According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 45% of Federal inmates in 2005 had mental health issues. As for state prisons, it was 56%, and in local jails it was 64%. About half of those we incarcerate have mental health issues and that was only in 2005! In classes I’ve taken as a Corrections Officer, I’m told the numbers have only increased! The government is open about their own mismanagement of an epidemic in this country, even after the adoption of “critical intervention training”, or CIT, in the late 1980’s. That’s why in this essay, we are going examine how the government, law enforcement, and the public, treat those who are sick.
The Crime of Instability
Before losing faith in the law enforcement community, I was on a page of corrections officers on Facebook. On the page, there was a video of a girl who was arrested for smoking a cigarette in a public area and not having her service dog on a leash. See below:
When the officers’ body cams come on, they are standing around her door. Officers claim that because she is “suicidal”, she was being strapped to a chair.
The victim is then forced into a restraint chair and strapped down. Officers then hit her with the Taser five times and put a plastic bag, or a spit bag as they called it, over her head while she cried. A girl with an unknown mental disability was strapped to a chair with a plastic bag over her head and electrocuted.
At the time of seeing the video, I was new to the liberty movement. I was expecting an echo chamber, forgetting I still was involved with all these LEO pages. The comments left me shocked and appalled. Things like, “should’ve complied,” and “just do what you’re told, it’s not hard,” littered the comment section. Some even laughed at the girl’s anguish, like it was the punch line of a psychotic joke.
I acknowledge that I live in my own little bubble sometimes so I asked some of my fellow Corrections Officers about mental health. One officer talked about her job at another prison saying, “We have a bunch of people with mental health problems at my facility and you know what we do when they fuck up? We beat the fuck out of them. It’s really fucked up.” How can we as a society be okay with this?
CIT Checks the Box
Society likes to forget about these “nobodies” and “undesirables” because it’s convenient. The government can justify their actions by pointing their finger at a half-ass attempt at making themselves look better called “Crisis Intervention Training,” or CIT.
CIT originated following the 1987 police shooting of Joseph DeWayne Robinson in Memphis, Tennessee. Police responded to a call about a man cutting himself with a knife in the former LeMoyne Gardens housing projects. Officers were aggressive when talking to Robinson. And Robinson, mentally ill, responded by running at them, knife still in his hand. Police shot him to death in front of his mother.
Prior to his death, Robinson had several incidents like this with police. But a particular officer who knew his situation had always talked him down. This officer happened to be on vacation at the time of Robinson’s shooting. When the officer returned to work, he helped developed the CIT program.
CIT is meant to train first responders on how to identify and interact with individuals who are mentally ill. But in many ways it has evolved into a tool to simply reduce government liability; departments and agencies use CIT to ‘check the box’ and say they did something to improve their outcomes with the mentally ill. Unfortunately for those affected by mental illness, the number of people who receive the (poor excuse for) help are few and far between.
In the corrections world in particular, you’re branded a “hugga-thug.” For those who don’t read the instructions on the box, a “hugga-thug” is an Officer who takes the side of a prisoner over his or her partners.
Seeing is Believing
For my particular story, I had been trying to get CIT training for a year. My Captain, who had a grudge against me, refused to put me in the class. I had to threaten the Warden that I was going to take a week off work and seek the training from a different agency. The Warden, fearing I was going to embarrass the department, told me he would talk to the Captain and to wait before making a reactionary decision. The next day the Captain begrudgingly called me to tell me I have been placed in the class. Why should I have to threaten to embarrass my place of business in order to get vital training to deal with mentally ill inmates?
After receiving CIT training, I had a whole new outlook on my population of inmates and staff alike. A lot of our prisoners had serious issues, and society just threw them in a cage and forgot they existed. CIT also gave me some perspective on the staff in my own facility. Some Corrections Officers believe CIT is a magic wand to get inmates to comply via manipulation.
Magic Wand of Manipulation
For example, I was assigned to watch an inmate in the hospital who’d just had a stroke. This particular individual was in prison for sodomizing a child. Instead of having the family shoot him in the street like a dog, the State gave him 20 years. I was told that when I had a problem with him to call a Sergeant (SGT). He got rowdy and yelled for the nurses telling them the officers were raping him. He proceed to attempt to touch them inappropriately or would swing on me.
So, I called a sergeant several times and various ones came to talk to him. They threatened to restrict his already restricted movement. However, there was one who refused to come down because I was CIT certified. He thought I should be able to manipulate him into compliance. A tool we were taught in order to calm down persons having a mental crisis was being thought of as a way to trick people into complying with our will.
Going Through the Motions
Some Officers knew exactly what CIT was: a tool for CYA. They just went through the motions of saying they used CIT before OC spraying an inmate. In Corrections, we have to use CIT before any use of force. One officer in particular told me that he was activated and then told to back off by a SGT 5-minutes later. Guards then proceeded to spray his inmate with OC spray.
The officer yelled at the SGT asking him if he thought 5-minutes was enough time to find out what was wrong with the inmate. The SGT then made it very clear that he didn’t care, that they’re inmates, and they should do what they are told. The inmate the guards sprayed was having a PTSD episode at the time. He was a marine during the initial invasion of Iraq in the second gulf war. Thank you for your service, now get in this cage.
Doesn’t Belong Here
Another inmate we had here was a half-black, white supremacist. He was a former meth addict who was clinically bipolar and was abused as a child. You could tell by one conversation with the guy that he wasn’t right in the head.
About once a month, officers would get ready for an incident with this guy when he became manic. He would pace the hallways muttering to himself about how he was going to beat or kill the chomos (prison slang for child molesters) because he is forced to be in the same room as them.
Do you know why he never ended up doing anything? Do you know why the other officers never had an incident with him? Because I talked to him!
For a while, we saw a school shooting for what seemed like every other week. And every time it happened we acted astonished, asking ‘How could this happen?’ and, ‘Who can we blame?’
Maybe we should take a look at ourselves.
Kids with unknown mental illnesses are sent to class and picked on at school. And when they get home, they’re bullied online. This goes on for years sometimes. If they don’t shoot up their schools or themselves, they go out into the world, where they are disproportionately likely to interact with law enforcement and enter the path of the criminal justice system.
Instead of offering up our thoughts and prayers, maybe it’s time we look to ourselves. Isn’t it time that mental illness stopped being a death sentence?