The Prison System and Social Justice


I recently came across an article in the New Yorker entitled Madness by Eyal Press. The full article can be viewed here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/02/the-torturing-of-mentally-ill-prisoners. The article looks at one Florida prison, where mentally ill patients have suffered horrible mistreatment by the prison system. Our largest provider of healthcare for the mentally ill in the United States is the prison system, and yet our leading mental health researchers and providers tend to shy away from or ignore this enormous vulnerable population.

I will warn you that you may find aspects of the Madness article disturbing, and it leads us as nurses to consider many social justice issues, including the right to adequate care, proper diagnosing, safety, and support for health and healing. As the United States has the highest incarcerated population of any country, nurses need to consider how we as a society and a culture care for and treat our very vulnerable mentally ill population. The challenges of advocating for these prisoners and one’s own potential vulnerability when working in this system are clearly highlighted in the Eyal Press article. Until we recognize the mentally ill incarcerated population as traumatized human beings in need of deep caring and support as they proceed along their own healing journey, true transformation of our systems toward ones that can offer rehabilitation and reduce recidivism may remain elusive.

I also found this article to be heart wrenching on a personal level. My brother died in prison at the age of 45, and the unit where he died is indeed either this particular unit as described in the Madness article, or one very similar to it in Florida.

My brother Bryan was a star elite athlete in his youth, holding a national age-group track record set at the Junior Olympics when he was around 15 years old. After sweeping many state championships in high school track, he received an athletic scholarship to a school in the midwest, and while he had been a “difficult hyperactive child” deeper signs of his mental illness began to emerge. He ran up huge gambling and credit care debts, and one Christmas he returned home from school having lost about 25 pounds with no good explanation for why this had occurred.

When he was about 25 years old and had finished college, Bryan had a full psychotic breakdown. He spent several months in a psychiatric facility as they strived to diagnosis and stabilize him. My brother was bipolar with schizoaffective disorder, and sometimes his life was relatively calm, like when he married his first wife and they dreamed many dreams together….other times not so much, like when in the midst of another psychotic break he held a knife to his first wife’s throat; or the time he totaled his own car using his own hands and a crowbar; or when he was found running naked on the Nike compound in Oregon.

In 2008 Bryan went off his medications for unknown reasons. He became incredibly manic, delusional, and he was certainly having hallucinations. He left his wife and young daughter and moved into a shelter setting, which he was kicked out of due to fighting with others. Simplifying the story a bit, I will just say that he was found tampering with his estranged wife’s car at her place of work and the police were called; a high speed chase ensued and my brother was charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon (I believe he struck one of the officers with something once his car was forced to a stop), aggravated fleeing and eluding police, and resisting an officer with violence. About two months after his arrest, upon the advice of his free public attorney, my brother took a plea deal and he was sentenced to 3 years in the Florida State Prison System. I believe his mental illness, which he had been struggling with for over 20 years, was never clearly considered in the charges or in his placement. The copy of his charges is here: https://bailbondcity.com/fldoc-inmate-CARROLL/130350 .

As sometimes happens within families of those suffering from mental illness, my brother and I had been estranged on and off for most of our adult lives. My brother would sometimes become violent, threatening, and manipulative when he was off his medication, and I desired a peaceful life for me and my young family. Our childhoods were traumatic, and while I can’t speak for my brother, my adverse childhood experiences were a “5”/ 10, which indicates trauma to the point of potentially having adverse effects on health and low stress resilience. I am certain that my brother also had a high ACES score, and that his mental health issues were compounded by our traumatic youth and family life. [If you want to learn more about how adverse childhood experiences impact one’s health, I have presentation that covers that here, slide 16 begins the information around the ACEs concepts: https://voicethread.com/myvoice/#thread/4492225/22882928/24864974   }.

Due to our previous estrangement and my own challenges with balancing caring for a newborn baby and toddler, and working as an adjunct nurse faculty for several different schools, I did not reach out to my brother prior to his incarceration or during that time, though we had been in touch on and off for the three years prior, when our mother had passed away suddenly from a massive MI. So, my father and stepmother kept me informed of Bryan’s prison life and while they did not visit him, they often scanned and forwarded his letters to me. It was clear to me that during his less than one year in prison, he declined rapidly; he claimed to be taken off all of his medications and we know he was transferred to a psychiatric unit (either the same one in this article or another one like it). In the two months prior to his death, he mentioned several times that he was dying or he was going to die, that things were very bad in prison. I encouraged my stepmother and father to reach out to him and the system, which they did not do, and I found that since I was not on Bryan’s “list” I had no rights around communication with him and within the system.

Via an email on the morning of March 28, 2009, I found out that Bryan had died in prison. The official county coroner’s autopsy stated that at the age of 45 Bryan had died of “moderate heart disease”, though it contrarily also noted no signs of stroke or MI. As his sister, I had no rights to request or pay for a second independent autopsy, and my family refused to have one performed, instead opting for an immediate cremation. Over the 7 years since his death, I know I have been suffering from complicated grief; I have felt powerless to create change in the prison system and sometimes I have felt scared to use my voice to call for change and for social justice in the way we manage the health of our growing prison population. I have felt fearful of being stigmatized and ashamed for having a relative who was incarcerated.

However, when I think of the many social justice issues the Madness article brings up, I begin to feel angry; and that anger is now motivating me to speak out and find ways to support the creation of healing within our justice systems.

I know that part of my own healing journey involves moving beyond telling my brother’s story, and beginning to move toward taking action in supporting an end to the injustices our incarcerated vulnerable populations suffer. I recently have been in connection with a beautiful resource at the Maine Prison Hospice Project (http://mainehospicecouncil.org/?q=content/hospice-corrections-partnership-maine-state-prison ), and I hope to help support their research efforts around the benefits of prisoners being of service during and after their incarceration period. I hope to someday serve as an example of how nurses on their own healing path strive to heal in conjunction with others; with those whom we serve. Imagine what we can do when we truly believe we are all on this path together, as interconnected unitary human beings; then the movement toward social justice becomes a part of our calling on this life’s journey.

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Prison System and Social Justice

  1. Yes. If nurses were more vocal about social injustice such as this, we could make change occur. The NYT piece is a tough read, but worthwhile. My sympathy to you and your family for the mistreatment your brother received.

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