Why Treatment for Mental Illness Should be a Key Part of Prisoner Rehabilitation
By Ryan Moser — FROM THE INSIDE
I once met the most interesting man in the world. He wasn’t an adman for Dos Equis, or a retired travelogue writer. I didn’t meet him on a Parisian vacation or in an Ivy League university quad, dropping notes on quantum physics as he hurried to his lab. No, this six-foot-nine gentle giant from Ireland was my bunkmate in a state correctional institution, and I believe that he may have lived the lives of a thousand men.
Big Irish wasn’t very talkative when we first shook hands — it took some time for the reticent ex-professional basketball player to warm up to me. But eventually we started to do what bunkmates in prison do: talk about ourselves, share pictures from home, and tell war stories about the streets we grew up on. We would sit on the end of his rack looking at his prized photographs, the family man with seven kids proudly pointing to his clan. He was in his late fifties and serving a short sentence for possession of an unregistered firearm, and the older man’s face beamed when he talked about his high-school sweetheart, holding down the fort until he returned — lesson learned.
At first I didn’t have much faith in Big Irish’s wild tales of traveling the planet or his epic occupations: sous-chef for Wolfgang Puck in Sin City; guitar tech for the Grateful Dead; IRA negotiator; casting agent for Paramount; survival guide in Zimbabwe. I thought his stories were unbelievable fabrications from an aging hippie, killing time by amusing me. Big Irish’s hobbies were even more ambitious — he claimed to be a sword smith, a Gaelic calligrapher, a falconer, a BASE jumper, and in his free time, worked the 100-acre farm in central Florida where he lived with his large brood.
Every time I doubted his truthfulness and called his bullshit, he would just get on the phone with his missus and one week later, we’d be looking at new pictures of Victoria Falls or the big guy hanging out with Jerry Garcia backstage. Every story he told seemed to be true, and I was enamored by his panache. I was twenty years younger and listened to his fantastical adventures like a Cherokee boy sitting by a fire, captivated by his elder warrior chief.
The first time I noticed Big Irish sleeping more and acting less charismatic, I guessed what my bunkmate was going through. I’d struggled with depression and sorrow since coming to prison, always looking over my shoulder at the past and sometimes letting it grab me. At home, I would use drugs and alcohol and Prozac to cope with my lifelong moroseness, but behind the walls I was living differently — meditating and exercising. So we started to walk together on the rec yard and talk about our regrets and sadness. Fears of going home and everything having changed. Fears of never leading a normal life after prison. We tried to cheer each other up when we could, and after several months became good friends.
One day, he asked me about the thin pale-pink scars on the inside of my wrists, his empathetic hazel eyes staring knowingly into my pain. Normally I would subtly hide my arms and change the subject, but on that morning I decided to tell the truth for the first time.
“I was twenty-one and living on campus, partying my life away, I was addicted to coke, facing a felony burglary I didn’t do, and just got dumped by my perfect girlfriend. Oh, I was being kicked out of my apartment for not paying rent, too,” I sipped my coffee and lowered my voice, embarrassed. “One night I was drunk and crashed at my friend’s empty pad, and after an hour of primal crying and feeling self-destructive, I broke a light bulb and cut both wrists-not too deep, but there was blood all over.”
“Damn, Ryan. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah well…life was dark for me at that time. I wrapped my wrists in gauze, and a day later I was in jail. I never told my family.”
We sat in silence for a minute, and then the Celt confided in me that he’d had the same thoughts, only he never acted on them. From then on, some of our private conversations turned from discussing the daily doldrums, to divulging the bleak moments in our lives when we had serious suicidal tendencies. It felt good to share our burdens with another soul; to try and liberate the black demons from inside our broken minds.
Depression inside correctional institutions is a real but unspoken thing. A large majority of incarcerated men and women have mental health issues that go untreated while behind bars…and this is a wasted opportunity. Some ask why we should give medication and professional therapy to convicted criminals when many people who haven’t broken the law don’t get free health care. It’s a fair question, but the benefits of providing mental health services seem obvious — most of those men and women will get out of prison someday, and the quality of citizens returning to society can be directly improved upon by focusing on education, drug rehabilitation, and treating the mentally ill. And since statistics show that a large number of people who are arrested have an underlying mental illness, preemptive care on the streets may even lower the rate of incarceration in this country.
But the stigma of mental illness prevents many inmates from seeking help in the first place, and the lack availability of proper medication hinders the few prison psychiatrists who genuinely care. Coping with diseases like depression and anxiety while locked up adds to an already traumatic, stressful environment, and without the help of self-betterment programs and stabilizing medications, many people deal with their illness in negative ways. Foremost among these is violence, drug use, and suicide attempts. If one needs further evidence that prison settings create breakdowns of the mind, look at the suicide rate of correctional officers — it’s among the highest of any occupation. When a prison guard takes his own life because he is depressed, that is a tragic, preventable failure of the criminal justice system. That same compassionate view should apply to the 2.3 million men and women incarcerated in the United States.
“Regret is a motherfucker.”
Big Irish’s laugh bellowed across the dorm. “Words of wisdom from the jailhouse Confucius. You should put that in a fortune cookie.”
“Seriously, though,” I said. “Most days I’m depressed because I’m thinking about my mistakes.”
“Don’t you ever remember being down even when things were going good?”
I thought about his question and acquiesced to his point. “Yeah…I guess I’ve always had a big problem with feeling content.”
We talked a lot about things we’d change from our past, but also, how we felt about our impending releases; he was going home in September, and I would follow in a couple of years. Big Irish got animated when telling me about his vast hog farm, and his wife would send me photos of the picturesque land, showing me where I could shack up to visit when I got out. We made plans to connect on the outside because we were kindred voices inside a crazy world gone mad, and we both wanted our kids to grow up on a better planet than us.
Transitioning back into society is a great source of anxiety for many people in prison, and it was no different for my worldly friend. Even though he seemingly had it all waiting for him, Big Irish often stressed over whether his kids would love him the same after doing time, or if things would be too awkward between them. The day that he finally went home was sublime; I was excited for him to be with his family, and I looked forward to seeing him again.
I received a hilarious letter from the gentle giant a month after his release, with pictures of his farmhouse and his clan picking apples and juggling them in the air. He looked happy… really happy. It made me smile to see him succeed when so many other men did not, and I knew that if he was going to be okay, then I would be too. I wrote him back immediately and thanked him for the standing invitation to visit.
A year later, after I was transferred to a new prison and closer to my own freedom, I ran into a buddy who had been at the same institution with me and Big Irish. When we were catching up on old times, I pulled out my photo album and showed him a picture of the farm.
“I replied to his letter, but he never wrote me back. I was surprised because we were kind of tight.”
He looked away and shook his head sympathetically. “You don’t know, do you?”
“Big Irish killed himself. His wife wrote Rick, and Rick told me. I’m sorry, man.”
I looked at him in disbelief. How could someone with such a bright future commit suicide? Why would he give up as soon as he finally got out?! Big Irish had so much talent and zest and love for life. He had so many people supporting him, but still ended it all. I was let down. We’d spent so many days talking about the dark clouds that floated into our skies, and always agreed to seek help if things got too bad. Now he was gone, leaving everyone behind.
Mental illness is a quiet epidemic; it’s a silent assassin of the body and mind. Depression and anxiety are among the leading causes of suicide in this country, and warning signs can often go unnoticed until it’s too late, leaving many people blaming themselves for the unexpected tragedy. Psychiatrists note that suicide is usually an attempt to solve a problem, and commonly the problem involves some sort of loss…loss of a loved one, status, career, possessions, power, or identity. As someone who’d lost all of these things when I came to prison, I agree with the despondency of loss.
When I heard about Big Irish, I found myself wondering which one thing sent him over the edge; that single explanation which would help me understand his hopelessness after he got out. Had his raison d’être vanished? Did he grow apart from his wife? Could he not live with the stigma of being an ex-con? And then I remembered a line from an Italian writer I’d read years before: “No one ever lacks a reason for suicide.”
Ancient Egyptian religious zealots hurled themselves into the Nile to get blessed with immortality; dishonored samurai warriors committed hara-kiri and were praised for their principles after their death-by-sword. If my eclectic, free-spirited friend had some lofty delusion of a grander purpose, I would never know what it was. All I knew was that he was melancholy and scared to get out of prison and ended his own life out of desperation. Maybe if he’d been able to get real aid while paying his debt to society, Big Irish would still be playing with his children on the farm, having been through the struggle and come out the other side better for it.
There are some options for prisoners seeking help, but they come at a price. Currently in the Florida Department of Corrections, if an inmate gets limited mental health counseling they will be classified S-2; if they request medication of any kind, the inmate will then be classified S-3, which requires moving to a “psych camp” (an institution that holds mental health patients). Of all the horrible stories I have heard in prison, of all the violence I’ve seen, these psych camps are by far the closest thing to hell on Earth. When I decided that I wanted help and Prozac to get me balanced, I was told that I would be moved so I refused treatment. I guess I’ll just do it on my own for now and see what may come later. I was fortunate enough to find other ways to manage my mental health. My friend Big Irish was not as lucky, but I’ll never forget him or his story.
The National Center for Suicide Prevention (1800–273–8255) says that listening to someone who is contemplating suicide is of utmost importance. If you or a friend or a loved one needs help, don’t wait — there are people you can call today. Somebody loves you, because we are all one.
Originally published at https://thewildword.com on August 13, 2020.