Monday, September 26, 2011

Prisons and the mentally ill

About the only people who are happy that their loved ones are in prison are those of us who have a family member who is mentally ill.  In the 1980s, state hospitals pretty much closed, and with so many mentally ill people put out on the street, it's usually only a matter of time before they break the law and end up in prison.

From the perspective of the family, knowing where our loved one is comes as a relief.  Without treatment we are left to he on the streets?  Being taken advantage of?  Taking his medication?  Hurting anyone?  Dead?   Prison means we don't have to wonder what is happening.

Even if a family wants to civilly commit a mentally ill family member for his own safety, it is nearly impossible in Washington state.  The authorities won't even arrest them because they "might hurt someone"... the standard of proof is that they must be literally in the act when the police respond to an incident.  Prison, where medications can be obtained and are mandatory, where there are suicide cells for people to go to when the self harming urges are just too much and where there is a quality of life in a structured environment, can be a blessing.  It is very structured; it is not exactly a stress free life, but compared to a life on the streets with an untreated mental illness, it is better.  So, for some  families, prison is a respite for our loved ones and a relief  for us.

At a recent behavioral health conference in Washington State,  the Dept. of Corrections (DOC) gave several major presentations.  The fact that DOC is the largest provider of mental health (MH) services in the state came as a shock to most attendees.

Now, the possibility of just tossing the mentally ill into segregation or suicide watch cells, and "forgetting" about them is a big problem in a lot of prison systems, especially if there isn't a family to keep watch over things.  For the most part, the MH treatment in Washington's prisons is better than most, given the system and budget.  I speak from experience as Greg has a mental illness and is currently housed at a special facility for the WA DOC's most mentally ill.  Several of the prisons here have mental health sections, but SOU is where the men with the most difficult cases are housed..  In a system with 18,483 inmates,  SOU has 400 beds.

Due to the salaries of psychologists, counselors, nurses, and other medical staff, and a better ratio of corrections officers to inmates, the COI (cost of incarceration) at SOU is significantly higher than for a prisoner in the general population.  The COI of an inmate in the general prison population in Washington state is about $30,000 per year, and the COI for a standard bed at SOU is about $60,000 per year.  As stated in an excellent article in the Everett Herald Newspaper,  the close security section of SOU called "the Core", has a COI of about $102,000 per man, per year.

Greg spent a year in the "Core", and now has moved to a medium security section; today his COI is significantly less.  Yes, he is in prison but his placement at SOU is a big investment in his mental health treatment, and I'm very grateful for it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

He's in prison? Now what?

The incarceration of a loved one often forces family and friends into a reality that is unfamiliar, intimidating and frightening - the bureaucracy of the Washington State Department of Corrections. This blog is my platform for sharing what I learn as I navigate within the WA DOC.   Over the last two years, I have become familiar with it's organization, policies, customs and challenges and used this information to improve the quality of life of my loved one and others.

As an advocate for prisoners, their families and friends, I believe that working together for the common good is the best way to gain a better quality of life for the individual.  With a sense of solidarity and loyalty, we can join our personal experiences with the lessons learned by others similarly situation for the betterment of all.

The Players: families, prisoners, advocates, DOC officials

Families experience prison, once removed.  We are not in prison, but everything about our relationship with our imprisoned loved one is affected by WA DOC. Former strong networks, support systems, income levels, mental health... can all completely change overnight.  Most people can't comprehend the pain, shame and shock of having a loved one in prison. Friends, however well intentioned, can not or will not walk this difficult path with you. Employment vanishes as employers question your association with a convicted criminal.   Depression, denial and hopelessness overtake happiness and productivity.  That's where connection with other prisoners' families comes in.  We support each other, we inform each other, we work together to survive challenges, celebrate small joys and to just get through another day.  From our unity, we find the information and strength to make things a little better.

Prisoners bring experience and knowledge into the mix when working for positive change.  What is is that they actually need or want?  How are they dealing with things now?  How can choices we make result in retaliation against them?  My loved one, I'll call him Greg to protect the not-so-innocent, has been incarcerated over a decade and he is a valuable resource when I try to help another family explore ways to solve challenges they are having with DOC.

Organizations: Social justice groups, human rights organizations, law firms and nonprofit advocacy groups are great places to find information, help and also offer opportunities for building new social networks.  Shared purpose is a great foundation for making new friends.

Prison Employees are usually professional and well trained.  The new age of corrections focuses in writing and following policies designed to further the penalogical objectives of the prison system, which include deterrence of crime, rehabilitation of prisoners, and institutional security.  That said, there is variation in the way policies are interpreted and implemented, often times varying widely from facility to facility, officer to officer.

As I interact with WA DOC employees, my greatest tool is the WA DOC Website, where copies of all DOC policies can be downloaded.  It is surprising how many people are unaware that families have access to the same policies as employees and how stressfree interactions are when everyone is following the same guidelines.  My advice....Families: "Know the rules and follow them" and it's counter part,  Corrections Officials: "Know the rules and don't make them up because we know the rules"

One of the best resources for how to make changes in the system are professional, astute and compassionate COs (correctional officers).  They know what goes on, they know how families are struggling with the challenges and they agree that many things can be changed to ease our difficulties and not compromise any of the objectives of the institution.  They know how the system works and get us on the right track, and if the policy allows it, even fast track our efforts.


Moving forward, here is a bit of background about what influenced me as I decided the title of this blog. 

All for One, One for All is a phrase introduced in Switzerland in the fall of 1868 after a series of floods devastated the young country.  Officials began using this motto to evoke a sense of duty, solidarity and national unity in it's citizenry, making solidarity a central theme of Swiss identity today.

All for One, and One for All is also traditionally associated with the heroes of the novel The Three Musketeers.  In the novel, it was the motto of a group of French musketeers who stayed loyal to each other through thick and thin.

I hope you enjoy my blog.  I look forward to posting about organizing families, understanding WA DOC and working for positive change in Washington State prisons.