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November 11, 2019

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The Mental Health Crisis in Prisons

I recently spoke with a prison guard to whom I said, "I really feel for you. You have a hard job. You have to work in a booth where you have to serve two housing units at the same time. Each side has 32 cells with 2 people in each cell for a total of 64 people. That's 64 people on each side for a total of 128 people. That's 128 different personalities in a closed space, and some of them have multiple personalities. This means that by the time you finish working here you will either be qualified to work in a mental health institution or you will need to be in one." 

She just laughed and laughed. Then she said, "Oh, I'm already qualified to be in a mental health institution. I'm bipolar, I suffer from manic depression, I have ADHD, and I'm borderline Schizophrenic. When I told my family that I was going to work in prison, they ask me why, so you can go there to live?" And I responded, "Well, welcome home." We enjoyed a hearty laugh from that exchange, but truthfully this is not a laughing matter. 

Mental health in prison is a serious issue. This officer says that she fits in because of her mental instability, and I would be inclined to agree with her. There have been many officers who have quit because of the stress and pressure of the environment. There are 128 people (on two opposite sides) who constantly need your assistance which is a very chaotic situation. This causes officers to be disgruntled, nasty in attitude, and retaliatory. I guess that's one reason why the Department of Corrections is understaffed. The officers just can't take it, and those that can seem to fit the profile of a person who could work in a mental health facility, or a person that needs to be in one. 

The truth is that this is a direct result of mass incarceration. The pods were designed for 64 people, not 128, and the officers booth was designed for 2 officers not 1. This means the officers are overworked and understaffed, and with the current state of Truth-In-Sentencing it is only going to get worse. There is only one solution. Reduce the prison population. Whether it be parole, or some other type of early release program, something needs to be done. Let's act before it's too late, because just like we saw in South Carolina, things can go very bad very quickly, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. - Hassan Shabazz

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