Our Prison Is Used to Mental Illness. Taking Care of Our Own Was New.

    In 20 years of incarceration across four different Washington State Department of Corrections (WDOC) facilities, I don’t remember seeing someone talk to the voices in their head until 2023, when John* arrived at Washington Corrections Center.

    Carceral systems around the country warehouse some of the most vulnerable members of society, in high-stress environments that take a toll on all of us, even if we entered the system in good health. WDOC is no exception; mental and behavioral illness is common here. What’s not common is for the symptoms to be as visible as John’s.

    WDOC prisoners who experience hallucinations or delusions generally spend their sentence too groggy from daily antipsychotics to express much psychotic behavior. Most antipsychotics are heavily sedating, especially at higher doses. Their function can be carceral just as much as medical—in the free world as well as in prisons.

    Any sedatives can be appealing to prisoners looking for a way to pass the time, whether or not they have any symptoms to manage. But the immense stigma surrounding psychiatric illness and medication can also keep people from going near them at all. Whether or not John was interested in medication, he wasn’t the first person to not take it every day. But he was expressive and animated in a way we weren’t used to.

    He’d walk up and down the halls doing karate kicks and talking to people the rest of us couldn’t see. His behavior was so out of place here that at first we assumed he was putting on a show. Prison often makes people adopt a persona of one kind or another because they think it will protect them; sometimes it does. But within a few days it was clear that John was just being John.

    He could have been an easy target, but the long-time residents didn’t treat him that way. The younger or newer ones followed their lead. Over the next few weeks, our living unit cultivated the sort of mutual aid that’s rare in prison, but that I’ve seen happen a few times over the years.

    People bought him food and coffee and toothpaste. They made sure he turned in his laundry on time.

    At first, John wasn’t getting regular meals. When staff announces mainline over the intercom, you have 10 minutes to report to the dining hall or you don’t eat. John wouldn’t hear the announcements, either because of the voices in his head or because he was asleep. A few people around the living unit made sure that he had something to eat when he wanted to; then a few more caught on.

    People started taking turns. Someone would be at the microwave and see John talking to himself while he paced up and down the hall, and wave him over to get a plate. It was striking how easily he fit in and how comfortable everyone seemed, considering how little experience any of us had.

    Of course, not everyone was kind. Someone would see John practicing his martial arts in the hall and tell him that people down in the day room were talking about him, so he should go use those kicks to put them in their place. But for the most part, people respected the small community that sprung up around him. We live in close quarters here; people know how to read the room.

    If someone tried to tamp down his behavior, it was usually to help him avoid an infraction. WDOC has been moving away from use of solitary confinement, but there’s only so much acting out a prisoner can do before they’re dragged off to the hole. Mental health doesn’t tend to improve while there. So when John was making a lot of noise late at night, someone would casually usher him over and explain the situation. Hey, come hang over here for a while; otherwise the guards are gonna get mad.

    People used their own commissary money to buy him food and coffee. They bought him soap and a toothbrush and toothpaste. They made sure he turned in his laundry on time. None of this came with with strings attached—prisoners just looked out for him because no one else was.

    Guards mostly just watched and did nothing, unless medical called down.

    Guards didn’t seem sure what to make of him. They’d sometimes smirk and make little jokes at his expense, but for the most part they just watched and did nothing.

    A few times, medical called down to tell the guards that John was supposed to be taking medication, and so the guards would go tell him he was supposed to be taking medication. Then he’d disappear into his cell and sleep for 24 hours, and then he’d be back to normal.

    It was never clear what if anything had changed about how Washington Corrections Center handled certain psychiatric needs. WDOC directed Filter to the department’s screening and assessment policy, which requires all prisoners to get a mental health screening within a day of arrival. Someone with John’s symptoms would have been required to get a more comprehensive assessment within two weeks.

    Less than a month after he arrived, John was transferred to an ICE detention facility, and from there deported into Mexico. Coincidentally, someone else with many of the same symptoms and mannerisms transferred in shortly after. The prison probably isn’t any better equipped to provide for him than it was for John. But the community it houses knows a little more about how to care for our own.


    *Name has been changed

    Image via National Institutes of Health

    • Christopher is serving a 45-year sentence in Washington state, where he works to pass prison policy and sentencing reform. He cofounded Look 2 Justice, a grassroots organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities. His writing has been published by the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Huffington Post and many others.

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