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In September 2006, a special report titled “Mental Health Problems of Prisons and Jail Inmates” published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (U.S. Department of Justice) found that 43% of state prisoners and 54% of jail inmates reported symptoms that met the criteria for mania.

A little over a year later, I joined that population.

For over a year, I had been cycling between mania and normalcy but refused to seek help or accept any intervention. As a result of my failure to accept the fact that I had a problem, I eventually took the life of my ex-wife who had urged me on numerous occasions to seek psychiatric help. 

Upon entering the state prison system, I suffered another manic episode, but I was still in denial. I tried to refuse treatment and was put on the prison’s forced medication protocol. It was only after another episode two weeks later that I admitted to myself that I had a problem. 

The Bureau also indicated in the special report that, “All federal prisons and most state prisons and jail jurisdictions, as a matter of policy… [are] providing therapy or counseling by trained mental health professionals, and distributing psychotropic medication.” However, other protocols should be incorporated to meet the needs of prisoners with mental health issues within the system. 

In the New Jersey State Prison system, inmates with mental health problems are usually housed within the general population as long as they are not deemed probable to harm themselves or others. While I understand the importance and the need for individuals with mental health problems to interact with other prisoners in a normal environment rather than staying isolated, individuals suffering from mental health issues can be the subject of ridicule by other prisoners because they have difficulties adjusting to the norms of prison life. 

The unintended consequence of this policy is that it prevents other prisoners who feel they need help from seeking it from fear of the stigma of being labeled as “special needs.”

One suggestion to ease the integration of these prisoners into the general population would be appointing trained peers. Prisoners trained by the mental health staff could serve as peer counselors in the various housing units. These peer counselors would attend the mental health groups along with the prisoners under the care of the mental health staff (these groups should be mandatory). The peer counselors could be paired up with prisoners from their housing unit and encouraged to interact with them within and outside the group setting. These peer counselors would then serve as advocates and assist in navigating the complex dynamics of prison life. 

Mental health groups should be required for anyone interested in applying for a peer counseling position. This system would allow prisoners who feel they have mental health problems but who are not currently receiving any form of therapy to be able to join these groups and receive the help they need without the fear of being labeled.

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.

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M. Yayah Sandi

M. Yayah Sandi is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey. He requested that his first name be withheld.