Mentally Ill Inmates – a Feminist Issue?

This semester I’m taking a really interesting class in the justice department, “Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System”. At first, I was apprehensive because, although the topic sounded interesting, I wasn’t sure how much this class would have to do with social justice, which is my concentration. Although most people in my class are, in fact, criminal justice majors and approach the discussed issues with a law enforcer-type attitude, both sides to every story is equally presented. Fortunately, I get the vibe that my Professor and I share similar social justice beliefs. I think that is why she became a mental health professional, if I remember correctly. So why is this a feminist issue? Let me begin with a story and some statistics.

In one of the cases we read in class, Mrs. Smith, a 33 year-old African American woman is reported having an extensive psychiatric history including delusions and hallucinations. Mrs Smith claims that she was raped by and arresting officer. Mental health professionals as well as law enforcement officers maintain that this was part of her delusions. However, this is the only part of her story that stays the same throughout her whole journey through the criminal justice system. After she was doing well on her antipsychotic medication and being trained to be competent to stand trial, the case still says, “With that said, it is important to note that Ms. Smith retains remnants of long-standing delusions about one of the arresting officers.  However, she responds well to challenges of this delusion and the necessity to disregard it for the purposes of resolving her legal charges.”

The professionals that help mentally ill inmates to pass the competency to stand trial process basically condition these individuals to say exactly what the judge needs to hear so that they can successfully go to trial. It is obvious that this official is telling Mrs. Smith to disregard her “ridiculous” accusations.

When this trial was discussed in class, everyone thought she was crazy. No one even considered the fact that she could be telling the truth. It puzzled me, considering she maintained the same story well past her psychotic episode. Victim blaming is an issue for everyone, of course, but it is ten times worse for those already stigmatized by mental illness.Mentally ill individuals are among the most stigmatized population. They are consistently dehumanized – and therein lies the feminist issue.

Persons with mental illness are often homeless because of stigma. They can’t land jobs, find affordable housing, and keep relationships with people because their behavior during episodes is conceptualized as extremely odd. One-third to one-half of homeless persons in the U.S. have a severe mental illness. Women (and men, but less frequently) who are homeless are extremely vulnerable to rape.  Law enforcement officers are well aware of this fact, so they started giving out “mercy bookings”. Mercy bookings imply that when an officer feels that a homeless person is vulnerable to a rape incident or isn’t eating, among many other reasons regarding safety, they send them to jail instead so they can at least get shelter, food, clothing, and a shower of they so choose to do so. This seems like a good idea, but a jail or prison is no place for the mentally ill.

In most prisons and jails, there is a separate wing for those with serious mental illness. Of course, not all individuals with mental illness are even diagnosed. In this wing, they are treated far more poorly than in the rest of the prison. There is even stigma within the prison from the guards and officers, as well as, believe it or not, the mental health professionals. For some reason, the prison workers think these are among the most dangerous prisoners (though people with mental illness are hardly EVER arrested for serious and/or violent crimes) and they think they are inherently crazy and that mental illness is chronic. The stigma attached to persons with mental illness is no different in the general population than in people who deal with them, because the stigma is so strong that they don’t care to learn how to handle their illness.

Most people lack compassion for the mentally ill and certainly for those who are incarcerated for committing any crime, no matter what the crime was. There is so much stigma and fear attached that people lack compassion. The fear of mental illness resides in the fact that no one knows how it happens. How do you become mentally ill? All that is required is a diathesis (underlying predisposition) and some sort of trigger (i.e, drug use, death in the family, child abuse, etc) Essentially, this could happen to anyone. So how could you prevent it from happening to you? It could be you. That is the fear. No one understands, and no one wants it to happen to them. So society dehumanizes the mentally ill and assumes they are immune to it. No one has compassion until it happens to them or a loved one.

If you find yourself lacking compassion for those with mental illness or those who are incarcerated, I suggest this book.

Crazy, by Pete Earley

The book is titled “Crazy” and it is by an amazing journalist, Pete Earley. He has always worked with the criminal justice system but from the outside looking in. That is, until his son is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Earley then becomes extremely interested in the mental health system because he is turned away from treatment. Virginia Law is stringent in that as well, who would have guessed? According to Virginia Law, one must be an imminent danger to themselves or others to be involuntarily committed into a mental health facility and receive medication. Most mentally ill aren’t dangerous so…you can guess how often they go untreated and end up in the criminal justice system. Anyways, this book is a must-read.

When I first got to this class, I thought all crimes needed to be handled with punitive action. This book and this class changed my life and opened my eyes to a whole new side of social justice that I didn’t even consider delving into. At first I thought there was patriarchy. There was racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, sizeism, ageism, ableism, etc,, and I never considered the incarcerated to be amongst the people that need someone to fight for them. Read Crazy. Seriously.

2 thoughts on “Mentally Ill Inmates – a Feminist Issue?

  1. Really interesting. I’m sad to say I never really thought about this enough before. I’ll definitely be reading “Crazy” this summer ya know for some nice, light summer reading


    1. Haha, it actually is a pretty light read, albeit slightly depressing. At the very least, it goes quick.


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