“Feel the reign of dignity—it feels like freedom!”
At Destination Dignity on World Mental Health Day (October 10), we marched, several hundred strong, from the Capitol Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument — right down the middle of iconic Pennsylvania Avenue! As we marched, I heard the chant above and joined in. Actually, I heard — and chanted — “rain” instead of “reign,” although this made no sense under the cloudless blue sky. Never mind: The rhythm of our words kept pace with our steps in the sunshine! More than one passerby, attracted by our passionate voices, joined our ranks as we headed up the Avenue.
The overarching goal of Destination Dignity is “dignity and change” in the mental health arena. But where do we even start? The Destination Dignity website lists several objectives that we can work toward. While eliminating discrimination and prejudice entirely may be a tall order, we can focus our energies on specific battlegrounds.
So, in the 10 minutes — timed! — I was given to address the crowd, I talked about two of these conflicts: the struggle to stop the Halloween demonization of people with mental health conditions, and the fight to shut down an infamous New York City jail responsible for the injuries and deaths of many who languish in the belly of that particular beast.
We recently scored an impressive victory in the first conflict, although the war is far from over. The other battle — much more complicated — is still being fought.
The goal of the Halloween battle was to get two major North American theme park chains — Cedar Fair Entertainment Company and Six Flags — to cancel or revamp their hideous exhibits, which seemed calculated to ramp up the general public’s fear and ignorance of people with mental health conditions. (For details, see my blog about this victory.)
But just like in the Whack-a-Mole boardwalk game, up pops another mole: The Spirit Halloween store chain — which claims to have the “largest and best Halloween stores in the nation,” with more than 1,100 stores across all 50 states — is selling stuff so that people can make their homes look like asylums.
Spirit advertises: “Everyone is going to go crazy when they walk into your bloody home as you decorate using this Asylum Wall Kit! These dilapidated asylum graphic sheets hang on your walls as you accent it with blood covered hand and rat graphics. Perfect to freak out guests when they walk into your home! Dress as an asylum patient and it will bring the entire decor together!”
The company claims that “Spirit is devoted to…respecting the interests of each individual who visits our stores.” They invite people to express any concerns to their general counsel.
Action alert: I asked the crowd to call Spirit general counsel Kevin Mahoney at 609.645.5409 and tell him that Spirit needs to rethink their wrongheaded approach to Halloween. The number for their corporate headquarters is 609.645.5653. Or you can write to them at Spirit Halloween Superstores LLC, 6826 Black Horse Pike, Egg Harbor Township, NJ 08234. (Goblins, ghosts, or ghouls would be good!)
The second battle, in which lives are more immediately at stake, is the battle to close Rikers Island.
The push to close Rikers is having a moment: On September 24, hundreds of people marched in New York City, demanding that Mayor Bill de Blasio shut down this infamous jail. Even the mainstream New York Times has written, “The sensible thing to do with Rikers is to close it.”
This is our battle! According to the Times, people with mental health conditions “make up nearly 40 percent of the population at Rikers, a total of 4,000 men and women at any given time, more than all the adults in New York State psychiatric hospitals combined.”
The group that organized the #CLOSERikers march is Just Leadership USA. It was founded and is led by Glenn E. Martin, a nationally known advocate for criminal justice reform who served time on Rikers as well as several years in a state prison. Glenn Martin has called the continued operation of Rikers “an abomination.”
This battle is urgent: Until Rikers is shut down, people will continue to die, whether by suicide or at the hands of prison guards.
When I spoke at Destination Dignity last year, I talked about Kalief Browder, who was arrested at the age of 16, accused of stealing a backpack. He spent three years in Rikers 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. Soon afterwards, at the age of 22, he died by suicide.
He is not the only one who has died as a result of being imprisoned in Rikers. The New York Times has documented 129 cases from 2013 in which correction staff beat people so severely that they required emergency care. Seventy-seven percent of these people had a mental health diagnosis.
One of them was Jason Echevarria, who was 25 years old when he died after swallowing a toxic soap packet and, according to a federal jury, was ignored by jail staff for hours as he pleaded for help. New York City settled with his family for $3.8 million.
Another was Carlos Mercado, 45, who died of complications from diabetes within 15 hours of being brought to Rikers. A video shows him falling to the floor and lying there for three minutes while correction officers step over him. That lawsuit has been settled for $1.5 million.
New York City has also agreed to pay $5.75 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from the death of Bradley Ballard in Rikers. Ballard, who had a mental health condition, was found naked and covered in urine and feces after being locked in a cell without running water for six days and deprived of diabetic and psychiatric medication.
The city medical examiner ruled that Bradley Ballard’s death at the age of 39 was a homicide; and a city official said his treatment was “so incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience.”
So, why was Bradley Ballard in Rikers? He was taken into custody on a parole violation for his failure to report an address change, the lawsuit said.
What can we do to put an end to such tragedies? To start with, we can support organizations that advocate for criminal justice reform. There are many people and organizations working on shutting down Rikers, prominent among them people who have experienced incarceration.
Just Leadership USA, which is leading this battle, is dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by the year 2030, while reducing crime. I’m proud to be a member.
“If we really want to honor the memory of Kalief Browder,” Glenn Martin has said, “then you stand up and spend the political capital to make sure there’s never another Kalief Browder. The only way you do that, in my opinion, is by shutting down Riker’s Island, and creating a more fair and human jail system here in New York.”
Action Alert: At the Destination Dignity rally, I asked the crowd to contact Mayor Bill DeBlasio and tell him to shut Rikers down! There is no time to waste: The mayor has just announced the construction of a new jail on Rikers Island, projected to cost $596.4 million. Tweet to him @BilldeBlasio; write Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Hall, New York, NY 10007; or call him at 212-NEW-YORK. You can also contact him online using a form available on the nyc.gov website.
“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” Glenn Martin frequently says. When I looked around on October 10, I saw a lot of people—people like myself who have been locked up on psych wards or in psychiatric institutions and/or have been incarcerated in penal institutions—who are closest to the problem of how to make radical improvements in the mental health and criminal justice arenas! I call upon us to work toward the solutions!