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The New Bedlam

by W. Wisely

Gary Hahn walks his dog, tugging at the leash, back and forth on the hardpan track at Lancaster prison's maximum security D Facility in California. Right arm folded, fist crammed into the small of his back, Gary walks bent over, his curved spine and emaciated frame belying the muscular build of just a decade before. Eyes bloodshot, pupils pinned, they dart wildly back and forth beneath an angry tangle of graying hair. Gary raises a small commotion among other prisoners as he shuffles by, talking nonstop to his little dog. They snicker, point, and make faces behind his back. That's because there's really no dog, no leash. Gary is psychotic.

Every morning, Gary gets out of bed and frenziedly beats his abdomen trying to kill the evil pig living beneath. He carries all of his important paperwork stuffed into the waistband of his jeans. Sometimes Gary forgets to shower. For weeks. When he leaves the dining table, he might suddenly spin about, walk back and rap his knuckles on the table three times, before making an exit. Gary carries on a rapid conversation as he walks, cursing loudly, sometimes spitting. He's talking to people only he can see. Gary is just one of an estimated 3,200 mentally ill people in California prisons. And they're driving the other 157,000 prisoners crazy.

The Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco think tank, reported in 1996 that arresting, prosecuting, defending, jailing, imprisoning, and treating the mentally ill costs taxpayers between $1.2 and $1.8 billion a year. "Mentally ill inmates are not like typical prisoners. They are very labor-intensive," said Christine Ferry, director of mental health services at the Santa Clara County Department of Corrections, in the San Jose Mercury News. In prison, the insane are heavily sedated. Pschiatric medications are used not to cure or treat mental illness, but to make disturbed prisoners easier to manage.

In a classic example of ideology over good sense, former Governor Ronald Reagan cut the budget for state mental hospitals in half, forcing thousands of mentally ill people onto the streets. There they became victims of violent crime, drug addicts, alcoholics, and criminals themselves. The number of mentally ill people in jail, prison, or on some form of supervised release from custody, dramatically increased as a result of Reagan's budget cuts. Rather than costing the public some $17,000 to $20,000 annually to treat in a psychiatric hospital, the mentally ill may cost $50,000 a year to keep in the prison environment where their problems are largely ignored and often increased, and their impact on the health of other prisoners is decidedly negative.

The Department of Corrections diverted funds for the treatment of mental illness to cover ever increasing salaries for prison guards. In prison and jail, the mentally ill are often victimized both by other prisoners and staff either maliciously or for entertainment. Some insane prisoners are extremely violent, assaulting or stabbing prisoners and staff alike. Just being locked up in the same dorm, or same cell, with someone suffering from mental illness heaps added stress on the already full plates of prisoners without emotional problems. For those not afflicted with psychiatric problems, life in prison is enough in itself to wear away at their mental health.

Tank fills his days begging for coffee, cigarette papers, tobacco, and the use of a lighter. He gets out of bed in the morning, rolls a cigarette out of toilet paper, eats breakfast, and crawls back on his bunk to sleep. After three years in prison, he has no toothpaste, soap, or shampoo. Tank can fit all his wordly possessions in a state lunch sack. Though family members live nearby, he doesn't get visits.

Tank has lived in every building on the yard. He spends an average of three to five weeks in one cell before his new cellie throws him out. He's indifferent about washing his hands, cleaning up after himself, or washing his clothes. Tank tries to get moved in with prisoners who have their own televisions or radios. He'll lay on his bunk watching television until three in the morning, it doesn't matter what's on. He never reads, has no goals, plans, hopes, or hustle. Although he's attempted suicide twice, is clinically depressed, in addition to the other mental health problems, Tank receives no treatment or pyschiatric medication. Nor do the cellies he leaves in his wake with a bit more frustration, a bit more stress, and a little closer to their own mental point of no return.

I spent five weeks with Tank as my cellie. Every day, I felt myself slipping a bit deeper into depression just being around him. I couldn't turn the light on because he slept most of the day. He kept me awake watching my television because he didn't own an earphone. I'd come back after visiting all day to find him still lying on his bunk, dirt and food scraps on the floor, staring blankly at the ceiling. A sergeant asked me to let Tank stay in my cell "just for a few days until we find another place." His last cellie threw him out on the tier and refused to let him back into the cell. The few days turned into weeks. The housing unit guards wouldn't move Tank unless I found him a place to go. Since no one wanted him, that was impossible. I couldn't concentrate to write. I began to think of nothing other than getting rid of him.

Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who's interviewed prisoners in segregated housing in several states, including California, said in Lockdown America, a book by Christian Parenti, "The psychotic inmates are unequivocably the most disturbed people I've ever seen. They scream and throw feces all over their cells. In a mental hospital you'd never see anything like that! Patients would be sedated or stabilized on drugs. Their psychosis would be interrupted." With little or no meaningful health care, the mentally ill free-fall in an ever increasing maelstrom of madness. For those prisoners forced to live with and around the insane, the damage to their mental health seems inevitable especially given the absence of coping skills.

The majority of people in prison have histories of drug and alcohol use. Many are victims of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. They don't enter the system with highly developed coping mechanisms, and they have little opportunity to develop any inside. Prisoners don't have the luxury of getting away from stress, of simply being alone to reflect and to think. Systems which give great consolation and hope to people outside, such as Yoga or Bhuddism, depend in large part on the ability to be alone for uninterrupted meditation and reflection. But, in the New Bedlam, prisoners are never alone. Not when they shower, sleep, or defecate. Someone is always watching. The constant bombardment of unrelenting stress takes its toll like a flurry of well placed punches on a tired boxer's head. As the Three Strikers and other lifers grow old in the political climate of no parole, the line of prisoners at the clinic window getting their Skittles will keep getting longer and longer.

"After about 15 years, prisoners suffer irreversible mental health damage from being in prison," said Dr. Anderson, a psychologist at Lancaster prison. Dr. Anderson pointed out that California prisons, in the post-rehabilitation age, are bleak, harsh, dangerously boring human warehouses. Add to all the usual worries and stress prisoners must face the apparently impossible task of staying sane and you merely shorten the journey to emotional meltdown. At Lancaster, there's a line of several hundred prisoners at the clinic window every evening. They're getting Skittles, psychiatric medication so-named because of all the pretty colors and shapes.

Bob, not his real name, looked like an ordinary citizen when he walked into the eight-man cell at Orange County jail. Well groomed, clean, wearing new eyeglasses and arrested for unpaid traffic tickets, he should've spent a few short hours in lock-up. He talked to the other men in the cell, moved to the front of the cell and watched the sunset through the narrow Plexiglas slits in the concrete outer wall. After several minutes, Bob gripped the cell bars tightly, his knuckles popped and sweat rolled down his face.

Bob shook the bars so hard it sounded like rumbling thunder. Then he threw his head back and let out a piercing wail that chilled the spines of hardened convicts nearby. It took six men to pry his hands from the bars. Guards strapped him into a gurney and carted him to the rubber room, a padded cell in the jail's clinic area with a small hole on the floor for a toilet. There, he was stripped naked, strapped into a straight jacket, injected with Thorazine, and left drooling on the floor. Something along the process of being arrested, booked into the county jail, and housed in a cell was the last straw for Bob.

How long can a man, woman, or child maintain their own mental health when they live in an insane environment, surrounded by unbalanced people on both sides of the fence? "It disturbs me when I see someone I've known years ago, and now he's crazy," said James Christie, a 30 year-old prisoner at Corcoran. "I could choose to let go, to let prison, the guards, and life push me over the brink. But, I hang on, find ways to cope." Christie said guards and other prison staff are supposed to watch for, and report, warning signs of mental breakdown in prisoners. "But, they usually don't. More often, they provoke mentally ill prisoners for fun," he said.

"There was this one black guy in Corcoran SHU. He was on serious hot meds [psychiatric medication]. He tried to cut his dick off once. He shouted the menu out through his cell door every day," said Christie. "The guards would rack his cell door open and shut--bam, bam, bam--to set him off. At night, they'd shine flashlights from the control tower into the his cell until he started to bang his head against the wall and howl like a wounded animal." Segregated housing units--administrative segregation and Security Housing Units--are filled with mentally ill prisoners. Tortured, alone, suicidal and violent. Guards often mix the dangerously insane prisoners in with prisoner activists, writ-writers, or others they don't like.

Insane prisoners are tools, torture devices, used to either drive otherwise normal prisoners over the edge or spark a struggle. It's a win-win situation for the guards. Either the mentally ill prisoner drives his cellie crazy, or provokes him to fight, thereby giving the guards an excuse to shoot their target. Sometimes the sane prisoner beats his demented cellmate, throws him out on the tier, and then gets a serious rule infraction. The mentally ill prisoners used in this game are seldom punished. Somehow, they sense they're free to act out with impunity.

"My name is Sin. I was put on earth to take on the sin for Mankind. I hold the key between this world and the other. Do you want me to unlock the door for you?" said the six foot, seven inch, gangly wraith standing in the center of my new cell in New Folsom's administrative segregation unit. Another jailhouse lawyer sent to the hole on drug charges, I knew what time it was. Sin was moved from cell to cell, section to section, and building to building in segregation. He was in the hole for a fight. When a guard saw the disturbance, hit his alarm, and ordered him to get down at gunpoint, Sin yelled, "Fuck you coward! You can't kill me! Shoot punk!"

The guard fired two shots from the military assault rifle. With every other prisoner lying face down on the yard, Sin stood, unscathed. Sin fought with every cellie he had. Officially, violent, disturbed prisoners are supposed to be on single-cell status. Unofficially, New Folsom guards knew exactly what they were doing. They wanted to provoke a fight, giving them an excuse to either shoot me or write me up for fighting. They refused to move either of us unless there was an incident, making the end inevitable.

Sin had nightmares. The ghosts of his father and uncle sexually assaulted him in his sleep. He sprang from his unmade bunk in the middle of the night swung his arms wildly, yelled, and spit at thin air. The staff, guards, counselor, medical assistants, knew Sin was gravely mentally ill. A danger to himself and others. Sin told me he belonged to the FFA, Fist Fuckers of America. He described how members competed to see how many inches up their rectum they could take a greased arm.

After three days without violence, a guard told Sin I killed his mother as we were released to the small, concrete segregation yard. The fight was brief. A rookie gunner yelled a warning before firing. Sin was moved. Off to another cell, another prisoner chosen for special treatment, perhaps execution. "To get through the door to the other side," Sin confided, "you've got to die in this world."

The average person in prison, like the average person outside, never notices that many of their neighbors are insane. In prison, crazy people often look like just another convict. They have prison tattoos, smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, and drink instant coffee. They might make pruno, home-made wine, or chase drugs on the yard. The insane learn to mask their symptoms from the casual attention of others. But, in the relative safety of their own cells, the mask slips. It's in the close, unforgiving, confines of those concrete coffins that exposure to the mentally ill is most likely to adversely impact their cellmates.

Prisoners housed in maximum security facilities in California are in a constant state of movement from cell to cell, section to section, yard to yard, and prison to prison. Part of this movement is the department strategy to "keep the cons from getting comfortable," according to a Captain at Corcoran prison who declined to be identified. But, a big percentage of the moves are caused when normal prisoners simply can't put up with their mentally ill cellies any longer.

Diagnosed with psychosis, paranoia, and impulse control problems, James "Tank" Clem has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals since age 15. Living under bridges, in cardboard boxes, and abandoned cars outside, he used cocaine, heroin, and drank heavily. But, when he began to binge on crank, his mental illness became more pronounced. In a paranoid state, he shot and killed a fellow crankster after a night of slamming speed. Leaving a young wife and infant son to fend for themselves on the streets, Tank is serving 45 years to life for first degree murder at Corcoran prison.

He sometimes "naps" for 18 hours. An epileptic who suffers from frequent gran mal seizures, he regularly fails to wake up to get his medication. He knows when the seizure comes, he'll get a shot of Valium.

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