Commentary

Life in jail, made worse during COVID-19


 

You mentioned that prisoners are undergoing trauma every day. Is this inherent to punitive confinement, or is it something that can be improved upon in the United States?

It’s important that you said “in the United States” as part of that question. Our approach to incarceration in the U.S. is heavily punishment based.

Compared to somewhere like Scandinavia, where inmates and prisoners are given a lot more support?

Or England or Canada. The challenge with comparing the United States to Scandinavia is that we are socioeconomically, demographically, and politically so different. But yes, my understanding about the Scandinavian systems are that they have a much more rehabilitative approach to incarceration. Until the U.S. can reframe the goals of incarceration to focus on helping individuals behave in a socially acceptable way, rather than destroy their sense of self-worth, we will continue to see the impact of trauma on generations of lives.

Now, that doesn’t mean that every jail and prison in this country is abusive. But taking away autonomy and freedom, applying inconsistent rules, using solitary confinement, and getting limited to no access to people you love all really destroy a person’s ability to behave in a way that society has deemed acceptable.

Assuming that mental health professionals such as yourself have a more compassionate understanding of what’s going on psychologically with the inmates, are you often at odds with law enforcement in the philosophy behind incarceration?

That’s an interesting question. When I moved from the hospital to the jail, I thought that I would run into a lot of resistance from the correction officer staff. I just thought, we’re coming at this from a totally different perspective: I’m trying to help these people and see if there’s a way to safely get them out, and you guys want to punish them.

It turns out that I was very misguided in that view, because it seemed to me that everybody wanted to do what was right for the patient. My perspective about what’s right involved respectful care, building self-esteem, treating illness. The correction officer’s perspective seemed to be keeping them safe, making sure that they can get through the system as quickly as possible, not having them get into fights. Our perspectives may have been different, but the goals were the same. I want all that stuff that the officers want as well.

It’s important to remember that the people who work inside jails and prisons are usually not the ones who are making the policies about who goes in. I haven’t had a lot of exposure working directly with many policymakers. I imagine that my opinions might differ from theirs in some regards.

For those working in the U.S. psychiatric healthcare system, what do you want them to know about mental health care in the correctional setting?

Patients in correctional settings are mostly the same patients seen in the public mental health system setting. The vast majority of people who spend time in jail or prison return to the community. But there’s a difference in how patients are perceived by many mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, depending on whether they have criminal justice experience or not.

I would encourage everybody to try to keep an open mind and remember that these patients are cycling through a very difficult system, for many reasons that are at least rooted in community trauma and poverty, and that it doesn’t change the nature of who they are. It doesn’t change that they’re still human beings and they still deserve care and support and treatment.

In this country, patients with mental illness and incarceration histories are so vulnerable and are often black, brown, and poor. It’s an incredible and disturbing representation of American society. But I feel like you can help a lot by getting involved in the frequently dysfunctional criminal justice system. Psychiatrists and other providers have an opportunity to fix things from the inside out.

What’s your new role at CASES?

I’m the chief medical officer at CASES [Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services]. It’s a large community organization that provides mental health treatment, case management, employment and education services, alternatives to incarceration, and general support for people who have experienced criminal justice involvement. CASES began operating in the 1960s, and around 2000 it began developing programs specifically addressing the connection between serious mental illness and criminal justice system involvement. For example, we take care of the patients who are coming out of the jails or prisons, or managing patients that the courts have said should go to treatment instead of incarceration.

I took the job because as conditions for individuals with serious mental illness started to improve in the jails, I started to hear more frequently from patients that they were getting better treatment in the jail than out in the community. That did not sit well with me and seemed to be almost the opposite of how it should be.

I also have never been an outpatient public psychiatrist. Most of the patients I treat live most of their lives outside of a jail or a hospital. It felt really important for me to understand the lives of these patients and to see if all of the resistance that I’ve heard from community psychiatrists about taking care of people who have been in jail is really true or not.

It was a logical transition for me. I’m following the patients and basically deinstitutionalizing [them] myself.

This article was first published on Medscape.com.

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