Destination, Dignity: Focus on a Broken Criminal Justice System


There was a lot said, shouted, chanted and sung about the rights of individuals (such as myself) who have mental health conditions at the March for Mental Health Dignity on the National Mall on August 24.

The march—which was sponsored and supported by a list of advocacy organizations as long as your arm—had two basic demands: changes in policies that obstruct recovery from mental health conditions, and changes in society’s treatment of individuals who have such conditions.

Under this broad umbrella, two objectives stand out for me: an end to the unconscionable levels of incarceration, not only of people with mental health conditions but of everyone, and an end to the criminalization of mental health and substance use conditions.

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. And more than half of them have a mental health problem, according to the most recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

People like us—that is, people who live with mental health challenges—are less likely to be released on bail, and we have longer jail and prison terms. Even when we are released, we are more likely to incur technical probation violations.

But, worse, we often become targets while incarcerated. Human Rights Watch recently reported that prisoners with mental health conditions are routinely physically abused by guards.

Two appalling examples of what happens to us in the criminal injustice system are what happened to Samuel Harrell and Kalief Browder.

On April 21, at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York State, Samuel Harrell, a 30-year-old man who had a mental health condition, was kicked and punched, and thrown or dragged down the stairs to his death, by as many as 20 officers. No officers have been disciplined in connection with his death. Instead, witnesses have been threatened with violence for speaking out.

A second tragic example is Kalief Browder, who was arrested at the age of 16, accused of stealing a backpack. He spent three years in New York City’s notorious Rikers Island without being convicted. In jail, he tried to kill himself at least six times. He was released in 2013 when the charges against him were dropped. After his release, every day was a struggle, his attorney later said. On June 6, at the age of 22, he died by suicide.

What can we do to stop such tragedies? To start with, we can support advocacy organizations that are working on these issues.

One organization that focuses specifically on prisoners with mental health conditions is SAMHSA’s GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation.

Another great organization is Just Leadership USA, which is dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by the year 2030, while reducing crime. Just Leadership USA was founded by Glenn E. Martin, who spent six years in the New York State prison system before turning his life around and vowing to help others. Among Just Leadership’s many supporters are the Ford Foundation and the David Rockefeller Fund. I’m proud to be a member.

The criminal justice system is broken, and we need to help all of the unfortunate individuals—with or without a mental health condition—who have fallen into its clutches. As Angela Davis said, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I can’t accept.”

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I can’t accept.”
    Amen to that.

    Btw, some degree of justice would also be welcome. When 20 people beat a guy to death they should all end up in prison themselves. Otherwise there will be no stop to the violence.

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  2. Hi Susan,
    Thanks for your article. It never ceases to amaze that America has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its criminals. I know the actual figure is around 4.5% population and 22.5% of criminals, but still, what an incredible ratio.

    When reading the news I’m shocked by hearing that people selling a small amount of cocaine or heroine are going to prison for 20+ years…. or that someone committing a violent but non-lethal crime (e.g. armed robbery) is going to prison for 25 to life… or that a 15 year old murderer is going to adult prison for life without parole… or that someone committing 3 nonviolent felonies is going to prison for life without parole under the 3 strikes system… or that the getaway driver in a violent robbery, who hurt no one, is charged with conspiracy and sentenced to life.

    It’s truly incredible how draconian, harsh, yet ineffective America’s criminal justice policy is. Most of these scenarios I described above would involve sentences half as long or less in European countries, where crime is not significantly higher than here. Or they might involve primarily rehabilitation or drug treatment, not long-term imprisonment.

    It bears reposting the US debt clock below so people can be reminded how greatly in debt our country is, as of today about 18.37 trillion dollars, and that having to pay for keeping a quarter of the whole world’s prison population is putting us further in debt:

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  3. Let’s stop pretending there’s a difference between prisoners in jails and prisoners of psychiatry. Let’s stop further damaging those incarcerated by giving them psychiatric labels and “other” status. No one should be abused in prison, period; one should not need a psych label or a “normal” label to qualify for human dignity. “Dignity” and “mental health” are contradictory concepts btw, and I would hardly consider most of the listed organizations as “advocacy” groups for victims of psychiatry. Most of them seem invested in the “mental illness” industry in one way or another.

    On the other hand it is true that we need to reach out more to the prison movement, as our struggle is not really so much about “health” but about garden variety exploitation and repression being dished out in alternate forms.

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