I have been in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) mental health system for over 20 years. I am far from alone. According to a recent investigation by CalMatters, one in three people incarcerated in California are diagnosed with a mental illness.
In my experience, mentally ill people who are incarcerated do not receive the support they need. As a result, they are more likely to be denied parole.
I’ve observed 20 people in my yard get denied parole because they were unprepared or unable to speak before the board due to mental illness.
The parole board poses complex questions to see how an incarcerated person will respond. Individuals with a physical or cognitive disability, or individuals who experience anxiety, nervousness, voices or other mental disorders, may have difficulty answering these questions.
Moreover, people who are incarcerated for a prolonged period of time are more likely to develop mental health issues, or have previous ones exacerbated. For example, I was shot in the head and knocked unconscious several times before being incarcerated, and I have received intermittent head injuries during my more than 30 years in prison. As a result, my memory is compromised. I do not recall events sequentially and have had a difficult time articulating my thoughts when questioned by a parole board. I can express myself more clearly through writing.
In some cases, prisoners have been written up for rules violations that pertain directly to their mental illness. For example, an ongoing federal class-action lawsuit that concerns California’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners — Coleman vs. Brown — alleged that a prisoner received a rules violation for a suicide attempt. Disciplinary infractions result in the stripping of privileges that can, and often do, worsen mental health problems.
These factors, in addition to the pressures everyone endures at a parole hearing, can cause an adverse reaction during questioning. This may in turn be taken as proof that a person is a risk to society and therefore ineligible for parole.
Unfortunately, there are few resources or representation for myself and others in these situations. Often attorneys aren’t adequately paid for their labor and don’t prepare the parole panel to meet the needs of the person petitioning for parole.
I was given 33 years to life, and I will be held here until I get the parole board speech “right.” If I’m unable to answer their questions, I will be denied parole again.
And each time I am denied, it is possible I may be given more prison time for the crime of being mentally ill. Prisoners like me, who are approaching or have passed their base term, continue to do more time because of mental illness. In other words, these parole boards are punishing us for “what if” crimes.
I believe it’s unjust to sentence us to more time based on crimes we have not yet committed. What we really need is treatment and support.
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.