Mental illness should not be "treated" in prisons and jails
Today I am distressed and you should be too, particularly if you are or know someone who has a mental illness (and especially if that person is a person of color — but that’s a topic for another day).
On March 6, Irvo Noel Otieno, a 28-year-old man died as he was being admitted to Central State Hospital, a mental health facility in Henrico County, Virginia. He’d already spent three days in jail subjected to inhumane conditions his mother, Caroline Ouko, said after watching videos of her son’s transfer out of the jail and of the fatal incident in the hospital where officers and hospital employees piled on top of Otieno — one with a knee on his neck (sound familiar?).
“My son was treated like a dog, worse than a dog,” she told reporters. “I saw it with my own eyes on the video.”
I won’t go into the grisly details of Otieno’s treatment — you can read it in multiple news reports. Suffice to say the Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill has charged seven deputies and three hospital employees with second-degree murder — meaning there was malicious intent involved. Their cases are currently moving through the court system as I write this — all 10 were indicted last week.
“At what point do we stop preserving life? At what point do we consider mental illness a crime?”
— Leon Ochieng, Irvo Otieno’s brother
Otieno’s brother, Leon Ochieng, his voice quavering at a press conference asked: “At what point do we stop preserving life? At what point do we consider mental illness a crime?”
And that’s what I want to know.
According to the American Psychological Association, about 64% of jail inmates, 54% of state prisoners and 45% of federal prisoners report having mental health concerns. Maybe you’ve heard that the United States has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world? With about half those people having a mental illness, might we consider the societal causes that yielded those statistics?
The nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center was founded in 1988 (in Virginia, as it turns out), with a mission of reforming the criminal justice system to better address mental illness. A report posted on their website calls the U.S. corrections system “the new asylums.” Some of the largest jails in the country (Los Angeles County, Cook County in Chicago and New York’s Rikers Island) “each hold more mentally ill inmates than any remaining psychiatric hospital in the United States,” it said.
Treatment for serious mental illness is limited, in many cases, to those who can afford it (or have the insurance to pay for it — which is sort of the same thing). Community mental health programs are not being funded sufficiently in many places. So, what happens? People affected by mental illness end up homeless, self-medicating with illicit drugs and getting in trouble with the law. They are being held in jails and prisons rather than being treated for the issues that landed them in that situation in the first place. And mental health care is negligible, if even present at all, in many correctional facilities.
There are grave misconceptions about mental illness. For example, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators. In fact, the Treatment Advocacy Center reports that “people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement.”
On March 14, the Henrico Sheriff’s Deputies Fraternal Order of Police — whose officers were involved in the Otieno incident — posted a statement about it on their Facebook page. “Policing in America today is difficult, made even more so by the possibility of being criminally charged while performing their duty.” This was early in the investigation and the officers involved were all put on administrative leave.
And I get it.
Imagine working in an environment where anything can happen and often does. You are on high alert at all times — your own safety and that of others often at risk. It’s like being at war for both prisoners and the officers tasked with guarding them. I imagine many corrections officers live with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder from continuous and cumulative stress. In fact, a corrections officer I know recently asked me to point her to people that might help her create a peer-support program for her and her coworkers.
Unfortunately, too many law enforcement officers are trained to use force when a subject does not comply with their orders rather than taking time to learn what’s really up with a person.
I wrote about one solution to this situation for the Boulder Weekly a couple of years ago. Officers in Colorado are getting trained to better recognize people with disabilities — from people with hearing loss and intellectual challenges to those with mental illness. These training programs are happening in other places throughout the country, but they can be challenging from fiscal and personnel standpoints, particularly for smaller departments. Some states are starting to incorporate this training into their law enforcement academies. Admittedly, many of the programs are fairly minimal but it’s a step in the right direction to changing the ingrained culture of law enforcement.
I plan to continue to write about issues surrounding mental illness in future editions of More Than Normal. Please do contact me if you have any thoughts about any of this. I’d be particularly interested if you have personal experiences from either side of the razor wire.
As always, be kind to yourselves and to each other. Until next time.