I was self-introduced to the emperor of Norway while waiting for chow at the California Institution for Men (CIM). CIM is a state prison in Chino, California. At the time, I didn’t know Norway had an emperor. The monarch and I were sitting at a stainless steel chow table when I was so informed. So, what could I say? The sovereign’s resolve about his rank did not welcome a joke or further questioning.
Fifty or more men were waiting for the chow line to form. The guards ordered us to remain silent, but the emperor did not take orders. He shouted his own, demanding all fifty men stand, bow, and pay homage to his royal title. Eyes around me watered with laughter or possibly anger: prisoners don’t normally reveal what they’re feeling. And they don’t demonstrate sensitivity to others’ mental problems. In prison if you have a mental problem, you’re tagged as unreliable. And being unreliable translates to being a weak link , which is dealt with accordingly.
Scores of diagnosable mental health problems go untreated in the California prison system and beyond. I’m not qualified to call out a particular diagnosis, but we know when we encounter a person who has a mental illness. I’ve witnessed men with heavy drug usage histories, particularly methamphetamines, who are confused and express a sense of hopelessness—and their addictions are on hold for the duration of their incarceration.
Mental Health Professionals Are Starting to Get It
The professionals know all about emperors.
Kristen Weir’s article “Life on the Outside” in the December 2015 edition of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology caught my attention. The subtitle hooked my interest: “Psychologists are working to increase and improve the reentry services that can help former inmates face the challenges awaiting them outside prison walls.” The article addresses the reality that going back to the streets can be more frightening than the first day in prison and lists many challenges faced upon reentry, including
- Substance abuse disorders
- Lack of housing
Weir quotes Roger H. Peters, PhD and professor of mental health law and policy at the University of South Florida: “There doesn’t tend to be good handoff for individuals leaving the prison system. Reentry is always going to be a challenge.”
Peters describes how Oregon treats reentry. Six months before an inmate’s release, a detailed plan that includes psychotherapy is developed to increase the chances of success. The article reports that using mental health interventions before release reduced the state’s recidivism rate 32 percent in just five years.
California should get on this model in some form. The mental health issues associated with gun control—finally in the public conversation—are equally as germane as California’s policy of releasing mentally challenged people, untreated substance abusers, the homeless, and unemployed people back into society. In California, prisoners being discharged receive $200.00 cash—that’s it. Really? Yes, really.
It’s not magical thinking that all states should follow in the steps of Oregon. There are opportunities for alleviating the trauma associated with reentry. Combining clinicians, researchers, cultural anthropologists, and other professionals, programs geared toward improving the odds for reentry—even the emperor’s—are bound to ease the pain and reduce recidivism.