a lesser number of those commit crimes, and of that number then in prisons, essentially all remain psycho sociopaths until release
But a psychologically assessed normal segment of the general population is also apt to commit crimes, and of this total number a significant percentage develop psychosociopathies while in prison directly correlating to length and severity of conditions. This was the target group that my previous paper addressed.
“Gorilla in the prison mental health closet”
In this essay, the author describes the prevalence of PTSD within the carceral system, and how the prison environment can traumatize individuals to the extent of developing this mental illness. Outman highlights the lack of recognition of PTSD within prisons, and the resulting absence of care for individuals who suffer from it.
Psychological studies prove PTSD takes a broad spectrum toll causing dysfunctional marital relationships, anti-social behaviors and aberrant behaviors. With this in mind VA Clinics are filled of PTSD veterans. News stories have featured special courts established to mediate criminal acts of veterans with PTSD.
Yet, there remains a gorilla in the prison mental health closet. Experts, courts and society in general acknowledge victims and our military heroes are subjected to PTSD, however few want to acknowledge that our zeroes, social offenders, also suffer PTSD. Society does not want to accept our system of judicial punishment produces PTSD; possibly at a rate more than our wars.
There are none so blind, than those who will not see! By ignoring prison on-set PTSD and psychiatric comorbidity, our guardians of the public trust responsible for ”rehabilitation” are as criminal, as the prisoners they are supposed to be ”rehabilitating”.
The California Prison Healthcare System issues Inmate Death Review reports periodicity. The latest analysis was of 2012. In that analysis California’s prison homicide death rate was more than double the Bureau of Justice Statistics national benchmark. California’s prison suicide rate was 33% higher than the benchmark rates of death from suicide in the total US prison population. Death and violence roams the corridors of prisons. Murders, suicides and death in general is so common in prison, there are few prisoners who don‘t know a prisoner who has met an untimely death.
One only needs to walk into prison to sense the ambience of violence, signs read no warning shots!, high advantage points are maned with guards armed with automatic rifles and prison personnel regularly wear stab-proof vests. Guards roam the prison grounds and corridors like mini-mobile arsenals adorned with violence associated accouterments: pepper spray, bully clubs, hand cuffs, manacles, chains, helmets, anti-stab vests, radios and mass pagers. On any given day, at multiple times, entire prisoner populations are ordered to drop to the ground, due to alarm of violence within the prison. A prisoner must be on constant vigilance of assault by a violent prisoner, or a guard who may be having a bad day. Liberty and personal well-being is of little regard in the prison environment. At any time a cell-mate could psychologically break and beat you to the ground, or turn you into a homicide statistic. Like in a military war zone, all of this is a breeding ground for PTSD.
Preparing to write this article, I queried a well known forensic psychologist, he responded: “Dear Robert, PTSD is not on the list for major psychiatric disorders that qualify for mental health treatment in CDC, it is ignored.” His name is withheld due to retribution consideration. However, it doesn’t take a doctoral degree in psychology to recognize PTSD is endemic in California prisons.
With an abysmal recidivism rate and knowing PTSD is a contributor to recidivism, failing to treat a nationally recognized mental health disorder can only be described as irresponsibility and a miscarriage of public trust.
“A few words on post traumatic stress”
Brian D. Fuller
In this piece, the author describes the experience and manifestation of PTSD within the space of the prison. In particular, he describes the experience of having a panic attack, and how traumatic events can affect an individual both physically and mentally.
It often takes time for the full effect of traumatic events to set in. At first, we’re just so relieved to get past the initial pain and stress of the ordeal, that we pay little attention to the possibility of future problems. We simply let it go and focus on other things in an effort to move on with our lives.
Recently, the Texas Innocence Project responded with their questionnaire they wanted me to fill out and send in. This is what I’ve been striving for the whole time in prison. Finally, somebody wants to investigate the circumstance that led to the nightmare. Without a moments hesitation, I dove right into answering all the questions and assembling documents for the pack I was sending in. I gave little thought to that “Pandora’s Box” I was opening up.
Re-living all the tragic events that set me on this path in the first had an adverse affect on my psyche. The onslaught of emotions completely overwhelmed me. All of the depression, anxiety, anger, and confusion; soon had me on the verge of a panic attack. I was teetering on the brink if “crashing out” dangerously close to having another episode. It’s time to swerve to the side and tap them brakes. “COLLISION ALERT! COLLISION ALERT!”
Breathe in. Breathe out. Calm down. Currently, at the moment, at this very space in time – there is no immediate damage or catastrophe threatening me. Its’ “all in my head.” Literally. That’s just how strong our brain is. Memories can trigger powerful responses in our autonomous nervous system. That’s why I’ll never understand peoples MALICE, DECEIT, and TREACHERY. Nothing good EVER comes from it.”They” don’t care about who they hurt or how many lives they ruin. As long as they get what they want.
“Loneliness, Isolation, and boredom equals suicide”
William T. Jacobsen
In this excerpt, Jacobsen describes the negative mental effects of prisons, specifically Texas prisons. He talks about how Covid-19 shut all activities in prison down, and the guards seem to want incarcerated people to suffer.
This Loneliness, Isolation, Boredom, Depression, Emptiness, being taking away from everyone
you love and taken at away from The Simple Things you loved or liked to do. Will and does drive even the strongest minds to Thoughts of Suicide. In Texas Prisons even more guys think about and do commit suicide. This is not only because of the guilt they feel for what ever crime they may have or did commit. Its because of The Loneliness, Isolation, Boredom and so on.
The suicide rate in Texas Prisons is worse than anyone will admit. This week in mid-July I lost another good friend.
Add on to all the feelings, with Covid-19, everything inside prison has shut down. In Texas Prisons there is No visitation, No pay phone privileges, limited or no commissary, no outside rec, limited or more often no dayroom, no or limited T.V. time, limited or no hot meals, no church of any kind, no board games as in No Chess, Checkers or Dominos, No library and limited or no showers. Which is all Texas Prisons allows us to do or have. This is going on Five months now. All of this adds to our loneliness, Isolation, boredom, etc. This only increases the thoughts and chance of suicide inside Texas Prisons. I’m sure this would increase suicides anywhere. These feelings are not only because of Covid-19. This is a year around thing in Texas Prisons.
So you see, books, T.V’s, video games, movies, all those things and more can and do save lives. You never know what may stop someone from committing suicide. Anyone or all of those things can and has helped keep the loneliness at bay. It’s helped with depression, boredom and so much more. Like I said it may sound silly or crazy to you. But these are the things I hold on to. The things that help me continue day to day. For over 13 years now I’ve told myself T.V.’s, Playstations, Movies and more will be here. So I wait and try to keep the bad thoughts away for another day, week, month, year!
The truly sad part is Texas Prisons officials love all this loneliness, depression, boredom, etc. I’ve had a few guards tell me. “Most of my coworkers will do anything and everything to make you guys feel lonely and suicidal. They even take bets to see who will kill himself next. They also truly believe its part of their job to punish you all.”
“A lonely world”
This excerpt discusses the difficulty of winter in prison, when the inability to go outdoors pushes incarcerated people to their mental limits. Whitt also addresses the stigma that exists in prison around mental health.
Usually it’s the season of winter that has that time when you are pushed to your limits. The reason why is because you are stuck indoors with nothing to challenge yourself physically. Winter is a time of boredom when you’re in prison. From boredom comes depression. There have been times when there were activities made available to slow the development of depression. They have disappeared as the time has gone on and the administration has tried to find ways to save money.
Being surrounded by four walls and locked doors doesn’t make finding something to fill the emptiness in you easy. Not only is there an emptiness in your heart, but you also have an emptiness in your mind. Why? Because the pain of the people that disappeared on you caused a reaction or getting rid of anything that might remined you of what life was with them in it. The loss causes you to become overly critical of yourself. So much go that you entertain thoughts of suicide. Combating those thoughts is tricky. Some have done so by isolating themselves. The main reason for the isolation is so that no one witnesses what you’re going through. Why don’t you want anyone to witness it? Because of how you’ll be viewed. Many would see it as weakness. The one thing that you don’t want to be is viewed as weak.
“The stress of this place”
The Wordist WAM
This poem illustrates the constant barrage of external stressors and negative inputs that an incarcerated person is subjected to, as well as the psychological damage it leads to.
The stress of this place
That’s what you see when you look at my face
I look tired and at the same time excited
Afraid of the bad dreams so when sleep comes I fight it
So I wake up exhausted with yesterday’s fears
But I can’t show weakness in here so I make sure to hide my tears
I hold tight to my faith but it’s getting hard
Constantly praying to the Parole board as if it were my God
I feel as if I have gone blind within my own mind
Please can anyone credit me a stick, a pill, or a line
Because I have to leave here somehow
TPM or PED? Hell No! I Mean Right Now!
I don’t even know how much time I have left
But will I be free before there is another family death
Seems like the bad moments never stop
There’s a block on my phone and I can’t afford to use a flop
And I think the mail man must have quit
Unless they’re calling my name and I just don’t hear it
But she told me she’ll patiently wait
Then why am I so angry, depressed, anxious, and full of hate
Am I a paranoid MH 5 with suicidal tendencies
Because it seems like I am surrounded by nothing but the enemy
I feel as if my whole life has gone to waste……
Or is it just the stress of this place
“Depression on lockdown: Prisoners empathize”
In this piece, Williams discusses the negative effects of lockdown on the human brain, comparing free people’s experiences with COVID-19 restrictions to an incarcerated individual’s “normal.” He encourages readers to empathize with incarcerated people and says that, conversely, they empathize with the difficulties that non-incarcerated people have experienced during the pandemic. The complete text is transcribed below.
Depression is debilitating. Depression saps one’s energy, induces whole-body numbness, and stimulates streams of negative thoughts. In the extreme, those negative thoughts can provoke suicidal ideation.
As a prisoner serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, I know about depression from first-hand experience and observation. Fortunately, I’ve learned to utilize a number of resilience practices; I bounce back from adversity fairly quickly. Yet I’ve witnessed too many successful suicides to count. Sadly, many of us prisoners have. Again, depression is extremely debilitating. California’s prison population has the highest suicide rate in the nation (CDCR, 2016). And consistent with this contagion era, depression in the free world has sky rocketed as well. The World Health Organization (WHO), using informal surveys, estimates that 45% of the U.S. population is depressed in the COVID age: Iran self-reports a 60% depression rate, and China reports a 35% rate of depression (Goodman, 2020). Yet we will get through this; we must get through this!
There are many triggers of depression. As with those in larger society, prisoners wrestle with long-term loss of autonomy and uncertainty. Prisoners are arrested by thick bouts of anxiety and isolation. And while it may seem ironic that persons thrust into overcrowded conditions would suffer from loneliness, the paradox holds firm. Human beings — whether confined in a home of luxury for a few months or in a barren cell of concrete and steel for decades — tend to withdraw when depressed. We self-isolate.
Free Americans are largely depressed because they understandably desire to get back to work, visit their families, and have some control over their lives. There’s no question that prisoners can relate to those needs. The one disconnect from prisoners and the larger world is that for most free persons, abiding in their homes offers both physical and biological safety. Not so for the average prisoner. Prisoners have no control over with whom they are forced to share a cell (i.e., a serial killer, a severely mentally challenged person, or a violent and unreasonable person).
Some readers may retort that prisoners are criminals, therefore they do not deserve such considerations. Yet rarely is any human phenomenon so simple. In recent years DNA has proven that there are innocent people behind bars; and we now know that race plays a huge part in who goes to prison and who gets probation. Likewise, what of those who suffer from substance abuse disorder and would be better served in treatment centers? And what of those who have reformed themselves after years or decades of self-help? After all, isn’t that what we want and expect from the department of “corrections”?
Of course, all human beings are susceptible to COVID, depression, isolation, and other vulnerabilities. The difference is context. Some Americans suffer adverse institutional and environmental contexts that others do not, thus driving different traumas, reactions, and outcomes. Whether bond for free, it appears we all have quite a bit in common. If any one can relate to the concept of situational lockdowns, it is the American prisoner. And when it comes to debilitating depression, anxiety and loneliness, the prisoner’s collective expertise goes far beyond any text book or misdirected media account; so prisoners empathize, more than one could ever imagine.
We wholeheartedly empathize.
Rick Wesley Anderson
This author came into the prison system with bipolar disorder and discusses how the prison environment can amplify or aggravate his symptoms despite the medication he is receiving.
Prior to my incarceration, living with bipolar (manic/depression) was sometimes problematic but pales in comparison to being so in a penal environment. Sharing a cramped box with another man and a toilet can stretch the patience and tolerance of the sanest of men. For a bipolar, prison is exponentially more difficult with challenges not encountered on the outside such as constant oppression and provocation by staff, racial hatreds and tension, rampant narcissism and the constant threat of violence that permeates the facility. A proper regimen of medication along with an ability to tap into the deepest wells of control and resilience are an absolute necessity.
Mania is like an adrenaline high with racing, disjointed thoughts, an inability to stay focused for long but intensely focused in those short times and very high energy. But depression has become the dominant symptom. A depressed episode is a nightmare of washed-out color, tightening walls and crushing despair. It is darker, longer lasting and often much more difficult to find a way out of. The sight or voice of an authority figure can provoke anger, frustration and sometimes hatred. I bristle at every slamming door and grow extremely agitated by the incessant noise; the static and illegible prattle over the loudspeakers and what seems like ten thousand voices screaming at once outside my cell door. I become unable to differentiate between the voices in my mind and the cacophony outside. internalization and isolation are my only refuge as I wait for the cycle to pass. I know it will but know also it will surely return and wonder if I can survive it one more time.
“Hell is a prison guard”
In this excerpt, Jackson reflects upon the degree to which guards control and dictate the prison environment. He says most staff are decent people, but there are some that want to see prisoners suffer.
Let me begin by saying that MOST prison guards and staff who work in correctional institutions are decent and respectable people. The majority of staff accept that their position is simply a job, a means of employment by which to provide for their family and their household. They want no part in the propagation of the cruel brutality that Prison tends to distribute generously to its captives. The majority of staff just want to do their 8-hours and go home. And that’s the way it should be.
The problem is that the majority do not rule in Prison. This is not a democracy. This is an oligarchy of hellhounds, where the chief king and his colleagues thrive on enforcing the medieval science of punishment and savage discipline.
As maximum-security prisoners, we routinely gauge the good/bad ratio of how any particular day will go simply by asking one question— “Who’s working?” When you find out that you have a guard working that shift, who is respectful, fair and will treat you like a human being with a brain and a beating heart, your entire body relaxes. The atmosphere calms and there is more of a predictable rhythm to lean on for the remainder of the day. But when the Super Cranks are working, the air thickens, bodies clench, time grinds to a tortured crawl and everyone prepares for some variant of bullshit that is bound to hit the floor. The Super Crank is a prison guard who practices a form of executive bullying, where the Inmate is subjected to the volatile whims of the guard’s enforcement and interpretation of the rules. The Super Crank treats each captive as if he has just committed his crime seven hours ago. He wants prisoners to suffer. Every day. He wants prison to be a dark, depressing and debilitating place. The Super Crank will antagonize and deliberately deprive you of even the most basic humane treatment. A roll of tissue. A piece of paper. Mail from your ailing daughter. He will bargain these simple items against you just to see you suffer.
Chambers discusses her discomfort with being forced to share a cell with someone she believes is mentally unstable, and her concerns about the general practice of placing people struggling with severe mental illness with the general prison population. Her complaint illustrates how the interplay between prison and mental illness affects not only those afflicted by a mental condition, but also others around them. The complete text is transcribed below.
I don’t think that it is fair for a regular inmate to be housed with a inmate that is mentally unstable. Clearly C/Os and Psych knows, but yet placeing these kind of people in general population is what FMWCC Las Vegas, NV NDOC continues to do. This is a huge safety hazard. These type of people are subject to flip out at any given moment and harm themselves or others.
I currently have a cellmate that is very mentally unstable and does not take her medication properly. She’s paranoid and thinks that people are after her. I mean my god my roommate had the odasatey to tell me after dinner when we got back that somebody had swapped her shoes. That type of stuff is weired to me. Our door was locked when we went to eat and she was wearing the shoes that she said somebody swapped out. Nobody in this unit has the same shoes as her.
This inmate has threatened to pull me off my top bunk and when I banged on the door to tell the officer what this inmate was doing to me the only thing that C/O said was she ain’t gonna keep comeing back to this door and if that was the case me and my cellmate could roll up our stuff and go to the hole. I mean my god what kind of facility is this that the C/O ignores the situation that’s going on and they can clearly see who the issue is “my cellmate”!
The only other thing that C/O said she would do is scheduel her to been seen by Mango who is a counselor or Psych. Once the officer C/O knew what was going on and seen with her own eyes that my cellmate was the aggressor and yelling lunitic she should have immedeately took action and sent that inmate to medical for a 72 hour hold on psych evaluation.
Please do not send back to me.
“A healthy ambition”
This excerpt describes the prison environment as it relates to mental health, noting apathy among the incarcerated population and the destructive psychological effects of the carceral system. Refer to the complete essay for an extended discussion of the importance of mental health.
Sending a person to prison to get “healthy” is not and should not be the bottomline. By the grace of God most high, I am healthy in mind, body, and soul yet, I will never recommend someone to endure the life of prison to get health. Also! I, humbly speaking, are apart of a small community of the prison population that is sound in mind, body, and soul. The majority, across the globe is malpractice, accepting the tenets of this place, inside and out, to be the focal point of their lives. Why?…
Because the penal system is a psychological warfield, created to annihilate the health of all waged in the battle of prison.
Its warfare when a person sits in a pool inhabited with dispirit, aggressive, low-self esteem people who core focus is manipulation. Its warfare being amongst a class who gave up on life; letting the terms and conditions of oppression claims them as if its a natural inclination of their living. The warfare become apparent when inmates gets to their destination of confinement and fine a person eighteen years of age- just graduated high school- barking orders to strip to their nakedness…Along side a line of men.
The mental health of a prisoner becomes ill- or even more sick- by the psychological tactics of this caste system. Then one would think: what is this to a man lost in his own vanity? How can you explain this to the people deep in the ocean of self- gratification? Alot of us in prison do not care about our mental health. We refuse to see the clear reality. We manifest our problem yet bury the silent cries for assistance under the gravel of stupidity.
“It’s stupid to talk to a psyche doctor. They don’t go through what I go through. They’re successful and only get paid to talk like they care.”
I’ve heard this line of thinking countless of times. We been programmed to think like that. Its a bacteria of the mind that so ridden and deadly.
I recently was studying amphibian’s and can cross a fascinating little creature in the South America region. The Golden Poison Frog of Colombia. What’s so alluring- and damn right petrifying!- is a single touch from this small golden frog could kill you! And as I was reading it, I’m seeing a similar deadly poison being orchestrated in the penal system.
We have people suffering from different personality disorders, anxiety, dissociative disorders. Individual that’s suffering from post-traumatic stress… what? You think that only our decorated soldiers suffer PTSD? Tell that to the person that walked into the chow hall and another guy gets stabbed in his neck in front of him, initiating a race riot.
People suffer from these mental illness and it begins in emotional trauma and ends even worser in emotional trauma. Alot of times we are fearful of something which spiral out of control. People fear the unknown; so they live a mindset as, “I don’t give a f**k” about tomorrow. Some of us fear learning; so the very sight of knowledge, whether it’s being taught or lived out, it provokes the mind of the ignorant. Whatever the situation may be, getting healthy is hard and a challenge for the people behind the wall.
It can be accomplished.
Wanting to be healthy starts with self. The great Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov showed us in his famous, impactful work of classical conditioning that all behavior learnt through association. Whether we agree on the scientific experiment he showed us through “Pavlov’s Dogs”, or not, what we all can concord to is, learning to be healthy in mind comes through applying good goals, good professional treatment, good energy.
“Circumstances of Incarceration”
In this excerpt, Tai writes about how prison can make some go insane. He specifically points to the lack of contact with family, and the strain incarceration places on those relationships.
I hope my description of being a prisoner in the modern day plantation which is more currently known as the United States of America’s Prison System, is as insane, miserable, negative, oppressive and lonely as the reality of living it. I mean it can’t be all that hard writing about here, I’ve been surviving it my entire life. With that said…I am in a place where I am more identified by a registration number that Uncle Sam gave me, rather than the name give to me by my mother. The trial and tribulations that I am daily confronted with is stressing to a sober mind. I guess that’s why so many inmates seek some sort of narcotic to escape this harsh reality. I’ve witnessed first hand the measures some take to “feel free.” (S.M.H.)
These walls are seething with negativity. From the minute I wake up in this place it’s a mental battle.
Some inmates in this place go insane and some refuse to accept the fact that they’re also insane. It doesn’t take a psychologist to tell me I’m insane. And I don’t have to be in a straight jacket to be considered insane. To me stabbing someone 20 plus times over a forty five cent soup, or because someone didn’t like the way he walked by them is clear and present insanity. But it’s a Herculean task to be held captive away from one’s family and loved ones and still be expected to keep a sane mine and behave civilly.
I am the father to a little boy who will be five this year. His sister is about to be six. I have not seen them in three years, and that was only for 50 minutes. My son was only two months when I was taken away from him. I was feeding him his bottle at around five a.m. that cold January morning. As his mother got her last hour of sleep before having to get up for work, when the A.T.F. and U.S. Marshall kicked in our apartment door, fully suited in riot gear with rifles pointed. I knew that this was serious and it might be the last time I would be with my kids as a free man. Standing there being hassled and cuffed, I was caught in a trance. Just staring at my kids in their mother’s arms. As she looked hurt, confused, and angry, that just broke what little love I did have left in me, that was 5 long years ago.
This incarceration has put a strand on a lot of my relationships, with friends, family, and loved ones. My baby’s mother seems to miss me less and hate me a little bit more with each birthday, Christmas, Valentine, and graduation that I am not there for. I don’t too much blame her.
I try to remain optimistic and keep close ties with my family especially my son, but he doesn’t like to talk to me. My mother says he just doesn’t like talking on the phone period. She says he asked “when is my daddy coming home?” When they tell him soon, he says “why is he taking so long?” On top of that I spoke to my daughter a few months ago and her first words were “Who is this?”… It’s things like that, that drive a person insane.