My Family’s Silence – My Public Testimony on Mental Illness in Prisons

By Kendra Stea | 1 comments
So this is long overdue.

As I write, I am aware that this is probably the most hypocritical moment of my life.

One of my family members (I do not have permission to openly identify them, so out of respect, I will only identify them as a family member) is ill.

She suffers from what is probably bipolar disorder, but I don’t know for sure because we haven’t had the conversation.

She was in the forefront of my mind as I testified before the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force in Arkansas last Friday. She was on my mind because she, in fact, was incarcerated in the state of Arkansas just over twenty years ago.

It was a brief stay while she awaited extradition to her home state for nonviolent crimes, but I am fairly certain she did not receive mental health treatment while there. 

But I don’t know for sure, because we haven’t had the conversation.

I’m not sure if the staff were kind to her. I’m not sure if they understood her distress. I’m not sure what her experience was once she was transferred back to her home state—because we don’t talk about it.

Naming it has brought me to the realization that I need to start the process of unpacking this for my family. Even if all that comes of it is a simple acknowledgment—which I think has always been there—it will be better than it only being a part of secret discussions behind closed doors.

It is not easy.

It was easy, though, for me to sit before the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force and talk about a need for reform.

The picture is so clear to me:

How can we expect the employees of our criminal justice system to behave any differently than they always have in a setting where people are not educated on mental illness and its impact on behavior?

There is a difference when intervening, and frankly in preventing disruption, when our approach is to look at behavior with an attempt to understand the clinical underpinnings.

As a formal Criminal Justice major, I know about criminal thinking, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to CPI that I began to understand the clinical underpinning of many of the behaviors that were labeled as “criminal.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. Criminal behavior certainly exists, and we must necessarily restrict rules, and access, and rights to some degree within these settings to ensure the Care, Welfare, Safety and Security℠ of everyone.

However, did you know that a simple policy change can achieve a better balance of safety and security—while also honoring that the individuals in these institutions are people first? Finding small ways to empower individuals and provide choice in environments where choice is necessarily limited can be a game changer.
Finding ways to give people CHOICE in environments where choice is limited can be a game changer.

Our correctional institutions have become the largest mental health institutions.

The employees within those institutions must be given the opportunity to learn about how potential crisis behaviors can be more effectively identified and de-escalated early to reduce violence.

The employees within those institutions must be given the opportunity to learn about how individuals’ trauma histories cause a cycle of thinking that leads to irrational behavior.

The individuals housed in those institutions deserve to have a workforce that supports them that is educated and understanding, and equipped to keep them and others around them safe.

With the integration of health and mental health as one and the same, we can achieve the de-stigmatization I long for.

But it does start with each individual, and so we will have the conversation in my family.

Just as we’re having it in Washington.

It seems appropriate that I am following my experience with the task force by attending the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems Annual Meeting—where all the nation’s top psychiatric providers have gathered on Capitol Hill to advance mental health reform.

It is time for true parity.

If you’re ready for the conversation too, or you’re having it where you work, I’d love to hear about your successes and challenges. And how we can help you.

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