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Illustration by Raul Higgins

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.

The Link Between Our Prison System and Untreated Mental Illnessby Christopher Etienne: “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.”

Life’s Dysfunctionsby Celia Puente: “It all stems from abandonment, anger, addiction  / and abuse: my hurts, habits and destruction in life. / Sometimes I feel like I’m being weighed down by the devil / and hidden in a dark dungeon, where there is no light.”

Mental Health Services Lacking in Washington Prisonsby Jeffrey McKee: “The COA is where a prisoner is taken when he attempts suicide or notifies staff that he is thinking of harming himself. COA is much like a segregation cell except there is no table. Some also have no toilets. We are stripped of everything including clothes.”

A colorful assortment of pills

Shattered Peopleby Ladrina Johnson: “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. Sometimes you see a rainbow in them, and they are broken in such a beautiful way that you want to keep them.”

The Weight of Depression After a Year of Isolationby Christopher Blackwell: “To the millions of individuals confined within prisons across the U.S., trauma and depression are nothing new. All prisoners suffer on some level, whether that suffering is related to life on the outside or our time in the carceral state, or both.”

A silhouette of a man walks across a concrete space with shadows of bars surrounding him.

In Prison, I’m Surrounded By Death” by Antwann Lamont Johnson: “Tears flow from my face onto this paper for the simple reason that no one on the outside truly knows the pain that comes from being in prison. 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 Hopeby Raul Higgins: “I looked into her calm eyes with my red, puffy ones and said sadly, ‘I’ve never worked on myself this deeply because I didn’t trust anybody, but I can do it.’ That day, my heart, my life and my hope were completely transformed.”

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.

PJP uses this byline for our Collections features and other roundups of PJP stories, as well as As Told To stories written by PJP staff. It is intended to signal the institution’s collective editorial voice.