Prison, is it for anyone?

O'Brien, Colleen

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Colleen O'Brien Michigan NO TITLE As I sit down to write this paper, I find it hard to believe that I am writing from a prisoner's perspective. Not in my most unrealistic worries did I see myself ending up in prison at 41 years old. Nor did I ever think that I would be convicted of a murder II charge, but here I am, a 46 year old woman doing a 19 year bit. I have decided not to write too much about the circumstances of my crime or my experience with the Judicial System. I will make one comment and leave it at that. From experience I have learned that the Judicial System is in great need of an ethical and moral clean-up. As a convicted criminal my statement may not mean much, however, corruption is corruption no matter what side of the law you stand on. Once about a time I was on the right side of the law. I worked for a Native American Tribal Health Department for 12 years. I have a master degree in Counseling and a passion for helping others. I was good at my job and was loved by co-workers and my community as a whole. The love I had for myself was limited and as an old song goes, "I was looking for love in all the wrong places". The self-destructive path I was on ended up hurting others. I no longer was viewed as the woman who helped others. Now, I am a convicted criminal, one with a violent crime. Coming to prison with a higher education in the mental health field has been interesting because I see situations/behaviors with trained eyes. When I came to prison I made the decision that I would use my education to benefit the prison community. At first I didn't know how I could be of help but over the last five years opportunities have come my way. Prior to coming to prison I spent 6 months in Wayne County Jail. While in the County Jail I was treated for my chronic illnesses (diabetes, hypertension, asthma and depression) When I came to prison I was taken off all my medication. I had to fight (through the grieving process and my family's intervention) to get treated for chronic illnesses I was diagnosed with over 15 years prior. I suffered with major depression off and on over the years and untreated major depression played a role in my crime. I was abruptly taken off the anti-depressant after entering the prison system. I spent my first 3 months in prison in a zombie state. The ant-depressant I took in the county and while I was a free woman eased emotional suffering I experienced and helped my mind to think clearly. Without treatment for the major depression I needlessly suffered intensely while trying to adjust to my fate. During the first 4 weeks of my prison stay I was evaluated by mental health and health professionals. The psycologist I saw for my evaluation had no interest in my depression. His main concern was to get his job done which was to write a report about me and than move on to the next inmate. I read the report he wrote and it reminded me of a poorly done cut and paste job. The report was a poor reflection of me and it truly served no purpose other than for the psychologist to say he did his job. My experience with the medical doctor was even less effective. I had to be reassessed for diabetes and the health care staff completely ignored the fact that I had hypertension and asthma. As I mentioned before I had to fight for the health care I finally received and if it weren't for my family providing outside support I would be like a lot of the prisoners here who walk around with untreated chronic illnesses. It is the norm in prison to be sick (mentally and/or physically) and not get help. I feel like I am one of the lucky ones because I get treatment for my chronic illnesses. Since I take medication for my mental disorder, I qualify for other mental health services such as individual and group therapy. There are so many women here who need help. Many women are continuously involved in destructive behaviors. Some of these women know better but way too many of them don't and are suffering because of their ignorance. Abusive relationships run rampant in prison. Three years ago I had put in a kite (a form of prison communication) to the psycologist who ran the Domestic Violence groups. I asked the group leader if I could be put in one of his domestic violence groups because I had a history of getting into abusive relationships and being in an abusive relationship played a role in my crime. The response I received from him said I was placed on a waiting list which went according to an (my) inmates ERD (Earliest Release Date). Since my ERD is 2024 that pretty much excluded me from receiving much needed help. By the grace of God I have managed to avoid abusive relationship which has been a struggle because there are too many aggressive women in here looking for a willing victim. Along with mental health, substance abuse is a major problem in prison. Many women, including myself, end up in prison because of a drug and/or alcohol problem. There is some help in prison for an alcohol and/or drug problem but the help is limited. For me I get most of my support from attending Alcohol Anonymous meetings I was fortunate enough to attend a 12 week didatic group on substance abuse and since I am a mental health patient I was able to attend a 12 week Dual Diagnosis Group. The prison does offer a group called SHAR and a 6 month Residential Program but because of my ERD I don't qualify for these programs. There is a problem with active substance abuse within the prison as well. Somehow street drugs get smuggled in (the rumor is that staff supply the illegal drugs). Some women get caught up in using street drugs but the real problem is with presciption drugs. Psychotropic medication, seizure medication and medication that treats urinary or bowel issues seem to be the drugs that get abused. Some of the women who receive these drugs sell them instead of taking them for their own illnesses. These women are letting their own illnesses go untreated which causes further problems for them and the women they sell these drugs to are taking medications in which they have no reason. Apparently, many of these medications cause drowsiness. The women feel high because they feel sleepy. The sad thing about this type of abuse is the damage these women do to their normally healthy bodies. I have seen (heard of) women who abuse seizure medication actually developing a seizure disorder. I have also heard of women who lose control of their bladders and/or bowels because they have abused medication that treated urinary or bowel problems. In all fairness the staff does try to make sure medication is taken by the person it is prescribed for. We have to go to medication line to take certain medication and we take the pills in front of the nurse who administers the medication. The inmates tend to be clever women and the ones who sell their medications know how to not take the medication even though it looks like they have. Education is offered to some inmates. Prisoners (not Lifers or Indeterminates) who do not have a GED are enrolled in an academic class. There is a waiting list for classes so not all inmates who need a GED are accomidated. I tutored for a GED class for 3 years and I noticed that at least half of the students had no interest in learning or getting a GED. These students were usually disruptive and made it hard for the students who were serious about getting their GED's. In Michigan, it is manditory for any inmate doing over 2 years to get their GED. Inmates being forced to go to school make poor students. I have seen inmates in academic classes who can't read or read very little. These women are expected to stay in school even though no real help is giving to them at their level of learning. Vocational classes are also offered but are hard to get into. Most of the students in a vocational class are motivated although there are some who use these classes to socialize with their friends and/or girlfriends. Students who come to school only to socialize are a distraction for the students who are there to learn. Since the waiting lists for vocational classes are so long, teachers ought to be more able and/or willing to drop students out of their class who aren't there for the right reasons. The living conditions in prison (this prison) is the most challenging situation for me to deal with. I live in a 12 by 12 cell which has a toilet and sink (a wet cell) with a bunkee. The cell was designed for one person but due to overcrowding it has become a two-person cell. Us inmates who live like this have to use the bathroom in front of our bunkees. As far as I know there is nothing in prison policy that states that a bunkee has to leave the cell when the other bunkee is using the bathroom or dressing. Some bunkees show common courtesy but the ones who do are a rarity. Lack of privacy is the biggest mental health issue I struggle with. There is no place to go to be alone nor is there any place you can go to have some quiet time. Bright lights and loud noises take up at least 2/3's of the average prison day. My five senses are constantly overwhelmed with irritating stimulation that I have no control over. Another prison issue that troubles me deeply is the sexual acting out that goes on. Many of the inmates are self-proclaimed bi-sexuals or "Gay for the Stay" as it is sometimes called. Having to bunk, undress, use the toilet or shower with women who view other women from a sexual perspective is difficult. Feeling uncomfortable in these situations is stating my feelings mildly. Living in prison is extremely stressful and such a waste of human resources. There is a saying which states "Idle time is the devil's playground". I find this too be true, especially in prison. Since the main focus of a prison stay isn't rehabilitation, many women come through the prison system, only to leave in worse condition (psychologically) than they entered. I am a long-termer and I have managed to take the fragments of help available in the prison to facilitate my own healing (rehabilitation). As stated I have a professional background in mental health and a lot of personal experience as well. I look at the women who are in and out of the prison and women who are stuck in prison for years unnecessisarily. I wonder what the prison system could do to keep women from coming back and forth to prison. I also wonder how long-termers and lifers could do their own rehabilitation and than help in making the prison stay a healing venture. As in any situation, accurate assessments and evaluations need to be done in the beginning. When I entered prison I was assessed and evaluated by many professionals. The problem was the mental health and health assessments and evaluations weren't accurate. Many of my issues (such as major depression and hypertension) were overlooked. Not only is an inaccurate assessment useless, so is an assessment which identifies issues but no follow-up on these issues is done. The time and energy spent on assessing and evaluating every incoming prisoner is a waste of time if these assessments are inaccurate or if there is no follow-up to identified issues. One way the prison system can be more effective is to take each prisoner and thoroughly assess them with the goal of accuracy. Many women (including myself) come to prison with multiple problems. From my experience with many inmates, I have come to realize that I have met only a few real criminals who have a criminal mindset. The rest of the ladies I have come in contact with are women who have mental/emotional/physical issues and these issues (unaddressed) led them to their crime. Thus, with treatment for these issues, along with relapse prevention training, we women with mental/emotional/physical issues can be rehabilitated and won't be a threat to society. It takes willingness and time for wellness and rehabilitation to take hold. Individuals heal at different rates so any treatment program offered has to accomidate both the slow and fast healers. Also an environment that promotes healing needs to be created. Currently the prison environment is one of dominance and control. We prisoners are looked at as a threat. Conformity to a unnatural hostile environment is expected of us. Some inmates fall into the expected stereotype of a criminal and need treatment that specifically addresses their criminal mindset. As mentioned a few women here are true criminals. They think and act like criminals and are usually a threat to other inmates and staff. The type of behaviors these women display are, stealing, exploitation, manipulating, bullying, physical violence, verbally abusiveness and overall threatening behavior. These women generally see others as objects to use for their own satisfaction. Treatment of these women need to be specialized according to their thinking and behaviors which make them a threat. Rehabilitation of these women will probably be harder to accomplish and take more time to reach the goal. Professional staff who knows this from the beginning will more and likely be more effective because they know the challenge early on. The living environment in this prison is extremely poor due to overcrowding. Without the overcrowding, it would still be hard living because of the random mixture of inmates in a living/housing unit. We are categorized by our security level. Since I am a level two, I live among other level two prisoners. I would like to see further division of inmates based on their needs. Some of that division goes on currently. For instance, seriously chronic care inmates all live in the same housing unit and women who are in the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) live in the same housing unit. What I would like to see is women who are working on their mental/emotional/physical issues be in the same housing unit. The housing unit could become a therapuetic environment where self-help support groups are offered in abundance as well as other types of groups such as didatic groups. The goal for these women would be to learn to live their wellness and eventually carry out these healthy behaviors back to their communities. Long-termers and lifers have unique needs so their housing units would offer groups that address their specific needs. Housing units that have the true criminals residing in them would offer a different type of environment as well as groups and education that are specific to these women. Staff too, would have to be specifically trained to deal with criminal behaviors (as they are) but with a main goal of assisting these women in changing these behaviors. Currently women who exhibit threatening behaviors are isolated in segragation for a period of time than released back into general population. Formal education such as GED preporation vocational classes and college classes is another area which can be of a great benefit to prisoners. Educational classes are offered but there are not enough spaces available to meet the demand. Waiting list are plentiful. In addition lifers and indeterminants aren't eligible to take classes, so many of these women are left idle. As mentioned, idleness is the playground for the devil and many of these new lifers get themselves involved in alot of self-destructive behaviors. The behaviors exhibited by these ladies cause a lot of institional strife and drain the time of the prison staff. Education, (academic or vocational) can give prisoners a purpose. It feels good to accomplish something and educational goals can be helpful in providing women with a means to feel good about themselves. In addition, education programs in prison can be further developed to include educating women on how to be self sufficient while living in a prison community. What I mean by that is there is so much wasted labor in prison. Women can learn to provide for themselves such as growing their own food, making their own clothes, developing their own schools, fixing their own equipment and so much more. Currently, prison life in Michigan involves fragmented help that is probably only provided to prisoners because of humanitarians. Many women are given long-sentences and than become warehoused. Women with shorter-sentences are given some assistance and than sent out into society unrehabilitated and unready for the demands which living in society poses. These women usually repeatedly come back and end up doing long sentences in intervals. Meanwhile the long-timers and lifers cease to be a threat to society yet have to sit and wait for their Earliest Release Date or a Pardon from the Governor. The prison system has become an expensive storage place for people society wants to punish. Obviously Michigan has no use for convicted felons otherwise they would put forth time, energy and resources to rehabilitate prisoners prior to sending them out to the community and/or be confident to send almost all rehabilitated inmates back to their communities for a fresh start. Michigan prisons don't even give their inmates "good time". There is no incentive for an inmate to do good in prison. The point system that exists today helps those inmates who have behavior management problems. A level four inmate can move to a level two if she gets her points down or a level two prisoner who gets points 15 or over will be moved to a level four unit. This is all the point system does. A model prisoner who grows and developes in prison isn't recognized at all and I find that to be a shame. In society incentives are offered all the time and incentives work so why wouldn't they work on prisoners. The prison system needs a total overhaul. The current system isn't working. The punitive approach to crime is so barbarian. Changes have to be made and are being made due to lack of resources. I am sure there are many people with vengeful spirits who would like to see us just fall off the face of the earth. Obviously that isn't going to happen. We prisoners have to be dealt with. The punitive approach isn't working, "The lock the door and throw away the key" isn't working, so now what?

Author: O'Brien, Colleen

Author Location: Michigan

Date: October 18, 2016

Genre: Essay

Extent: 14 pages

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