"Rather than continue to stigmatize individuals attempting to rebuild our lives, maybe we should stigmatize those who choose not to help individuals with re-entry."
I’m with M.H. (short for Mental Health or Marilyn H)
Every year, I hear about a new task force, a new piece of legislation, or a new initiative designed to decrease the incarceration of people of color with disabilities and mental illness. It’s exhausting. So little funding for services, so many gaps in providing quality care, burnout everywhere, and the repeated calls and emails to fill out witness slips, provide testimony and attend webinars. But one day, I woke up and had had enough. I stopped tugging and dropped the rope long enough to know what we’re in the struggle for – quality healthcare at every level of society, including the criminal court system.
I was listening to the radio when a pop music DJ reported that Marilyn H (70 years old) was allowed to plead guilty of criminal trespassing for attempting to board US flights repeatedly. She received a 3-year prison sentence for what all parties involved acknowledged is a mental health diagnosis. The radio DJ said she “deserved” it because she had been given so many chances. Is this what the general public thinks? Her crime was being so mentally ill that she had a psychological compulsion to do what? Board flights without purchasing a ticket, without having proper identification, or having any rational plan for her behavior. We couldn’t treat her psychiatric disability so we put her in prison. She wasn’t given second chances—we were and we failed. How can we think she is rational enough and mentally fit enough to plead guilty to a crime, but at the same time feel that repeatedly trying to board flights without any planning, a behavior that a rational person knows would put her in jail, is indicative of a mind of mental fitness and health, necessary for a guilty plea? Marilyn could be any of us. Is she a criminal or a patient?
The details of my experience are useful but not as important as the lessons learned from them. What’s important is that incarceration in so many people’s precious lives would not have happened if there was access to quality healthcare, quality support, and social services.
You find yourself behind bars with a woman charged with battery who has schizophrenia. How did I get here? For some reason, she was taken off her medication in jail. She was not only hearing voices but listening to them and would look at me strangely and then talk to her voices or hit the walls. The guards came by our cell every 15 minutes. It was there that I became a mental health professional. Even though I was in the midst of my own mental health crisis, my survival instincts kicked in, and I de-escalated a woman in grave need of healthcare to the point where she ordered me food on commissary and asked me to be her friend. She started off hitting the brick walls with an open fist but by the time I left her because my case was over, she gave me a hug and told me she needed help. I needed healthcare too. When I left the system, I became a recovery support specialist using my experience and training to help others.
Re-entry vs. No Entry
After the initial trauma of incarceration is over, the re-entry pains begin. We find out that the majority of opportunities in life – housing, jobs, education – are suddenly “no entry” to a person with a criminal record. It is legal to be banned from these basic life necessities with no pathway to entry. Much of re-entry depends upon the goodwill of others rather than civic and legal mandate. How can we deny work opportunities to people trying to survive and support their families? The “no entry” standard must be stopped as a human rights violation. Re-entry pathways should be legally mandated and not just for “second chances,” especially with disability-related, substance use and mental health convictions. A mental health disability is not
a mistake. It is a chronic medical condition that we will have for the rest of our lives. There should be re-entry pathways for all people of all backgrounds to restore their lives.
It was actually a re-entry support group that said “you shouldn’t be applying for a job less than 3 years from your incarceration date. That’s your problem.” Someone intervened and countered “If God wants this for you, you’ll get that job.” Mixed messages. Where’s the hope when you’re still imprisoned on the outside? “They had to make an exception to hire you.” Too often, we’re exceptions, favors, second chances, or risky. “You’re going to have to get fingerprinted and do a background check.” The therapist and psychiatric nurse were called off-hours to provide some assistance. “I think this is a panic attack.” We rarely directly talk about it, but re-entry causes psychiatric symptoms, stress, and physical ailments. Memories of the incarceration, the closed doors of re-entry, the fear in their eyes, the questions about your character, their safety, and your integrity are like two heavy stones on your shoulders. “Now they’re doing background checks on dating sites too.” More messages of exclusion and you’re always out. You want an opportunity and you’re qualified, but your disability is a liability because it became a crime. Then your HR department switched systems and ran another background check and it happened again. “Can you confirm this negative information is correct?” Your criminal record is a permanent punishment, as they call it. Trauma bombing. A cycle hard to escape.
Trauma Bombing is the Norm
Post-incarceration is a series of traumatic experiences. No one prepares you for this. Re-entry involves self-disclosure and rejection in the form of trauma bombs. Trauma bombs are typically hidden forms of emotional triggering due to your criminal record such as rejection, criticism, judgment, and bad memory detonators that are located everywhere in society, ready to go off at any expected or unexpected time. When you have a disability, the re-entry trauma bombing can be devastating. Soon, you learn to expect trauma. If you’re lucky, you build up a resistance, and you’re no longer triggered as much. However, every door that’s shut and every realization of an opportunity that is a criminal background check away is another trauma bomb potential. Trauma bombing is normalized and accepted and part of your punishment. It’s a mental health problem and permanent until we detonate the bombs and end permanent punishments with pathways for restorative rights for disability-related records.
You don’t tell everyone you know about your experience. Some don’t understand, others would rather not know. A part of me cried silently, because once I too could say “I’ve never been to jail,” but I don’t have that privilege anymore. Yes, it’s a privilege. And sometimes, I'm forced to not only to say it, but to explain it. I’ve decided to use the explanation as an opportunity to educate. And I also use it as an opportunity to empathize with others. I was born with an illness that, left untreated, causes irrational behaviors that can be criminalized and nothing I do, other than faithfully and adequately monitor and treat it for the rest of my life, can keep me free. Be grateful society does not incarcerate you based on your disability like Marilyn H or the rest of us. You are fortunate.
Reverse the Stigma
Instead of continuing to try to eliminate the stigma, we might have more success at simply reversing it. Rather than continue to stigmatize individuals attempting to rebuild our lives, maybe we should stigmatize those who choose not to help individuals with re-entry. Eliminating the stigma of incarceration and disability hasn’t worked. Maybe we should try something else.
There’s a continuum of re-entry attitudes. Some will judge you negatively for having a criminal record (i.e., “you’re a felon.”) The case is black and white. It’s generally a yes or no question. Have you been to jail or not? That tells a person all they need to know. Then on the opposite end of the continuum, others hate the criminal legal system and want to know how they can help. Much needed allies.
We’re not allowed to be angry or frustrated or disappointed. It seems that we have to let others do that for us. We don’t wish these conditions on anyone, but I honestly think that if the people operating the criminal court system had to undergo a program in which they could experience what this is like and how awful and unjust it is to have a criminal record simply because you couldn’t properly treat your medical condition, the whole system and world would change. We would allow for more healthcare, compassion and justice.
For a time, you will blame yourself, but when you finally wake up, you’ll know the truth. Incarceration is a social failure. You can still take responsibility for your life while understanding that we all need help, some of us more than others. So, I woke up and realized that life isn’t fair and if you don’t believe it, take a look at the criminal court system for people with mental illness. Even after officers received years of crisis intervention training, a suicide hotline call to police still landed 6 uniformed officers in my living room. Why does this keep happening? Reverse the stigma.