The Tightrope of Talking About Mental Health in Prison

January 16, 2024

Dan*, a 40-something prisoner in Tennessee’s South Central Correctional Facility (SCCF), wants to make it clear that he doesn’t intend to kill himself.

“I’ve overdosed a few times. Not to kill myself, but to stop the sadness. They zapped me with Narcan and I sprang back up,” Dan told Filter. “Another time I just started cutting my arms with a razor. Not deep, but … the guard walked by and she freaked out, and they put me on [suicide] watch for six days.”

Like many prisoners, Dan is wary of using any mental health language that could be interpreted as a plan to harm himself or others, and prompt staff to take him to the suicide observation units. It’s happened to him many times, most recently in late 2023.

“This last time, I was talking to a teacher [and] I guess somewhere in the conversation I said something about just wanting to stop all the pain I felt inside,” Dan said. “A few hours later, the police were at my door.”

The nationwide understaffing crisis in state prison systems means there’s always a shortage of mental health staff, but that’s not the only problem. Because of the constant turnover, the staff who do show up are always new. When every day there seems to be a different guard, none of them ever get to know us as people rather than just prisoners. They decide who’s in crisis and who isn’t without knowing what “normal” looks like for any of us to begin with.

“Cutting helps,” Dan said. “I’m just going to be more private.”

“A captain knocked on my cell door around 2 am and yelled, ‘Cooper, your mom died. Call home in the morning.'”

“I’ve been on suicide watch six times, so I ‘failed’ a lot,” Ray*, in his late 30s, told Filter. His eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep; his lips are chapped and cracked. “This is not living. And then what? If I get out, what do I got then?”

Many prisoners are in mental health crisis might desperately want to talk to someone, but have no idea which staff are safe to talk to, if any of them are at all. Often staff are callous and dismissive, as if the fact that we live in cages relieves them of the obligation to treat us as humans.

“[A graveyard] shift captain knocked on my cell door around 2 am and yelled, ‘Cooper, your mom died. Call home in the morning,’” recalled Cooper, who’s been incarcerated for the past 15 years.

Cooper’s grief and anger might have consumed him, but for the friends he’d made at book club. They closed ranks around him, a soothing cocoon against the pain. They then organized a wake for his mother, right there in the living unit.

“I think I would have killed myself without them.”

The high barriers to getting housed in this kind of unit means it almost automatically excludes those with the greatest need.

Often, prison community-building is precluded by chaos and violence. Constant fighting does not encourage you to venture out into common areas, or strike up conversation with neighbors you don’t know. After seeing the terror in the eyes of someone being stabbed with a prison shank, it’s natural to withdraw and isolate. Your community is just your cellie, so you hope you get one you can relate to.

I’ve been incarcerated at SCCF for about nine years. About eight years ago, administrators here created an Incentive Pod—effectively an “honors” living unit. They took 128 of us with steady jobs and no disciplinary incidents within the past five years, and housed everyone together.

While the unit has naturally evolved a bit over the years, there’s little turnover. People have lived here long enough to get to know each other, and to appreciate the community we’ve build and want to protect it. With less daily chaos, there’s room for relationships to form and communities to grow.

We consider ourselves fortunate to be here, relative to the other units and other facilities where we know we could be instead. But the high barriers to getting housed in this kind of unit means it almost automatically excludes anyone not considered a model prisoner, AKA many of the same people with the greatest need for peer communities where they can talk about stress and mental health.

“I’m never getting out, so this is all I have,” Lonnie, incarcerated for the past six years, told Filter. “Many friends … who have gotten out stay in contact with me. They write letters, remember my birthday and holidays. I even call a few of them. There is a brotherhood of shared experiences … a bond that cannot be made with people who have not been to prison.”

Many of us here are older. I call it the “wheelchair, walker and cane” unit.

The revolving door of prison staff may not have the time to build relationships, but we do. Cooper, Lonnie, myself and so many others are serving what Tennessee calls life “with parole.” In this state, that sentence means you must serve 51 years in prison before you’re eligible for your first parole hearing.

The Incentive Unit being reserved for prisoners without any recent violence on their records, many of us here are older. I call it the “wheelchair, walker and cane” unit.

After nearly three decades living in prison, among so many people who are dying in prison—whether hastened by terminal illness or at the slower pace of the natural aging process—my once-grandiose concept of death has changed. I used to envision myself surrounded by all the people I love, come to comfort me and ease my fears. Now, I just pray that someone—anyone—will be around to help with the basics of physical functioning, that I may not have to live out my final days in the cold solitude of the medical wing.

This requires emotional investment in building community with those around me; more than just chatting about the weather. Developing real, abiding friendships calls for making myself vulnerable, sharing my fears and hopes and disappointments and joys. Walking the tightrope of talking about mental health among trusted friends, without talking too long or too loud.

When I was younger, I wanted to organize around more radical ideas. Better food. Better conditions. I’d soon find myself in solitary, or on the bus shipping out to a new facility; by the time I landed at SCCF, I’d already been in eight other prisons. When I got here I decided to try community-building focused on our immediate surroundings rather than systemic change. It’s kept me safer, but it’s also led to small but meaningful improvements. We’ve been able to cultivate relatively mild-mannered pastimes without interference from staff. I’ll have left something behind after I’m gone.



Photograph via Georgia Department of Corrections

* Names changed to protect sources.

Tony Vick

Tony has served almost three decades of a life with parole sentence in Tennessee. Before prison he lived as a closeted gay man; his Southern Baptist parents and an older brother have since died. While incarcerated he has worked as a tutor, clerk and newspaper editor. He's also begun book clubs and writing workshops, and prisoner-led elder care programs. He writes about captivity in the hope of contributing to the prison reform movement.  

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