Trapped: Mentally Ill Persons in Our Nation’s Prisons and Jails

Photography by: Jenn Ackerman

Trapped: Mentally Ill Persons in Our Nation’s Prisons and Jails

The continuous withdrawal of mental health funding has turned jails and prisons across the U.S. into the default mental health facilities. A report in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Justice showed that the number of Americans with mental illnesses who are incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails is disproportionately high. Almost 555,000 people with mental illness are incarcerated, while fewer than 55,000 persons are being treated in designated mental health hospitals.

The problem with the mental health system in our country did not spring up overnight. “There was a shift in the way our society sees mental illness,” says psychologist Dr. Stephanie Roby. “We saw a fallout from the 1960s when we were institutionalizing everyone. Society reacted by saying the community needs to be more responsible for these individuals.”

The goal was to reduce the number of mental health patients housed in large government-operated, public psychiatric hospitals by shifting their care to local communities where programs would be created to handle their special needs. “It was a great idea in theory,” says Dr. Roby. “Unfortunately, mentally ill people do a lot of inappropriate things, they are misunderstood and they commit crimes….” As a result, they then have ended up as inmates in our country’s prisons and jails, rather than receiving treatment in mental health facilities.

Even worse, as the prisons and jails in our country have become the dumping ground for mentally ill people, we will end up simply replicating what happened in the 1960s when they just warehoused mentally ill persons in large public psychiatric hospitals and then sent them back onto the streets to fend for themselves.

The documentary video that is presented below was produced at The Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, Kentucky. “We are the surrogate mental hospitals now,” said Warden Larry Chandler. With the rapidly rising number of mentally ill prisoners, the reformatory was forced to rebuild a system that was designed for correctional security. It was never intended to be a mental health facility. However, by necessity mental health treatment has quickly become one of its primary goals. Unfortunately, this situation is not unique to Kentucky. The continuous withdrawal of mental health funding has turned jails and prisons all across the U.S. into the default mental health facilities.

Mentally Ill Prisoners at The Kentucky State Reformatory

Video by: Jenn Ackerman

You can read more about Jenn Ackerman’s project studying the treatment of mentally ill persons in the nation’s prisons and jails here.

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We Were Born to Shine: Obama Issues Commemoration for Gay Pride Month

Because We Believe:

Photography by: Annie Leibovitz

United States Senator Barack Obama released the following statement last week to commemorate Gay Pride Month:

“Pride Month is a reminder that while we have come a long way since the Stonewall riots in 1969, we still have a lot of work to do.

Too often, the issue of LGBT rights is exploited by those seeking to divide us. But at its core, this issue is about who we are as Americans. It’s about whether this nation is going to live up to its founding promise of equality by treating all its citizens with dignity and respect.

It’s time to turn the page on the bitterness and bigotry that fill so much of today’s LGBT rights debate. The rights of all Americans should be protected — whether it’s at work or anyplace else. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” needs to be repealed because patriotism and a sense of duty should be the key tests for military service, not sexual orientation. Civil unions should give gay couples full rights. And those who commit hate crimes should be punished no matter whether those crimes are committed on account of race, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

This Pride Month, let’s make our founding promise of equality a reality for every American.”

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Photo of the Day: You Can’t Go Home Again

Obama Issues Official Commemoration for Gay Pride Month

Because We Believe:

United States Senator Barack Obama released the following statement yesterday to commemorate Gay Pride Month:

“Pride Month is a reminder that while we have come a long way since the Stonewall riots in 1969, we still have a lot of work to do.

Too often, the issue of LGBT rights is exploited by those seeking to divide us. But at its core, this issue is about who we are as Americans. It’s about whether this nation is going to live up to its founding promise of equality by treating all its citizens with dignity and respect.

It’s time to turn the page on the bitterness and bigotry that fill so much of today’s LGBT rights debate. The rights of all Americans should be protected — whether it’s at work or anyplace else. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” needs to be repealed because patriotism and a sense of duty should be the key tests for military service, not sexual orientation. Civil unions should give gay couples full rights. And those who commit hate crimes should be punished no matter whether those crimes are committed on account of race, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

This Pride Month, let’s make our founding promise of equality a reality for every American.”

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Lump and Split: Order is in the Mind of the Tagger

There was a time when it was assumed that God had created a perfectly ordered the universe.  Within that universe, we assumed that each thing had its own place, clustered with other things like it, but also each being essentially different from the other things in the cluster.  The clusters were themselves clustered, creating a Grand Tree of Everything, each branching determined by a perfectly unambiguous definition.

But, although God knew all of the the definitions, it was often hard for mere mortals to grasp exactly what it was that He had in mind.  What were the most relevant principles guiding decisions about likeness and difference?  For example, did it matter more where they lived, how they looked, or how they behaved?

Finally, we got past the notion that there must be a single right order.  Now, for all of those who want to know their universe the task of creating order in the world is more like:  Go forth and lump and split.  “Lump” and “split,” are, surprisingly, technical terms currently in use among professional indexers.  A “Lumper” takes things that seem disparate and combines them because they have something similar.  A “Splitter” tends to take two things that are lumped together and separate them into smaller categories. Indexers tend to be one or the other, their technique driven by their personality.

So, go forth into your world and Lump and Split.  Order is in the eye of the tagger.

Read more here: Social Tagging

You are invited to look at the manner in which I tag in my own home library:



(Click Image to Enter My Library)

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My Home Library is Open for Guests

(Click Image to Enter Library)

Visitors are welcome to browse through a selection of books from my home library. This small collection covers a wide range of reading interests, and reflects some of the ways that I think about a number of social and cultural issues. Careful readers will perceive that the particular selection of books being offered, along with the detailed manner in which the books are tagged, tells a story.

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Cho Sueng-Hui: Asperger’s Disorder with Psychotic Features

Amateur armchair mental health sleuths within both the mainstream and blogging media have been quick to cast their mental illness fishing nets at Cho Seung-Hui, hoping to snare some understanding of him. One reporter recently wrote, “This man will turn out to have been the classic “outsider” brand of mass killer — paranoid, egotistical, maybe delusional, passive-aggressive, with pronounced antisocial characteristics.” Instead, reflect upon this brief and less-inflamed hypothesis:

Consider this:

From the beginning, he did not talk. Not to other children, not to his own family. Everyone saw this. In Seoul, South Korea, where Seung-Hui Cho grew up, his mother agonized over his sullen, brooding behavior and empty face. Talk, she just wanted him to talk.

When I told his mother that he was a good boy, quiet but well behaved, she said she would rather have him respond to her when talked to than be good and meek,” said Kim Yang-Soon, Mr. Cho’s 84-year-old great-aunt.

When his parents announced when he was 8 that they were going to America, their relatives were gladdened. “We thought that it would help the boy gain confidence if he moved to the United States’ open society,” said an uncle who asked to be identified only by his last name, Kim.

And yet when he and others heard from Mr. Cho’s mother, it was the same dismal story, a buried life of silence. In church, she told them, she prayed for God to transform her son.

By now, the world knows what Seung-Hui Cho became, how on a gusty, snowy morning last Monday at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., he massacred 27 students and 5 teachers before killing himself.

No one could understand why. On Friday, his sister issued a statement of apology and sorrow that revealed the family’s own bewilderment. “This is someone that I grew up with and loved,” she said. “Now I feel like I didn’t know this person.”

Interviews with investigators, relatives, classmates and teachers offer inklings of how he progressed from silence to murderous rage, and show how he meticulously prepared for his final hours.

In Seoul, there was never much money, never enough time. The Cho family occupied a shabby two-room basement apartment, living frugally on the slender proceeds of a used-book shop. According to relatives, the father, Seung-Tae Cho, had worked in oil fields and on construction sites in Saudi Arabia. In an arranged marriage, he wed Kim Hwang-Im, the daughter of a farming family that had fled North Korea during the Korean War.

Their son was well behaved, all right, but his pronounced bashfulness deeply worried his parents. Relatives thought he might be a mute. Or mentally ill. “The kid didn’t say much and didn’t mix with other children,” his uncle said. “ ‘Yes sir’ was about all you could get from him.

And then this:

In his junior year, Mr. Cho told his then-roommates that he had a girlfriend. Her name was Jelly. She was a supermodel who lived in outer space and traveled by spaceship, and she existed only in the dimension of his imagination.

When Andy Koch, one of his roommates, returned to their suite one day, Mr. Cho shooed him away. He told him Jelly was there. He said she called him Spanky. SpankyJelly became his instant-message screen name.

With this:

His junior-year roommates mostly ignored him because he was so withdrawn. If he said something, it was weird. During Thanksgiving break, Mr. Koch [a dormitory roommate] recalled, Mr. Cho called him to report that he was vacationing in North Carolina with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president; Mr. Cho said he had grown up with him in Moscow.

In class, some students thought he might be a deaf-mute. A classmate once offered him $10 just to say hello but got nothing. He hunched there in sunglasses, a baseball cap yanked tight over his head. Sometimes Mr. Cho introduced himself as “Question Mark,” saying it was the persona of a man who lived on Mars and journeyed to Jupiter. On the sign-in sheet of a literature class, he simply scribbled a question mark instead of his name.”

And then this:

In a previous encounter with mental health services:

“…the physician who proclaimed Cho a danger to himself in 2005 found him quite lucid, writing, “His insight and judgment are sound,” according to court papers.”

However, upon what were that physician’s conclusions about Cho’s state of mind based. Was it the relatively simplistic Oriented X3 mental status exam? What I am suggesting is that there are important unanswered questions here. For example, what was the nature of that insight? Was it in the nature of a psychologically growth promoting form of introspection, or was it more likely associated with a more painful, perhaps even obsessive and ruminative pre-occupation with searing internal difficulties (such as his admitted life-long, mutilated sense of worth would suggest).

By what clinical measure or measures was Cho’s adequacy or impairment of reality testing assessed? Further, were any standardized measures of a formal thought disorder administered? This would have been important, of course, since impaired reality testing (related to the interpretation of information about the outside world) and evidence of either a transient or formal thought disorder (impaired quality of one’s thinking) represent two relatively separate areas of cognitive functioning (although one can certainly interpenetrate the other).

Nevertheless, even if one does accept the conclusions of that physician’s 2005 mental health assessment (which I am inclined not to do), it seems relatively clear just from the brief anecdotal materials presented here that there were other instances of interpersonal interactions in 2005 that provided strong indications that Cho’s level of cognitive functioning was, seen from an intrapsychic perspective, already in a seriously deteriorated state.

Taking all of the above into account, one quite probably could consider this: Asperger’s Syndrome with Psychotic Features.

This would open up, of course, a new avenue for clinical investigation and dialogue about this horrible tragedy.

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