The prevalence of mental illness in America’s carceral system is striking.
According to statistics compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, 43% of people in state prisons have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. A much higher rate — 74% — report never having received mental health care while incarcerated.
The problems are not confined to an institution’s walls. Many people upon release from prison confront lasting psychological consequences: anxiety, depression, impaired decision making, bipolar disorder and what some researchers have called “post-incarceration syndrome,” a condition similar to PTSD.
It is no surprise then that Prison Journalism Project contributors regularly explore these grim realities. Below, we have selected seven stories and poems that shed light on the plight of mental illness in prison — and provide a measure of hope — from the perspective of incarcerated people themselves. Please read and share.
The Link Between Our Prison System and Untreated Mental Illness
Our country has traded mental health institutions for prison cells and caseworkers for police officers. This has resulted in the death of some and the incarceration of many.
weigh me down like that anchor. I’ve kicked addiction / yet I’m still bound by these shackles that keep me in toe
Mental Health Services Lacking in Washington Prisons
I never quite made it to the Hole. I held in my rage just long enough to make it to the holding tank before I unleashed my new coping skills. I screamed, “Fuck you!” at the top of my lungs over and over until my voice became hoarse and I spit up blood.
Everywhere I step, I have to watch for broken shards. Who knew that shattered people and shattered glass had so much in common? You can see right through them. They’re both jagged around the edges and will more than likely cut you if you’re not careful.
The Weight of Depression After a Year of Isolation
I am often woken up by screams. They are common in prison. I’ve never asked the man above me the cause of his nightmares, but I’m sure they are connected to trauma suffered either before or during his incarceration, possibly both.
In Prison, I’m Surrounded By Death
Who will be the next person to give up hope in prison and die without getting a second chance? Who will be the next person to decide to end their own life, just to gain peace?
Healing in San Quentin Leads to Helping and Hope
Through the power of prayer and with courage, our community inhales a natural breath of resilience and exhales the most powerful currency in prison: hope. This hope resuscitated me and gave me a second wind.
For more stories like these, see our entire archive on mental health.
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.