The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, and the majority of these prisoners suﬀer from mental health conditions. A 2014 report estimated that U.S. prisons and jails house 10 times more mentally ill individuals than state psychiatric hospitals (CTA, 2014).
In 2006, approximately 1 in 4 (26%) prisoners met the diagnostic criteria for major depression, almost half (47%) for mania, and nearly one in five (18%) for a psychotic disorder (BJS, 2006). Overall, approximately 3 in 5 (58%) of U.S. prisoners had symptoms or history of mental illness, and this number is predicted to have risen substantially since 2006.
At two facilities in Los Angeles, the number of people receiving psychiatric drugs increased 200% between 2008 and 2013 (Nash, 2014). In Florida, the number of mentally ill inmates grew 153% between 1996 and 2013, while the total inmate population only grew 57% (Crews, 2014). JUVENILE INCARCERATION & RECIDIVISM Te U.S. also has higher rates of juvenile incarceration than any other country, even though many studies have shown that incarceration does not reduce criminality in youth, but in fact worsens it.
Fewer than 30% of incarcerated youths re-enroll in school, and 70–80% are re-arrested within 3 years. Are they just “bad seeds”? No. Sadly, most of these youths (over 75% in 2010) were locked up for non-violent crimes like probation violation, truancy, and alcohol possession. If these children were not already mentally unwell, the abuse and neglect they suﬀer in these institutions often makes them so.
30% of incarcerated youths have attempted suicide, but nearly half reside in facilities without universal mental health assessments. 12% of incarcerated youths reported having been sexually victimized by either staﬀ or fellow incarcerated youths, but more may not report it for fear of retaliation: 42% of incarcerated youths reported that they were somewhat or very afraid of being physically attacked – 30% from another youth and 27% from staﬀ (some from both) (Mendel, 2011).
This issue received national attention during the 2008 “Kids for Cash” scandal, in which a private prison contractor paid two Pennsylvania judges $2.6m (£1.8m) to lock up thousands of children for crimes as small as trespassing in a vacant building and creating a parody website about a vice principal. Given the minimal punishment inﬂicted on the private prison contractor and the high rate of juvenile incarceration in the U.S., these are probably not the only judges who have imprisoned people for corporate kickbacks; they’re simply the only two who have gotten caught.
Along with physical abuse and threat, solitary confinement is another major source of mental deterioration in prisoners. Prisoners with mental illness are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement (AKA “Te Hole”) even though numerous studies and lawsuits have reported that solitary confinement causes severe psychological damage to people without mental health conditions, and exacerbates pre-existing conditions.
There also exist multiple cases of people in solitary confinement not receiving the medical and mental health treatment they need. In Texas, a mentally ill prisoner named Terry Goodwin was allegedly locked in solitary confinement for up to 2 months without anyone opening the door. According to ABC-13, “His sink, toilet, and shower drain were clogged, not just with feces, but with toilet paper in an apparent attempt by Goodwin to cover his own waste and with orange rinds, perhaps in a futile eﬀort to mask the smell…
Food in Styrofoam containers was pushed in by guards through a slit in the door and the refuse was never collected… a sign attached to the outside of the door instructed guards not to open it.” Goodwin was originally incarcerated on a marijuana charge (Oberg, 2014). In North Carolina, a man named Michael Anthony Kerr allegedly died of dehydration after being cuﬀed in a cell for six days, denied food and water and covered in his own waste.
The autopsy report also noted multiple wounds on Kerr’s body. “After viewing his body, family members said it appeared Kerr had been beaten before his death.” Kerr had been diagnosed with schizoaﬀective disorder, and was allegedly sent to “Te Hole” for disobeying orders and tampering with locks (Ball, 2014). In Alabama, on August 6, 2013, 19-year-old Duendrez Woods was locked in a “medical observation cell” without medical treatment for a severe gangrene infection on his foot. Such severe infections can cause hallucinations and aggressive behavior, so he was tasered 3 times over the following days and his water supply was cut oﬀ August 12.
According to a lawsuit from his mother, “By August 17, the odor was so bad correction officers dragged Woods from his cell to the shower, sprayed him with water, and then placed him, still naked, in a diﬀerent cell… Still, no correction officer or ACH nurse did anything to even check Woods, let alone help him.” It wasn’t until August 19th that medical staﬀ finally examined Woods and transferred him to Huntsville Hospital, where he died from the infection (Redden, 2014).
In June 2012, at Dade Correctional Institution’s (DCI) psych unit, guards allegedly murdered a mentally ill prisoner named Darren Rainey by locking him in a shower so hot that his skin separated from his body. Sadly, Rainey was only serving a 2-year sentence for possession of cocaine, and would have been released by now (Brown, 2014).
Rainey’s case is particularly troubling because of the suspected cover-up surrounding it. According to the DOC inspector general’s report on the investigation, video surveillance showed an officer placing Rainey in the shower, but the camera then malfunctioned. Further, multiple former and current staﬀ members reported regular and systematic abuse, including allegations that guards often boasted about how they could get away with killing the prisoners. It wasn’t until a Miami Herald exposé in May 2012 that anyone questioned key witnesses like Mark Joiner, a fellow prisoner on the unit who was tasked with cleaning Rainey’s skin from the crime scene.
The Herald reported that they sent Joiner at least five requests for an interview, but that Joiner only received the one sent by the Herald’s law firm (Brown, 2014b). The Miami Herald also interviewed Harold Hempstead, a prisoner who had fled several complaints about Rainey’s death. After the Herald’s initial story was published, Hempstead’s family wrote a letter to Governor Scott requesting that he be transferred to another facility, because the prison guards had threatened him with false disciplinary reports, physical abuse, and solitary confinement if he didn’t stop talking to the media and police.
The Herald had trouble getting in touch with Hempstead for a follow-up interview. In September 2013, another prisoner in the DCI psych unit, Richard Mair, left a suicide note detailing the routine sexual and physical abuse inﬂicted by the guards: “I’m in a mental health facility… I’m supposed to be getting help for my depression, suicidal tendencies and I was sexually assaulted” (Brown, 2014a).
ANOTHER SILENCED SIDE OF THE STORY
Of course, the incidents listed above do not reﬂect the condition at every facility, nor the intent nor behaviour of every correctional officer. In response to allegations like those in the previous section, a Correctional Officer wrote to me: “The problem is that everyone looks into this part of it. A lot of what you’re reading is coming from inmates and a lot of the allegations are untrue. Inmates are not left in dirty cells.
All cells have toilets, and inmates and officers are judged daily by supervisors on the cleanliness of the dorm… Their meals are taken to their cells and documented. Medical, mental health, and a chaplain come almost daily. Inmates also have a sick call request they can fill out anytime to be seen by medical, and can declare a medical emergency at any time.
“I have never seen an inmate being mistreated; however, look into how correctional officers are treated. I have worked in a dorm by myself with 104 inmates charged with burglary with a deadly weapon, child abuse, rape, attempted murder, murder, and more. I had nowhere to hide if they wanted to hurt me. All I had was gas, which doesn’t aﬀect everyone. Two years ago, a sergeant was killed by inmates stabbing him with homemade knives. A lot of times, an inmate commits battery on an officer but is never given outside charges.
Officers also have to report to work the next day and possibly work in the same dorm. I have been ‘gunned’ where an inmate staring at you takes his penis out and masturbates, sometimes saying things I am uncomfortable repeating. Inmates throw urine and poop at us, and tell us that they’re going to kill us and our families.
Every day I go to work may be my last. “Correctional officers are not bad people. I am not a bad person. And inmates are not put in confinement because of mental illness. Honestly, if they were, there would not be enough room for them. I work with a lot of mentally unstable inmates – which is very scary if you think about having to work in the middle of them. “I am not recognized by the public as an officer. I am looked at so negatively. I am thought of as lazy and cruel to inmates.
In reality, I work 12-hour shifts, I walk between 100+ inmates who see me as a target, and I am highly needed for a safe society. I put my life on the line for little to no praise from the public. I am a correctional officer.” This might help remind us that multiple voices are silenced in this arena, and we must refrain from harmful generalizations that will only worsen our relationships.
ABOUT THIS ISSUE
I initially rejected a “Prison” theme for this first U.S.-based issue of Asylum, but some of the original members of this issue’s guest editorial board insisted. I had already agreed to lead the issue, but didn’t think that I could address a Prison-themed issue with appropriate balance and gravitas, and I still don’t. I’m still not sure how to feel about any of this to be quite honest.
When and if we revisit this project, we hope to solicit more work from family members, people working in corrections, and former prisoners to provide more insight into alternatives to incarceration such as drug and mental health courts, halfway houses, and programs that promote restorative justice and community reintegration.
The best we could do for this issue, given time and space constraints, was reach out to prison arts and advocacy organizations to help us circulate our Call for Works among people with lived experience. As a result of these combined nationwide eﬀorts, most of the work in this issue is from current prisoners. Unfortunately, many of the individuals published herein will not receive a copy of this issue because it will be confiscated by their institutions’ mailrooms.
We have also included several works from non-prisoners because the only requirement in our Call for Works was that the authors or artists feel that their voices are silenced. To help avoid any special preference or tokenization, I anonymised all submissions before the editorial board reviewed and voted on them. We received a lot of strong work and wish that we had room to publish more than you see here.
Given how many envelopes arrived torn open and taped back together, I imagine that many more submissions were confiscated before we could read them – and that far more were never even written. I hope that the voices in this issue will help provide a context through which we can begin to imagine those silent voices’ untold stories… and to empathize with their silent other sides.
- Editorial – Summer Schrader
- Tears of Darkness, Hidden Secrets. Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman
- Crane – Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman
- The Machine’s Mechanical Heart – Donald Joseph Urbanski
- Attending the Funeral of Kin and Abusers – Noemi Martinez
- Edward Berkin Was My… – Arnie King
- Keeping What is Mine – Kenneth Brydon
- Haircut – Carlito Ewell
- A False Lexicon – Arthur Longworth
- Study of Human with Homemade Flowers” [Ambivalent Reality] – B. Pat
- Prisons as the “New Asylums” – Liat Ben-Moshe
- How Many People Are Locked Up in the United States The Prison Policy Initiative
- The Two of Us – Alan Scally
- Anticipatory Allyship – Adelle Menees
- Artwork – Anna Morrow
- Superman – Emile DeWeaver
- When We Evaluate Prisons, We Tend Not to Think of Prisoners- Lacino Hamilton
- An Offender Manifesto – Lacino Hamilton
- The Story of How I Got Locked Up – Rohan Sharma
- There Are No Insane Folks Here – Gary Cone
- Moccasin Bend Health Institute 1969 – Bonnie Kelly
- Voice of the Snowman (a cento) – Owen Griffin
- Artwork Serina Conception
- The Long Wave Goodbye – Donald Urbanski
- Letter – B. Pat