I was jailed when young because of breaking the law. I was fully delusional at the time. The experience of being jailed while psychotic is the worst memory I have, and the emotional scars will not go away for the rest of my life. I believe it is far too easy for mentally ill people to become incarcerated in jails, and this, from the standpoint of human rights, needs to be remediated. When jailing of mentally ill people is spoken of as a norm, I believe it is a disservice: It smooths the path for mentally ill people to be jailed in the absence of public outrage or the outrage of family. And when something is normalized, it becomes a precedent, both socially and legally.
People who violate our overly complex and needlessly punitive web of laws, when they do so due to being disconnected from reality due to a psychiatric illness, are suffering from an illness and they are not criminals.
I once spoke to a counselor who had a visible injury. I inquired, and they told me that a patient had attacked them. That patient was arrested, because the patient had attacked while stabilized on medications. This makes sense to me. Mentally ill people, when thinking rationally, are accountable for their actions.
However, when jailing is the expected outcome for someone afflicted by mental illness, this makes it easier for imprisonment to happen even more. I believe it is an outrage that some of the most vulnerable people are subjected to that.
Frequently, when a mentally ill person is jailed, they die. The conditions in the jail can induce hyperthermia in hot weather, and this can kill someone who takes antipsychotics. (Antipsychotics and some other medications interfere with the body’s cooling mechanisms.)
Additionally, not having proper treatment, such as medication, can kill, either for medical reasons or by bringing someone to commit suicide.
Anyone who tunes into news media should be aware of the brutal treatment mentally ill people have been getting at the hands of officers. We’ve seen graphic images of police murdering people with mental illness, most frequently people of color living with mental illness. This is often because officers expect people to be calm and to obey. This is not appropriate for someone who is mentally compromised. Mentally ill people have become targets for police, who lack any understanding of what these conditions do to people. This has got to change.
People with psychiatric illness may be considered unfit for trial. This often causes their stay in jail to be indefinite. The mentally ill suspect is held, in some instances for years, until evaluated as fit for trial. This violates the U.S. Constitution. (An accused individual is entitled to a speedy trial.) Imprisoning someone for years while awaiting trial should be adjudicated as false imprisonment.
Once incarcerated, a person with mental illness is often subject to abuse by other incarcerated people. In my personal experience, other incarcerated people believe that they can get away with sadistic treatment of those who can’t defend themselves due to not having their wits.
I do not see much virtue in the criminal justice system. It may get some dangerous people off the street. Yet it also punishes many people, very severely, who do not deserve it.
Jailing mentally ill people should never be normalized. It is a crime against humanity. Milder non-punitive measures must be applied to those who commit nonviolent offenses due to psychiatric illness. Those mentally ill people who become violent due to their disorder may need to be put under some type of restrictions. However, punishing people for being mentally ill is inappropriate. Those who have the power to change the criminal justice system should feel ashamed of themselves for that.
Jack Bragen is author of “Revising Behaviors that Don’t Work,” “Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia,” and “Jack Bragen’s 2021 Fiction Collection,” and lives in Martinez.