Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Word for the Weak

People having fist fights in prison is not uncommon, and there are various reasons for fighting.  Less than a year after Keith’s arrival at SCCC, he witnessed the aftermath of a fight or, more specifically, a beating.  As he saw this, it sparked and affirmed his awareness to a prevalent problem within the system. 
This beating took place in one of the two meal halls.  A group of inmates, including Keith, were held up on the walk so guards could take the two inmates involved to the hole.  Keith noticed one of them was unscathed.  The next man was bleeding badly from the head area.  Something else was very wrong, though: he had an obvious mental handicap.  Another group of inmates started laughing and talking about someone “beating the shit out of the retard.”  The whole scene was sickening.

Sometimes it is not hard to tell when someone suffers from being slow or when someone has some type of mental illness.  The number of inmates suffering from mental illness or handicap is in the thousands in the Missouri prison system.  After witnessing this beating, Keith began to look at the issue a bit closer.  Later, Keith and I would talk about problems in the system multiple times.

Many people in the Missouri prison system are prescribed mind-altering medications.  These medications are given to them to either treat their mental illnesses or to sedate them so that they do not become dangerous to themselves or violent towards others.   The numbers are staggering. 

Regardless of what prompted the beating of that inmate, to see a mentally ill, handicapped, or somewhat defenseless person beaten is a huge problem.  Is the general prison population really where they belong?  Not only is their safety in jeopardy in a predator/prey situation in prison, but more than likely these inmates will be tossed right back out into the public with no real treatment for their problems.  Do you want to encounter them in the mall parking lot?  Not only are they unstable, but now they have been victimized in the prison system by beatings and sexual assaults.

It is hard to believe that any judge would sentence someone in that vulnerable condition to be placed in a general population prison. The Missouri Department of Corrections does not give many of these inmates the help and care that they need.  As a society, we need for them to have that help so that they can be more stable, not less stable, when they re-enter our communities.  Not only is help not given, but they are not separated from the rest of the prison population.  Mental illness, and the lack of effective response to it, creates a very dangerous situation for both inmates and employees in the prison system.  Prison is a violent and volatile environment.  When mental illness or mental handicap mixes with violence, it is an ugly scenario for everyone. 

As the system stands now, it is inhumane.  We just lock them up, drug them up, and forget about them.  As long as they are out of our hair, that will suffice.  But, the judges are not entirely to blame here.  What choice do judges have?  Since the people in charge of the ways and means in our state and country have all but completely stopped funding facilities designed for mental health issues, the courts don’t always have many options.  The courts cannot simply let these people run amuck and continue to hurt themselves or others.  Many have no family, or their families are unable to care for them.  Prison is the only place the government has at this point to get the violent mentally ill off of the streets. 

We often hear on the news of an act of violence being committed by a mentally ill person.  Many times, the families of the perpetrator will be interviewed, and they will tearfully say that they tried and tried to get help for their mentally disturbed loved one.  They are met with brick walls.  There is a shameful lack of services available in our communities to truly intervene when someone is heading toward a psychotic disaster.  In most instances, the erratic, dangerous behavior had gone on for weeks, months, or years, but the families were unable to find anywhere that could help them.  Nothing is done until the horrific event occurs, and by then it is too late.  The news is filled with concerns about public safety once a homicide or mass shooting has occurred.  Nothing ever really changes, though.  No substantive improvements ever seem to happen in the way our society deals with mental illness.  The government ended most of its funding for mental hospitals decades ago.  However, it is amazing, and quite baffling, what our elected officials do find worthy of spending your hard-earned tax dollars on. 

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