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(This is an edited version of a speech that was read on a Zoom panel discussion on racism and mass incarceration hosted by the University of Central Florida on Sept. 16, 2020)

Elijah McCain,  Deborah Danner, Daniel Prude, Kieth Vidal, Natasha Mckenna.

These are the names of citizens who lost their lives to police simply because they suffered from a mental illness. According to the national non-profit group Treatment Advocacy Center, adults who suffer from untreated mental illnesses are involved in one out of every four police shootings. According to The Washington Post, in the first six months of 2015, the police shot and killed someone having a mental health crisis every 36 hours.

Our country has traded mental health institutions for prison cells and caseworkers for police officers. Though ill-equipped, cops are the first responders to mental health calls. This has resulted in the death of some and the incarceration of many. Currently, one out of every five jail or prison beds are occupied by people with mental disabilities. Legislation that called for the defunding of mental health facilities during the 70s continues to impact this population today. 

Our government defunded these institutions leaving the Seriously Mentally Ill (SMI) in the care of local communities. Left in a state of ruin, these institutions were forced to shut down. The mentally ill were left with two options: homelessness or incarceration. According to the NRI, which collects data on mental health, 24-hour treatment beds for this population declined by 77% by 2014. Now at least 20% of our jails and 15% of our prison population suffer from a serious mental illness. 

We have found a way to further segregate our society. Our police force has been given the right to murder and incarcerate people who do not fit their standard of normal. Unfortunately, if you are poor or a person of color you have a higher chance of being a victim in this scenario, not simply because you lack the resources to be properly diagnosed and treated, but because poverty and race are trauma-inducing experiences. 

After all, how can someone rest soundly knowing that Breonna Taylor’s dreams were snatched from her simply because she chose to sleep too comfortably? How can a person of color experience the joys of parenthood knowing that their child can be the next Tamir Rice? These stories have become common occurrences as we idly watch democracy be replaced by a dystopian police state. We chose to value profit over lives and property over progress. 

Data from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) data show the United States prison population has increased from 200,000 to 2.5 million since the 70s, which coincides with a decrease in mental institutions. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, our country allocates $80 billion to $100 billion a year on policing, but spends less than one-third of that on health insurance, housing assistance, snap benefits, and childcare tax. 

When organizations are asking to defund the police, they are saying that more funds should be put into social programs. Social workers should assist cops as first responders. Having a substance abuse problem or a mental health issue should not result in a prison or death sentence. 

A discussion about police reform is overdue and our silence has resulted in the loss of too many lives. It is time that we come together collectively and push for institutional change.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Christopher Etienne is a multimedia strategist who uses journalism and storytelling to shed light on injustice and raise awareness about social issues. Etienne's background as a first-generation Haitian-American who experienced poverty and incarceration inspires him to work with organizations such as NJ STEP, Rutgers, the Renaissance House, and Brooklyn CRAN Network. He studied documentary film at Columbia Journalism School and Africana studies at Rutgers University.