A ‘hellish world’: the mental health crisis in America’s prisons

Apr 1, 2018 by

Alisa Roth –

In America, jails and prisons have become the nation’s de facto mental healthcare providers – and the results are chilling

Nearly half of the people executed nationwide between 2000 an 2015 had been diagnosed with a mental illness and/or substance use disorder.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey describes two kinds of patients in the psychiatric hospital where the story is set: Acutes (“because the doctors figure them still sick enough to be fixed”) and Chronics (who are “in for good, the staff concedes”).

When Kristopher Rodriguez, a 31-year-old man from Florida, first went into the US criminal justice system in 2008, it seemed like he would have been classified as an Acute; now nearly a decade later, he would almost certainly qualify as a Chronic.

A tall, strapping boy whose friends called him Dino, as in “dinosaur”, Rodriguez was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was around 14. His mother, Gemma Pena, had come home from work one night to find that he had disconnected the hot water heater, convinced that the CIA was using it to spy on him.

At first she thought his behavior was simply evidence of grief over his grandmother’s death a few months earlier; Rodriguez had been especially close to her. But when he continued to act strangely, saying he was hearing voices, Pena called the police and had him hospitalized against his will.

It was the first of perhaps a dozen times that she had him “Baker Acted”, as it is known in Florida – after the 1971 law governing involuntary hospitalizations. The next few years were a blur of doctors appointments, drug use, homelessness, arrests and voluntary and involuntary hospitalizations.

Rodriguez is currently serving a 10-year sentence in a Florida state prison for trying to rob somebody at gunpoint when he was 22. He spent five years in jail before he took the plea bargain; people with mental illness often spend far longer in jail waiting for their cases to be resolved.

During his time in jail, he was sick enough that he had to be hospitalized three separate times – twice for psychiatric crises and once because he was so psychotic that he mutilated his genitals. His mother said the second psychiatric hospitalization was the last time she saw him lucid.

Source: A ‘hellish world’: the mental health crisis in America’s prisons | Society | The Guardian

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