Commentary

Life in jail, made worse during COVID-19


 

Do you mean between prisoners and staff? Among everybody?

Everybody. In all of the different relationships you can imagine.

That speaks to the vulnerability and good nature in all of us. It’s encouraging.

It is, although it’s devastating to me that it happens because they collectively feel so neglected and forgotten. Shared trauma can bind people together very closely.

What psychiatric conditions did you typically see in New York City jails?

For the many people with serious mental illness, it’s generally schizophrenia-spectrum illnesses and bipolar disorder – really severe illnesses that do not do well in confinement settings. There’s a lot of anxiety and depression, some that rises to the level of serious illness. There is near universal substance use among the population.

There is also almost universal trauma exposure, whether early-childhood experiences or the ongoing trauma of incarceration. Not everyone has PTSD, but almost everyone behaves in a traumatized way. As you know, in the United States, incarceration is very racially and socioeconomically biased; the trauma of poverty can be incredibly harsh.

What I didn’t see were lots of people with antisocial personality disorder or diagnoses of malingering. That may surprise people. There’s an idea that everybody in jail is a liar and lacks empathy. I didn’t experience that. People in jail are doing whatever they can to survive.

What treatments are offered to these patients?

In New York City, all of the typical treatments that you would imagine for people with serious mental illness are offered in the jails: individual and group psychotherapy, medication management, substance use treatment, social work services, even creative art therapy. Many other jails are not able to do even a fraction of that.

In many jails there also has to be a lot of supportive therapy. This involves trying to help people get through a very anxiety-provoking and difficult time, when they frequently don’t know when they are going to be able to leave. I felt the same way as many of the correction officers – that the best thing for these patients is to be out of the jail, to be out of that toxic environment.

We have heard for years that the jail system and prison system is the new psych ward. Can you speak to how this occurred and the influence of deinstitutionalization?

When deinstitutionalization happened, there were not enough community agencies available that were equipped to take care of patients who were previously in hospitals. But I think a larger contributor to the overpopulation of people with mental illness in jails and prisons was the war on drugs. It disproportionately affected people who were poor, of color, and who had mental illness. Mental illness and substance use frequently occur together.

At the same time as deinstitutionalization and the war on drugs, there was also a tightening up of the laws relating to admission to psychiatric hospitals. The civil rights movement helped define the requirements that someone had to be dangerous and mentally ill in order to get admitted against their will. While this was an important protection against more indiscriminate admissions of the past, it made it harder to get into hospitals; the state hospitals were closed but the hospitals that were open were now harder to get into.

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