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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Abused Chicago Riders Revolt Against Daley’s Decayed Subway System

After years of increasing abuse and neglect, Chicago subway riders finally got fed up, drew the line and revolted against Mayor Daley’s pathetic subway system. A jam-packed rush-hour subway train had been stopped underground in Chicago’s Loop for over an hour on Tuesday morning, held up by a broken-down train ahead. In the stifling, hot and stuffy air, passengers had turned nervous and impatient. Some were throwing up and getting sick from a complete lack of circulating fresh air. Finally, the Chicagoans revolted, ignoring the unpredictably intermittent announcements and pleas from transit workers, who were themselves in a state of total confusion about what was really going on. En mass, the riders decided to leave the stalled trains and to make a long and dangerous trudge through the dirty, dimly lit underground tunnel toward the eventual light of freedom.

As usual in Chicago’s disreputable world of machine politics, Hizzoner’s political flunky transit officials were quick to put all of the blame on the Chicago citizens, on the passengers, saying that the unauthorized evacuation caused bigger problems. Afraid that the passengers making to their freedom through the dark and dirty underground tunnel might be electrocuted by the subway’s electrically charged third rail, transit officials cut off all power to part of the Blue Line, which travels a large U-shaped route between Chicago’s West Side and O’Hare International Airport. Service was terminated for about four hours, and more than a thousand passengers had to be helped off several trains.

Esmeralda Cuevas, 26, who works in Chicago’s Loop as an administrative assistant, was on the train immediately behind the stalled one when she saw a number of haggard people walk by a window of her stranded subway car. “I felt a sense like I want to be with them,” Ms. Cuevas said. “I was impressed with their courage. I thought, ‘I can stay in here with these people and feel hot and uncomfortable, or I can start walking.’ ” And walk she did. So did most of the other stranded passengers from a total of four trains, who forged ahead despite intermittent, confusing public intercom announcements asking them to return.

Some two hours after her ordeal began, Ms. Cuevas finally emerged from the subway crying, with dirt all over her hands and face. An executive at her office downtown advised her to avoid the subway for a few days and to take cabs. But since he didn’t have the generosity to offer to pay for her cab rides, Ms. Cuevas said that she plans to take the train, but on an elevated line, not the underground subway.

At least seven of the Chicago subway passengers suffered injuries and breathing problems that required hospitalization. At the present time, none of their injuries or ailments is thought to be life threatening.

Revolt: Trapped in Underground Subway

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Madness: Trapped in Elevator Car 30

Madness: Trapped in Elevator Car 30

In a New Yorker Magazine article by Nick Paumgarten that described a number of stories about elevator horrors and dangers, he recounted the harrowing experience of Nicholas White, a special assignment employee who worked in the mid-town Manhattan offices of Business Week magazine.

Nicholas White was a thirty-four-year-old production manager at Business Week. He was working late on a special assignment and wanted a cigarette. He told a colleague that he’d be right back and, leaving his jacket behind, headed downstairs. Thus commenced the longest smoke break of Nicholas White’s life, a harrowing experience that began at around eleven o’clock on a Friday night in October, 1999.

The Business Week offices were located on the forty-third floor of the McGraw-Hill Building in mid-town Manhattan. When White finished his cigarette, he returned to the lobby, got into Car No. 30 and pressed the button marked 43. The car accelerated. It was an express elevator, with no stops below the thirty-ninth floor, and the building was deserted. But after a moment, White felt a jolt. The lights went out, immediately flashed on again and then the elevator stopped.

The control panel made a beep, and White waited a moment, expecting a voice to give information or instructions, but none came. He pressed the intercom button, but there was no response. He hit it again, and then began pacing around the elevator. Time passed, although he was not sure how much, because he had no watch or cell phone. He occupied himself with thoughts of remaining calm and decided that he’d better not do anything drastic, because, whatever the malfunction, he thought it unwise to jostle the car. As the emergency bell rang and rang, he began to fear that it might somehow start a fire. Recently, there had been a small fire in the building, rendering the elevators unusable. He began hearing unlikely oscillations in the ringing: aural hallucinations. Before long, he began to contemplate death.

The most striking thing about the security-camera videotape of White’s time in the McGraw-Hill elevator is that it includes split-screen footage from three other elevators, on which you can see men intermittently performing maintenance work. Apparently, they never wondered about the one he was in. Eight security guards came and went while he was stranded there, and nobody seems to have noticed him on the monitor.

After a while, White imagined building staff members opening the elevator’s doors ten days later and finding him dead on his back, like a cockroach. Within hours, he had smoked all his remaining cigarettes. At a certain point, he decided to open the doors. He pried them apart and held them open with his foot. He was presented with a cinder-block wall on which, perfectly centered, were scrawled three “13”s-one in chalk, one in red paint, one in black. It was a dispiriting sight. He concluded that he must be on the thirteenth floor, and that, this being an express elevator, there was no egress from the shaft anywhere for many stories up or down. He peered down through the crack between the wall and the sill of the elevator and saw that it was very dark. He could make out some light at the bottom. It looked far away. A breeze blew up the shaft.

He started to call out. “Hello?” He tried cupping his hand to his mouth and yelled out some more. “Help! Is there anybody there? I’m stuck in an elevator!” He kept at it for a while. White opened the doors to urinate. As he did so, he hoped, in vain, that a trace of this violation might get the attention of someone in the lobby. He considered lighting matches and dropping them down the shaft to attract notice, but still had the presence of mind to suspect that this might not be wise. The alarm bell kept ringing. He paced and waved at the overhead camera. He couldn’t tell whether it was night or day.

Eventually, he lay down on the floor and tried to sleep. The carpet was like coarse AstroTurf, and was lousy with nail trimmings and other detritus. It was amazing to him how much people could shed in such a short trip. He used his shoes for a pillow and laid his wallet, unfolded, over his eyes to keep out the light. It wasn’t hot, yet he was sweating. His wallet was damp. Maybe a day had passed. He drifted in and out of sleep, awakening each time to the grim recognition that his elevator confinement had not been a dream. His thirst was overpowering. The alarm was playing more aural tricks on him, so he decided to turn it off. Then he tried doing some Morse code with it. He yelled some more. He tried to pick away at the cinder-block wall.

At a certain point, Nicholas White ran out of ideas. Anger and vindictiveness took root. He began to think, They, whoever they were, shouldn’t be able to get away with this, that he deserved some compensation for the ordeal. He cast about for blame. He wondered where his colleague was, why she hadn’t been alarmed enough by his failure to return, jacketless, from smoking a cigarette to call security. “Whose fault is this?” he wondered. “Who’s going to pay?” He decided that there was no way he was going to work the following week.

And then he gave up. The time passed in a kind of degraded fever dream. On the videotape, he lies motionless for hours at a time, face down on the floor. A voice woke him up: “Is there someone in there?” “Yes.” “What are you doing in there?” White tried to explain; the voice in the intercom seemed to assume that he was an intruder. “Get me the fuck out of here!” White shrieked. Duly persuaded, the guard asked him if he wanted anything. White, who had been planning to join a few friends at a bar on Friday evening, asked for a beer.

Before long, an elevator-maintenance team arrived and, over the intercom, coached him through a set of maneuvers with the buttons. White asked what day it was, and, when they told him it was Sunday at 4 P.M., he was shocked. He had been trapped for forty-one hours. He felt a change in the breeze, which suggested that the elevator was moving. When he felt it slow again, he wrenched the door open, and there was the lobby. In his memory, he had to climb up onto the landing, but the video does not corroborate this. When he emerged from the elevator, he saw his friends, with a couple of security guards, and a maintenance man, waiting, with an empty chair. His friends turned to see him and were appalled at the sight; he looked like a ghost, one of them said later. White told a guard, “Somebody could’ve died in there.” “I know,” the guard said.

White had to go upstairs to get his jacket. He went home, and then headed to a bar. He woke up to a reel of phone messages and a horde of reporters colonizing his stoop. He barely left his apartment in the ensuing days, deputizing his friends to talk to reporters through a crack in the door. White never went back to work at the magazine. Caught up in media attention, which he shunned but thrilled to, prodded by friends, and perhaps provoked by overly solicitous overtures from McGraw-Hill, White fell under the sway of renown and grievance, and then that of the legal establishment.

He got a lawyer, and came to believe that returning to work might signal a degree of mental fitness detrimental to his litigation. Instead, he spent eight weeks in Anguilla. Eventually, Business Week had to let him go. The lawsuit he filed, for twenty-five million dollars against the building’s management and the elevator-maintenance company, dragged on for four years. Eventually, they settled for an amount that White is not allowed to disclose, but he will not contest that it was a low number, hardly six figures.

He never did learn why the elevator stopped. There was talk of a power dip, but nothing definite. Meanwhile, White no longer has his job, which he’d held for fifteen years, and he’s lost all contact with his former colleagues. Now, he’s also lost his apartment, spent all of his money, and searched, mostly in vain, for paying work. White is currently unemployed.

Madness: Trapped in Car 30

Read more on Nicholas White’s ordeal and about other tales of dangerous elevator experiences in The New Yorker here.

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