From being diagnosed to undergoing treatment, an ex-prisoner relates the challenges of mental illness
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a first-person account of life inside the Oregon corrections system, as told by a mentally ill former inmate who was incarcerated from 2000 to 2004. The ex-inmate, whose first name is John, requested that his last name be withheld, citing concerns about the stigma associated with being an ex-convict who has returned to society. The edited comments below are excerpted from a longer interview with Register-Guard reporter David Steves.
When I first got to prison, there was lot of suspicion. I’m a white guy and I go in at age 44.
I was asked why I was there and told there are only two possibilities. Either you’re here for a sex offense, or you’re here because you’ve got anger issues.
I said, “Well here. Here’s the deal. Second-degree kidnapping,” and gave them a little bit of the story, how my ex had come for a 10-day stay and all we did was drink and argue until I had had enough.
I had a guy lean back in his chair and go, “Oh, man. Everybody understands hittin’ your (woman). You shouldn’t even be here.”
I said, “Well, that’s not really what happened. Actually I was trying to commit suicide and…”
And then I realize it’s probably better that I just leave the explanation as a domestic dispute; Then it’s just anger. And then I just blend into the background.
I was arrested and convicted in Washington County. I spent 10 months prior to trial in the Washington County jail and then, after the conviction, spent three weeks at what was then the intake facility for the correctional system in Clackamas County.
Everyone goes through an evaluation by the psychiatrist. It’s fairly cursory and, to my knowledge, whoever is working in the prison setting has no knowledge of your history.
I suffer from panic disorder, pretty severe depression, anxiety, some mild obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’m technically dually diagnosed. I suffer from both mental health issues and alcoholism.
So they’re making diagnoses on the spot and they’re prescribing medications. They’re making decisions about whether you can function in the general population, whether you need to be in a segregated unit within the prison system, or whether you need to be sent off to the state mental hospital. I was shipped off to Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution.
There was a medication line three times a day: morning, noon and night time. They were long lines. They were called by unit. The first unit I was on had 15 men and I would say that 20 percent of those people went to the medication line each night.
You’ve got a lot of guys who aren’t taking their medications the way they should. For people who suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, those kinds of things, the doctors may be part of the conspiracy in their head. So they’re going to not want to take these medications.
Some people hoard their medication so they can get high. And some guys sell it. They make some self-evaluation: “Well, I can cut this dose in half, or I can take it every other day or every third day.”
Because of all this, you’ve got problems with guys who aren’t managing their situations.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been around someone who’s had a psychotic episode, but everything can seem just fine. You’re sitting around a group of 50 men watching TV and all of a sudden somebody just pops up and is convinced that the guy next to them is out to get them. And things jump off from there, just going crazy.
The last year I was on a mental health unit. I believe what led me there was both a moderate mental health diagnosis — that is to say, the guy really does have mental health issues that need to be treated. But No. 2, that he demonstrated that he is willing to try to participate in his own treatment: go to classes, do group work, those kinds of things.
When they actually moved me onto the mental health unit, I was very upset. I was very, very upset because I had privileges taken away.
I no longer had as much time in the exercise yard. I had to eat dinner segregated from the rest of the population. I was a tutor in the education department. I lost that job for about two weeks and then they allowed me to go out and continue to do that job.
When you’re segregated into a mental health unit, the other inmates treat you differently. You’re a target that can be exploited, which is one of the reasons you’re in segregation. It’s extortion issues, mainly. A typical form of extortion would be them wanting you to buy them something — some food or something on an ongoing basis — from the canteen. Or sometimes, you’re just a target for fun, for sport. If you can be screwed around with, they’re going to screw around with you.
Until I went on the mental health unit, I hadn’t done any work on myself from a mental health point of view. Without being in a segregated setting, I don’t think I would be stable today. It took awhile to get turned around. It took a lot of work on the part of some good counselors to help me get turned around and to begin to look at this as an opportunity to address an issue I had not yet addressed.
Just because people have mental illness doesn’t meant that you don’t ask them to respect boundaries and to respect the rules of society. That, in part, is how they learn where the boundaries are. Otherwise they’ll never learn. And that’s a hard process to go through. No matter how I feel inside, it’s not OK to harm somebody. It’s not OK to act out in a certain way.
I was working part-time on a dissertation at Portland State when I was incarcerated. And when I came out, I went to see my advisor. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I want to finish. So he let me back in and I’m working on that now, so that’s consuming my time.
I work for a city in Colorado now, doing economic development work. On Friday, my boss called me in and told me the city manager’s office had received an anonymous phone call from a woman, asking how could they hire a convicted felon, much less someone with mental health problems and of my background.
So it is still something that comes up from time to time in a very real way in my life. It is not an issue of being incarcerated and then you’re done. It’s something that follows you around.