Archive for the ‘Mental Health’ Category

Capt. Shawn Welch sprays OC spray into the face of Paul Schlosser who is bound in a restraint chair after the inmate, who has an infectious disease, spit at an officer.  June 10, 2012.

This disturbing photo is from an excellent article on Solitary Watch about the inhumane and brutal treatment of mentally ill people in US prisons. In my ten years teaching minors locked up in a New York adult county prison, I witnessed inmates who were  clearly disturbed and dealing with mental health issues being pepper sprayed and tased by emergency response teams (ERTs) dressed in intimidating riot gear as a way to “calm them down.”

Our prisons are overcrowded with mentally ill people who get little to no treatment, handled by people not trained in these issues, all because Americans refuse to confront the needs of the poor and disenfranchised and to provide the funds necessary for proper community mental health services. Instead we, through our lawmakers, spend billions of dollars on war in its many forms.

More and more people are talking about the inhumanity of locking young kids up in solitary confinement. It’s a topic that I’ve written about before and will continue to write about because I’ve seen firsthand the abusiveness of this “practice” especially on  mentally disturbed kids.

International groups have criticized the United States for using solitary confinement on the young, calling for this practice to be stopped completely.  Yet the governmental response to the issue has been tepid at best. Its guidelines call for this practice to be used  “cautiously.” Tell that to a fifteen-year-old  who is finishing up his 200th day in total isolation.

John Sutter, a human rights and social change writer for CNN, did a probing story about young offenders and solitary that is worth reading. A strong voice in a debate that shouldn’t even be a debate.

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

Louisa, a kindergarten teacher in a magnet school in New England, is today’s guest contributor.  I know from our conversations and correspondences that Louisa feels strongly about the politics of education and how it effects what happens in the classroom. We’ve talked about some of the things she’d like to say in this forum, and she has promised to explore those issues in the future, but what Louisa writes about today could never have entered our imagination during those discussions. She wrote “A Kindergarten Teacher Rethinks Her Job” when she got home on Monday, her first day in the classroom after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is a short but powerful piece.

In the Wake of Sandy Hook a Kindergarten Teacher Rethinks Her Job

I am a kindergarten teacher. I have been working in early childhood environments for thirty years. My unofficial job description covers a wide variety of responsibilities. They range from writing curriculum and teaching reading (more about that another time) to helping children when they have bathroom accidents. I assess kids thoroughly (more about this another time). I spend weekends writing report cards (like teachers everywhere) and meet and talk with parents frequently. I jump through bureaucratic hoops.

I keep an eye out for families that don’t have coats or money for Christmas presents, and my school, to its credit, finds a way to come through for families going through hard times. I sing and laugh with kids. I teach cooperative games. Math, social studies and science. I help kids get their coats on, and I teach them how to tie their shoes. I teach them how to plant things and how to observe the world carefully. I teach them to stand up for themselves and how to solve conflicts.

There is, however, an essential part of my job that I have not performed. The terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown have shown me this. What I now see that is a part of my job is to be an active advocate for gun control and for a viable mental health system in our country.  It is so clear to me that the children who died in Sandy Hook could have easily been my students (and I’m sure every other teacher in the country feels this).  Other people have said it better than I can, Barack Obama and Michael Bloomberg among them: Our country needs to change. Allowing our small children to be murdered is intolerable. (And why did we stand so long for anybody being murdered?)

Monday morning I didn’t cry the way I feared I would as school started. Instead it was a lovely day because we were all alive and just living together, singing, dancing, reading, eating, pooping in our pants. So let’s do this thing. Let’s free ourselves from a scourge. Sign the petitions, march in the streets, call our representatives, the White House. By making our children safer, we can make a world that is worth growing up into.

I’ve written a lot lately about the use of solitary confinement in the prison system and its effects on young offenders, children really,(“The Harm We Do”). One of the things that occurs to me over and over again is what little resources young people have to endure such punishing isolation.

This came across very powerfully to me when I read a New York Times article,  “Prisoners’ Letters Offer a Window Into Lives Spent Alone in Tiny Cells,”  reporting on the many letters the New York Civil Liberties Union has received from adults being held in solitary confinement. The letters are deeply disturbing and filled with the anguish of people feeling totally abandoned by society.

As I read the article I kept thinking, “If this is what adults feel in solitary, what must it be like for a kid, 14, 15 years old, locked up and locked away from any of the normal signpost of compassion and humanity that define our sense of self?” What do we think we are doing to these young people, what do we think we are accomplishing for society? (I say “we” because I increasingly realize that ultimately we, the people of this country,  are responsible for what happens in our prison systems.)

I recently wrote about the “cruel and unusual” punishment of putting young offenders in solitary confinement, forcing them to live in an environment of complete isolation in some cases for months at a time. The reasons for their isolation are myriad: to maintain what corrections calls “safety and security;” to separate the mentally ill  especially if they appear to be disruptive to general population; to “teach them a lesson” (adolescents especially in prison can be oppositional and rebellious); to separate “troublemakers” who  raise issues that perhaps challenge the prison culture.  Whatever the reason, the effects are negative and far-reaching.

Solitary Watch a wonderful and tenacious watchdog of the murky world of solitary confinement, recently posted an article that shows the devastating damage that solitary isolation has on young minds. What consistently comes to my mind is that the damage we do to the young will only come back to hurt society since a damaged young offender will inevitably grow up to be an even more damaged and potentially dangerous adult.

I urge you to check out the article.

In March 2007, the nonprofit Disability Law Center sued the state of Massachusetts over its treatment of hundreds of mentally ill inmates. Prisoners with emotional problems who are unruly in some way are kept in 23 hour solitary confinement, which, according to a November 10 Boston Globe article, has “led to self-mutilations, swallowing of razor blades, and numerous suicides.”

In response to these grave concerns the Patrick administration, in an out-of-court negotiation, proposed building special treatment units for mentally disturbed inmates. Now, that proposal is off the table; citing the budget crisis, those units will not be built. So it’s back to court in an effort to force the state to give its incarcerated citizens their constitutional protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Massachusetts isn’t alone in facing the problem of caring for mentally ill inmates. Every state has had to confront this growing trend which started in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1980s, when the system of large state psychiatric hospitals was shut down even though, as Oliver Sacks states in his bittersweet eulogy to these former mental hospitals (“The Lost Virtues of the AsylumNew York Review of Books, 9-24-2009), it was obvious that these closings created “as many problems as they solved.” Communities weren’t prepared, and still aren’t prepared, to absorb and meet the needs of what he calls “sidewalk psychotics.”

With these closings, along with the current “tough on crime” policies, it shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that these same people– alone, unsupported, often self-medicated with drugs and alcohol– increasingly end up behind bars, despite the fact that jails aren’t set up to help people deal with emotional problems, problems that confuse their judgments and impel them to destructive actions

No doubt these are hard choices in hard economic times for any state. Yet, once again, as municipalities struggle to come up with innovative ways to deal with the money crunch, the one formula that never gets recalibrated is that the people with the greatest need and the least resources take the biggest hit.

Being locked up is hard enough. Being “crazy” in an already crazy system is the worst. In jail you get “props” from the other inmates for being a “badass” but not for being disturbed. They have names for you– 730, forensic, Gucci gown (at least in the county penitentiary where I taught; if you’re put on the forensic unit, you spend your days in a paper gown that the inmates have branded “Gucci”); along with bugged, psycho, mental.

Attitudes aren’t much better among most of the correctional staff. They treat you as though your mental illness is a part of your crime. You might have had a choice not to carry that gun, or get into that stolen car. But you don’t have a choice about your mood swings, or the voices you hear, or your paranoia, conditions that, when you have your medication, are usually under control. It doesn’t help that when you get locked up those medications stop. The medical information might be taken when you’re booked, but too often it gets “lost.”

I worked with a seventeen-year-old boy in my jail classroom who found himself in that situation. Lamont was a friendly, polite, quiet student. He sat in the back of the room, away from everybody else. He had pretty good judgment, in my opinion: he was eager to learn and wasn’t interested in hanging out with the knuckleheads. But, as the weeks went by, I noticed that he sat further and further back in the room, his back to the door and the rest of the group. The darker the corner he sought out, the darker the expression on his face became. I knew something wasn’t right.

Most days Lamont stayed behind after class. I got the feeling that he didn’t want to give up the safety and security of the classroom for the chaos of the block. He always had a question or a comment about what we had done that day. He never talked about himself, his charge, or what kind of time he was looking at. He had that hooded look that I remembered so well from my years working in a psych hospital– as though he was a denizen of two worlds. Yet he stuck around. He clearly needed to talk. Since I knew education was important to him, I suggested he meet with our school social worker and discuss what he’d like to do with his life– anything to get him into her office.

That afternoon Kay, the social worker, thanked me for recommending Lamont to her. Then she told me a story I’d heard a number of times during my ten years in jail.

Lamont was bipolar. Usually it was well controlled with medication. But since he had been sent to the county lockup he hadn’t gotten them. He had requested them, but got nowhere. His mother had done the same, and got nowhere.

Kay didn’t have to say what I knew already. All kinds of treatments don’t get done, are delayed, or forgotten. “You didn’t do the paperwork right.” “You’re on the list.” Or “The doctor’s only here every other Tuesday.” All tactics to save money. (At least, I’ve always hoped that that was the reason and not the more disturbing one: pure neglect because someone just didn’t give a damn about the people in their charge.)

“It’s amazing that Lamont talked to me. He’s real paranoid by now,” Kay said. “But he can feel himself getting crazier and crazier everyday without his meds, and he’s terrified of what he’ll do. I’m going to see about getting them for him.”

Luckily Lamont was in touch with reality enough to know that he was slipping; and luckily Kay had enough jailhouse capital to get him what he needed.

But it doesn’t always happen that way. Things escalate quickly on the overcrowded, noisy, smelly blocks. Anything can push a kid like Lamont into the ring. Words, looks, or nothing at all can suddenly lead to a fight. Then some guy loses control or his tentative grip on reality breaks, and the emergency response team gets called. They come storming in, shouting, dressed in black with combat boots, the reflective visors on their helmets mirroring back to the inmate the confusion and fear that got him into this mess in the first place, pushing at him with their plastic shields, crowding him, shoving him to the floor, screaming in his face. A paranoid’s dream– and nightmare. Finally, cuffed, dazed and more than likely bruised, the inmate is led away, his head shoved down in submission, and he’s put in isolation where everybody hopes he’ll just calm down, shut up, go to sleep; where, once again, he’s left alone with a life, and mind, out of control.

Of course, not every inmate who has a fight is mentally ill, although the level of instability is high with a prison population used to living the high voltage life of the street combatant in and out of jail. However, there are enough volatile situations that could be avoided if these locked up men and women struggling to maintain their emotional balance were given what they needed– decent living conditions, medications when needed, compassion, and viable therapy, or any therapy at all. It would, if nothing else, save municipalities money in the long run.