Location: Oregon, United States

Thursday, August 23, 2007


I visited a man in jail today. It's not the first time I've been there, several of the people I come in contact with through my job are often incarcerated. For a while there, I felt like I knew more people in the jail than I did outside of it.

But today was tough. The man I visited is severely mentally ill, but does not recognize his illness. He loves the outdoors and thrives there. He loves people and approaches them daily to talk to them. This makes people really uncomfortable because of the way he presents. So the police come and tell him to move along, or whatever, and ban him from all the places where he tries to talk to people. After a while, he can't go anywhere without getting into trouble and he's sick and tired of the police telling him what to do. Inevitably, he ended up in jail.

He looks worse than awful, like Strega Nona after two weeks without sleep. He hasn't shaved since he got there a few days ago, his hair was all over the place, and his eyes were wild. He was cuffed with a chain around his waist so that his elbows were bent and his hands were stuck in front of his stomach. I believe his legs were shackled as well - after all, he is a Level 8, the highest security risk in the building. This also means he is in solitary confinement. I am the first person he has talked to since he got in.

He is in jail for failing to appear in court - an honest mistake. I am not at liberty, obviously, to discuss details. Suffice to say that every "crime" he has committed can be attributed to his mental illness. What is jail supposed to do anyway? Provide a holding place for him while he waits for trial? Punish him for breaking the law? Even if he did deserve the punishment, this would be too much. For him, it is not punishment but torment. I don't see the purpose. What he really needs is help.

I'm not sure I can help him. For one thing, he wants me to bail him out, which is absolutely against every professional ethic out there. For another, I've tried to help him for several months before he was jailed and don't feel like we've gotten far. Every time we get close to a victory, something happens to snatch it away. Entire systems need to change in order to move forward for him. Now he's in jail, being tormented, which will deteriorate his mental health and make him appear even more crazed for his appearance in court.

I've been reading a book, Crazy, by Pete Earley, that talks about this very subject. Jail is not where the mentally ill belong. But neither, in many cases, is the State Hospital an appropriate choice. Instead, community service agencies like mine attempt to serve severely mentally ill individuals who may or may not be taking medication, may or may not recognize their mental illness, may or may not be able to trust anyone long enough to get help. This makes it incredibly difficult to make any progress, as the unstable ones go from jail to hospital to jail with varying lengths of time in the community in between. There is never long enough in any one place to get a handle on anything so these individuals never really get help anywhere. Maddening. Illogical. Crazy.


Blogger Rosie said...

Thanks for enlightening on this concept. What an interesting perspective. I pray the insight necessary is revealed to you to help. Thanks so much that you are out there on the front lines, helping.

8:39 PM  
Blogger ~bethany joy said...

hey lydia!
we miss you in MN.
how are you?
i was catching up on your blog and i was wondering what did you ever find out from the specialist about sasha?
love ya!
PS. I have news so if i dont e-mail you soon remind me.

9:54 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home