Monday, December 13, 2004

Mental Illness, Prison, and the Folly of it all


Jesse McCann was a baby-faced teenager of 17 the day he hanged himself in a New York State prison. The letters he had written to family and friends in the final weeks of his young life were not at all what one would expect of a person about to take his own life. In a letter dated March 16, 2001 - the final day of his life - he wrote passionately about wanting to pursue a degree in paralegal studies while in prison so that he could make a difference for young people in trouble. He asked his Uncle Dennis for a shipment of coffee - and talked about Twizzlers, one of his favorite candies. He signed the letter, "Love you, Jesse," and added a smiley face to the salutation.

This optimistic tone probably came from the medication he was taking...

The mood on display in this last letter, however, was not destined to last. According to official accounts, Jesse was being escorted to the mental health unit for his medication when he lost control - as inmates with mental problems often do - and began shouting obscenities. Predictably, a corrections officer tried to quiet him. Just as predictably, Jesse exploded. He struck the officer and was placed in the disciplinary housing unit, where unruly prisoners can be shut up for 23 hours each day.

Isolation, a hardship for even healthy inmates, is often catastrophic for those with mental problems. Their symptoms get worse and they often end up trying to harm themselves. Studies show, for example, that mentally ill inmates who are placed in isolation are far more likely to attempt suicide. The prospect of being isolated as a result of the latest outburst was apparently too much for Jesse. Shortly after being placed in the cell, he tied one end of a sheet to the window, the other to his neck and hanged himself...

Jesse was not innocent when it came to breaking the law, but his case fits this category, too. He was arrested and confined to a county jail for a nonviolent offense. While there, he succumbed to hysteria and was charged with assaulting a corrections officer, which is a felony. The offense seems to have drawn him special attention from corrections officers, who make it their business to keep close tabs on inmates charged with assaulting one of their own. Isolated and under more pressure than ever, Jesse McCann ended his life.

I have heard simplistic conservative advocacies for legal sanctions for various behaviors, wherein these advocates of "freedom" (who don't get the irony) insist that sanctioning some behaviors will lead to less of them.

But the fact is there's all these Jesse McCanns who blow to smithereens the premise of these conservative arguments, that people can rely on their reason.

Yet, if reason tell us to rely on our experience, how come conservatives don't realize that in actual practice, not simply in appeals to existential freedom, this doesn't work?

We imprison people for the public's safety, first and foremost. If we can work with the incarcerated to correct their behavior, this is good, and humane.

But assuming that the incarcerated are simply rational robots is as absurd as thinking their jailers are.

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