Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series written by Sean Gunderson, who was detained by the criminal justice system for 17 years after receiving a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict. The series documents the life of a forensic psychiatry patient—a world that few know, and which has rarely been written about by a former inmate. New pieces will be published the first weekend of each month. The full series is being archived here.
In this scenario, we will discover the importance of suppressive action as it relates to the construction of micro-narratives.
Micro-narratives serve the same function that narratives do in The World (i.e., society at large); however, micro-narratives are confined to the detention center (DC). They also are the product not of an environment of free-flowing information, like in The World, but rather arise out of an artificial environment that places a heavy emphasis on the control of information. Much like narratives, micro-narratives can be seen as “common knowledge” by the people who invoke them.
In the DC there is a unique phenomenon that may not be so obvious in The World. That is, if a thought is prevented from being “spoken into existence” it can remain excluded from the micronarratives. Micronarratives are distinct from narratives in The World in that micronarratives are generally localized to a specific “public” scenario; that is, a scenario where numerous individuals are present, each of whom participates in the micronarratives of that particular scenario.
However, due to the general environment of extreme information control, a micronarrative may or may not have the power needed to persist to arrive at and merge with other micronarratives. For example, a conversation in the dining room between an inmate and staff may or may not arrive back on the unit to be added to the micronarratives there.
This may be due in part to the close-quarters nature of the DC; that is, life is simultaneously hyper-individualized and hyper-collectivized. So, while we function as a cohesive group whether we like it or not, that group is made of up discrete individuals, some of whom may despise each other. Therefore, when anyone opens their mouth with the intention of directing the flow of the culture with information, there is an inevitable power struggle that will arise from the resistance that one’s own opposition provides.
In other words, you had better be able to back up what you say with enough force to overcome any opposition; this rule applies to both inmates and staff. Furthermore, the pervasive fear that permeates every corner of the DC seems to play a role to get even staff with legitimate state authority to hesitate to open their mouths when they are confident that they will be met with significant resistance.
It is this type of environment toward which we will apply suppressive action to control the flow of information. We will learn that “not all scenarios are created equal.” That is, certain scenarios are more sensitive to the rapid and uncontrollable proliferation of micro-narratives that can dramatically change the culture in the DC.
We will encounter various situations in which to apply a new tactic for survival, the “Suppressive Action Weapon” (SAW). This is a key weapon to apply when trying to control the proliferation of potentially damaging micro-narratives.
The culture within Elgin Mental Health Center (EMHC) is notorious for coming up with new restrictive policies that are used to justify imposing some sort of added limitation upon inmates. During my time within the Illinois forensic system, some of these policies had staying power, while other did not. To the extent that I, or other inmates, could identify which policies were malicious, we could apply hegemonic tactics to convince the authorities to not follow up with enforcement of the policy, or to outright reverse the policy.
Both inmates and staff were well aware that the creation of a policy on paper did not automatically mean that it would be followed in reality. Indeed, the official policy of EMHC is to recommend inmates for conditional release as soon as they no longer met specific criteria as articulated in their policy on conditional release. However, this policy appeared to exist as “window dressing” as it was routinely ignored, including in my case. The criteria existed at a low threshold such that most inmates at EMHC would likely have been conditionally released if the policy was followed as written.
Thus, as inmates sometimes policies worked to our advantage; however, at other times it was to our disadvantage, especially as it regards the lack of enforcement of the conditional release policy. EMHC staff would arbitrarily choose which policies they wanted to enforce at any given time. They also had the power to create new policies or amend existing ones. As the culture of a DC is an autocratic environment, inmates and even low-level staff rarely had a meaningful say in the implementation of new policies, that is, unless we could counteract their implementation “on the ground.”
When I was growing up attending Catholic school in Chicago, I recall a rebellious nun who would teach us that “a rule is only as good as it is enforceable.” I never forgot this during all my years surviving the DC. Rules exist on paper; however, they cannot self-enforce; rather, a real person is needed to enforce them. So long as the rule can remain within the minds of the participants but does not get introduced into the scenario via spoken communication (or sometimes written as when a staff points out a sign with a rule on it), then that rule will not be applied in that scenario. At some point a real person is required to apply the rule to another real person. It is in this space that our SAW will be used.
The SAW has various applications, the first being a precision strike. In this application, we identify the particular micro-narrative that we seek to prevent, and identify the specific action needed to prevent it. The goal is to “cleanly” deal with any potentially problematic micro-narratives such that the situation is resolved with precision and the suppressive action itself did not accidentally become part of a micro-narrative.
I needed to use this application of the SAW on a regular basis to secure the minimum number of calories to meet my daily caloric needs. As stated in previous essays, EMHC knowingly and routinely obstructed me from consuming the approximately 4000 calories a day that they acknowledged I needed to survive. They fed me roughly half of that daily need and put the burden on me to secure the other half. If this was not complicated enough, at one point in my detention, a new policy was implemented to restrict access to inmates’ personal food items. This was the source of about 50% of my daily calories. I simply could not survive as a living organism for too long with such a significant calorie deficit.
While most staff were aware of this and generally refused to implement a rule limiting access to personal food items, certain situations could arise in which the staff felt obligated to attempt to enforce the new policy, which restricted inmates to merely two personal food items twice per day. Furthermore, personal snacks were limited to small single serve items. I needed far more that this to survive and most of the time I had little trouble taking as many items as I wanted. This was also true for other inmates, generally, as they benefitted from my ability to suppress the implementation of the rule. I was able to accomplish this by appealing directly to staff in my SHIELD defense. However, there were always situations outside my control in which I had to be prepared to apply the SAW.
One inmate, P.D., had an intellectual disability. He was in his early 30s; however, he thought like a 7-year-old. He was generally cooperative with me and indeed likely saw me like his big brother. However, due to his intellectual disability, he could easily let his emotions dictate his behavior. The complexity of this situation was compounded by the fact that he was illiterate and had a severe peanut allergy. While he understood that he could not eat peanuts and would be the first one to refuse something that clearly had peanuts in it, he could not read ingredient lists. This meant that he could accidentally eat peanuts in his quest to ingest a tasty snack. Staff were well aware of this and had a legitimate apprehension that P.D. might somehow ingest peanut products at snack time.
P.D. would behave like a child much of the time, which meant that he could easily end up in a full-blown tantrum if he did not get what he wanted. Knowing this, I kept my SAW handy when he was with me at snack time. P.D. was rather extroverted and would quickly make friends with numerous inmates. He would then convince them to share personal food items with him. Under normal circumstances, this would be called altruism as the interactions were generally consensual. However, in the DC, sharing any personal items, including food was a rule violation. So too was taking more than two items per snack time.
P.D. was notorious for breaking both rules. When the right staff was on, it was no big deal. Indeed, most staff just delegated dealing with P.D. to capable inmates like me. However, some staff were extra leery of P.D.’s dealings. When these staff were running snack time, I would be on point with my SAW. I would tell P.D. prior to snack time to “just go with the flow” and “if the staff tell you to not share or to only take two items, follow their directions and then talk to me later,” as I would give him a peanut-free snack later if he was still hungry.
I was on guard after a previous incident in which P.D. argued with staff about how many food items he could have and why other inmates could access more but not him. In that scenario, I had used the precision application of my SAW to great success. However, I had to spend several days talking to numerous low-level staff to convince them to continue to overlook the two-item snack rule and to allow me to deal directly with P.D.
As P.D. was such a headache for staff, they were too eager to let me handle things. After that day, if I noticed P.D. beginning to engage in friction with staff, I would say something, clear my throat, or otherwise communicate to both the staff and P.D. that I would handle this dispute in private so as to not have my words become added to any micro-narratives beyond P.D. and I. This tactic of using suppressive action was a great success and I was able to meet my daily caloric needs until I was released.
However, there is another application of the SAW which is rather different. It does not seek to apply the tactic in a precision manner to suppress a thought from being added to the micro-narratives. Rather it seeks to suppress micro-narrative via a distinct method.
The morning community meetings occurred daily after breakfast and were run by inmates themselves. This was the appropriate forum for official information sharing between staff and inmates at the unit level. Official business, including the announcement of new policies, would occur at these meetings. To the extent that I could suppress the thoughts of staff such that they would not open their mouths to announce a new restrictive policy, then I could obstruct its implementation.
However, in this situation, a distinct application of the SAW was needed. A precision operation would not work here as I did not always know what the staff wanted to say, so I could not determine the micro-narrative that I wanted to suppress and the appropriate suppressive action to realize my objective.
“Going cyclic” is a term used to describe the maximum rate of discharge of a weapon. My solution was to apply the SAW at its maximum rate. This sort of suppressive action was rather effective. I would run the morning meetings in a unique fashion so as to control them from start to finish with little left to chance. After breakfast, low-level staff in my SHIELD defense would hand me the binder with the all the materials needed to run the meeting. I would then use my loud voice and strong presence to quickly begin the meeting whether anyone was paying attention or not. I used a loud voice to project the necessary presence to maintain control over the meeting; I justified this by telling others that I refused to “say things twice, especially for sleeping inmates.”
Staff accepted this and I talked at a level slightly below yelling so that I could not be pathologized. I had to use a loud voice because if I tried to apply the “going cyclic” tactic of the SAW with fast speech, I could easily be pathologized by staff (rapid speech is considered a “symptom” of psychosis). In other words, I suppressed other’s speech with the loudness of my own, not the speed of my own.
Then, I would quickly run through all of the boxes that I needed to check: Old Business, Repairs, New Business, etc. The challenge was that we used a quote each morning, which I referred to as “the aphorism of the day.” The challenge here was that my plan for a five-minute meeting could get drawn out into 20 minutes if staff or inmates decided to talk at length about the quote. My strategy for dealing with this was to think on my feet and come up with a meaningful response to the quote within about five seconds after reading it aloud. This would give others just a moment to speak up and if they did not, I would offer an insightful interpretation such that most people would be satisfied, and we could move onto the next section of the meeting.
After months of running the meeting like this, both inmates and low-level staff came to appreciate it as it allowed them to complete a necessary task without having to think too much about it. As inmates and low-level staff cared little about new policies, my style appealed to them. Indeed, over time my treatment team on N unit came to appreciate this too as they were technically supposed to attend these meetings; however, my style allowed them to sit in their offices and work.
Yet, not everyone liked my style.
The Nurse Manager (NM) position at EMHC is essentially a unit director who acts as a liaison between the unit and administration (ADMIN). They are not unionized like low-level staff and clinical staff, which makes a major difference in unit culture. They do not share the same “comradery” that unionized staff share. Oftentimes, staff in the NM position would have overt conflicts with unionized staff.
At one point, N unit received a new NM, whom I will call “Mr. Dumass” (Let’s pronounce it Mr. Doo-MAHSS, officially). Mr. Dumass did not get along with nearly all other inmates and staff on N unit. He was seen as an utterly incompetent pawn of ADMIN. Inmates disliked him because it seemed that he only opened his mouth to disrupt the otherwise stable unit culture. As a new NM, Mr. Dumass wanted to make a name for himself. He succeeded in doing this; however, I think that the name he made for himself was not what he had envisioned.
As I recognized that Mr. Dumass generally said negative things (such as the announcement of a new restrictive policy), I knew that going cyclic with the SAW would be an effective tactic to use at the morning meetings. So long as Mr. Dumass did not say anything, there would be no problems to subsequently resolve. It is worth pointing out that Mr. Dumass made a critical mistake of being lax with his timekeeping responsibilities for the staff. He was frequently getting chewed out by subordinate staff who noticed that he made mistakes on their timesheets. This meant that they were not getting paid like they should have.
The low-level staff in my SHIELD did not appreciate this and they began to intentionally mispronounce his name directly to his face. While Mr. Dumass is not the real name of this person, the staff dealing with him intentionally mispronounced his real name (in our example, such that it sounded like “Dumbass”). I knew that if staff could get away with such overt acts of disrespect to a direct superior, then my SAW could easily find a place in keeping Mr. Dumass from talking a during the morning community meeting.
Sure enough, Mr. Dumass would attend our morning meetings on occasion, and he looked uneasy and rather reluctant to say anything. This was most likely due to my strong presence and the low-level staff at the meeting who could disrespect him to his face. Between these two, he usually found excuses to not even attend the meetings. However, as he was a liaison for ADMIN, he would receive direct orders to make announcements at times.
At one point, there were rumors of a new restrictive policy that would result in the confiscation of all inmate personal cups. The solution was for one of, if not the most broke state in the union, Illinois, to provide large Styrofoam cups that were to be disposed of each night and replaced the next morning. As these rumors proliferated, I realized that Mr. Dumass would likely be attending a morning meeting soon to make the required announcement.
In the days prior to the actual announcement in our morning meeting, I could see that Mr. Dumass was constantly anxious. He needed to appease his bosses in ADMIN but also the real power structure on N unit, from which he was excluded as much as possible. He began to attend the morning meetings daily and I could sense the announcement was coming. I kept on with my particular SAW tactic, and for several days it appeared to work. Mr. Dumass stood there looking much like the mispronounced version of his name, saying nothing. I concluded the meetings within 5 minutes, and he quickly departed without saying anything to inmates or staff.
I got word from my SHIELD defense that he was trying to pressure low-level staff to make the announcement for him, to which they all refused. He had to act like a real leader and make the announcement himself. Indeed, as the “unit liaison” (see Intro essay), I wielded more unofficial power than Mr. Dumass did official power. My SAW kept his mouth shut for days.
Finally, he realized that he could not delegate this task to anyone else, so one morning he called all the clinical staff out from their offices to apparently serve as intimidation. I was accustomed to running my five-minute meetings in front of 25 inmates, about five low-level staff and maybe one unionized clinical staff on any given day. My SAW worked ideally under those circumstances. However, that day, there was a considerably larger staff presence for the announcement.
I did not expect much from other staff as intimidation through increased staff presence was a common tactic; I anticipated the other staff would say nothing and let Mr. Dumass handle the fallout from the announcement by himself.
I continued to apply my SAW tactic so that I would not make this announcement easy. Finally, after weeks of rumors and speculation, Mr. Dumass finally made the announcement. He was the only staff who talked, and he advised us that personal cups were now a “safety issue” and that the state would soon confiscate our cups and provide us with disposable Styrofoam cups that would be replaced each morning. He told us that we had until the end of the day to turn in our personal cups.
In the meeting itself, I articulated what most inmates and staff were thinking at the time, which was, “The state of Illinois is so broke that we cannot pay our bills, why should we expect the state to be able to provide us with new cups on a daily basis? Furthermore, what happens when the supply runs out?” Mr. Dumass could not answer any questions that we proposed in an extended meeting of about 30 minutes. He continually responded by saying, “I will have to check with ADMIN on that.”
The meeting was so one-sided that low-level nursing staff even chimed in to our aid by informing Mr. Dumass that, “We frequently run out of smaller Styrofoam cups for medication pass and we ask that inmates bring their own cups. How can we ensure that inmates will have cups to drink out of at med pass?” Once again, Mr. Dumass could not provide an answer.
I spoke with Mr. Dumass immediately after the meeting as I caught him making a dash for the unit door to avoid further questioning. As I was the de facto leader of N unit, I was not going to let him get away without advocating for me and my “constituents” more directly. As this was a private conversation, I could be more liberal with my words as it would not easily transfer to a micro-narrative the way it would have had I said the same thing in the morning meeting.
As I asked him more direct questions and insisted that at some point he come back with meaningful answers to our questions, he continued to give me meaningless responses such as, “I’ll look into it.” At one point, there was a loud announcement over the P.A. system. I stopped the conversation to allow the announcement to finish as it was so loud. After a few seconds, the announcement ended. I referred to the announcement in my subsequent comment and Mr. Dumass looked me square in the eyes, with all seriousness, and said, “What announcement? I did not hear an announcement.” I presumed he was trying to construct some goofy micro-narrative that would paint me as “not oriented to reality.”
This was the kind of absurd insult that motivated staff to intentionally mispronounce his name. I looked at him with confusion and irritation and said, “Why do you think that these staff intentionally mispronounce your name directly to your face?” I was hesitant in this scenario to mispronounce his name myself as I imagined that no one really wants to be called “Mr. Dumbass” directly to their face. This would likely just aggravate him and lead to a desire for retaliation, which I did not want to deal with on top of the cup issue. He left that day without saying or doing much more than repeating his scripted responses.
The low-level staff told me after the meeting that they had no intention of confiscating our cups that day. However, they did acknowledge that if Mr. Dumass came back with firm orders from ADMIN, their hands might be tied.
That day, I called in an Advocate Intervention Response (AIR) Strike to the Illinois Guardianship and Advocacy Commission (ILGAC), which is tasked with enforcing the rights of persons with disabilities, including forensic inmates. They acknowledged the absurdity of the new rule and as a state agency themselves commiserated with me on the lack of money the state of Illinois had to buy basic supplies, like cups. They assured me that they would contact ADMIN to find out more before opening an investigation. That day came and went, and our cups remained.
Days went by and then weeks with still no word from Mr. Dumass on the implementation of the cup policy. ILGAC contacted me to inform me that ADMIN was “reviewing the policy” and taking ILGAC’s concerns into consideration. I had seen this before; it was a way for ADMIN to save face while deciding against implementation of the new policy.
The cup policy came and went like so many other bad ideas cooked up by a power-hungry ADMIN. It appeared that “asylum medicine” was in full swing at EMHC as ADMIN frequently instilled various forms of fear in the inmates to ostensibly “treat” them. Indeed, in the asylums of yesteryear, terror was seen as a therapeutic agent. Fear of losing something that one is attached to is one of the primary tactics of ADMIN to use negative emotional states to control inmates.
At EMHC, inmates were allowed up to 3 corded electronic devices, such as a TV, stereo, and DVD player. As inmates were generally there long-term, this policy was intended to assist inmates in spending long hours confined at EMHC with no apparent end in sight. However, this was also a source of happiness for inmates as it was something enjoyable that they could do in an otherwise nightmarish place.
About every 3 years, an independent agency, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) inspects EMHC. Usually these are pointless inspections from an inmate perspective that do little to protect inmates access to meaningful treatment and instead focus on “easy” things that governmental inpatient psychiatric facilities can do to pass inspection.
Indeed, in my time at EMHC, I witnessed JCAHO end their practice of talking directly to inmates. Instead, they advocate for “on paper” changes that preserve the status quo. One year, JCAHO insisted that the hard water in the inmate toilets was staining the inside of the toilet and that staff had to ensure that the inside of inmate toilets was free of hard water stains. As this was an unpleasant job responsibility, it was no surprise to me to see Mr. Dumass, the unit NM, as the person in the inmate washroom cleaning the hard water stains inside the toilet. When I entered, he saw me and immediately said, “Don’t say a thing.” I agreed and went on to laugh loudly in his face and continued to do so after leaving the washroom area without actually articulating any statements in front of him. Staff in my SHIELD, including the unit janitor, acknowledged that they all refused to clean toilets for such a pointless JCAHO standard and this meant that the only one left to do it before the inspection was Mr. Dumass.
By the time the final JCAHO inspection came about 2 years before my release in 2019, ADMIN had cooked up a new colossally bad idea. Prior to the final JCAHO inspection of my extended detention, there were heavy rumors that something new was coming from JCAHO. How staff knew, we as inmates could only speculate as the JCAHO inspection had not yet come to pass. The rumor was that brand new JCAHO standards on ligature risks would require EMHC to restrict all personal inmate corded electronic devices. As this was a huge aspect of the facility culture, inmates and staff from across the DC were up in arms. Inmates knew that they might lose their source of pleasure and have to find other ways to occupy their time.
This was exactly the concern of low-level staff as they would now have to deal directly with many more bored and restless inmates who previously zoned out in their cells with TV, movies, and music. About the only supporter of this policy was ADMIN itself. As the rumors grew, my going cyclic tactic could only be used to suppress unit staff. However, this policy was so massive that ADMIN themselves came directly to N unit to announce it.
Going cyclic with the SAW was not an option to deal with ADMIN directly on this issue. They came to our morning meeting with an intention, and they were not leaving until they realized that intention. I had to revert to a precision operation with the SAW to protect the culture on N unit and in the entire facility. I coordinated with other inmate-advocates as well as outside agencies and even private attorneys. ADMIN told us that the new policy would take effect in a few months, so we had time to act.
I sought out other inmate-advocates, which consisted of inmates brave enough to face potential retaliation. We coordinated to acquire documentation from JCAHO on this standard and it appeared that EMHC ADMIN was intentionally twisting the words in the JCAHO standard to justify their new policy. Our group wrote letters directly to JCAHO advising them that EMHC was apparently misrepresenting the authority of JCAHO to justify an illegal confiscation of our property and violation of our civil rights. We CC’d these letters to anyone and everyone we could, including the AIR Strike organizations IL GAC and Equip for Equality (EFE), as well as private attorneys, state-level politicians, and media outlets.
This application of the SAW was a precision operation that acknowledged that if EMHC ADMIN could be backed into a corner wherein they would be required to be honest, they could not implement the policy and corresponding micro-narrative. We used the Inmate Council Meetings (ICMs) to directly engage with ADMIN using the documentation that we had acquired. ADMIN avoided some meetings and when they finally engaged with us, we got stock responses like, “We will consult with JCAHO on this.” Indeed, ADMIN made a rather convincing story that this was really a JCAHO standard, so much so that many staff believed them. However, we inmates were cunning and also had more to lose than most staff.
The most effective suppressive action in this scenario was to model the behavior of ADMIN, that is, continue asserting the same thing loud enough and long enough and people will begin to believe you. ADMIN asserted this was a real JCAHO standard and they had no choice but to implement it. We asserted that ADMIN intentionally twisted the interpretation of the standard, and that JCAHO would be named in lawsuit in the event that anyone’s personal electronic items were confiscated. This would have been a giant headache for ADMIN and JCAHO. It was no surprise that in the end, ADMIN backed off of the policy and inmates were allowed to keep all their electronic devices.
Suppressive Action is integral to successfully navigating the DC. It obstructs people’s thoughts about the rules or policies from arriving at the active micro-narratives. This is extremely useful as it is so easy for staff to make any rule they please, that using the SAW is an ideal way to counteract the uncontrolled proliferation of bad ideas.
I suppose from the staff perspective, it is relatively easy to come up with a bad idea like misrepresenting the authority of an independent accreditation organization while acting under color of state law. Furthermore, if that bad idea is easy to implement and streamlines their jobs, then what is the problem?
The problem is found in the inmates, who represent the real human impact of these bad ideas being introduced into the micro-narratives of the DC. From the inmate perspective, we had so little that to take more from us was seen as an expression of greed in the culture of EMHC. Inmate advocates tended to home in on apparently greedy ideas as they were far easier to counteract than a legitimate policy. The reality is that inmates were far savvier than we were given credit for. We could pretty easily pick up on whether a new policy was a legitimate thing or if it was just a bad idea cooked up by a bored administrator. The SAW was generally effective against the latter.
I can’t tell if you are describing a mental hospital, or if you are describing main stream society.
As always, an outstanding article.
Thanks. I think that my insights of the DC can be applied to many situations in mainstream society. Really, it’s the same nonsensical narrative, the DC just exerts more control over information than society. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Thank you for sharing this useful information
You’re welcome. It means a lot to me that people now value my story. It helps me turn that otherwise nightmarish experience into something positive.
Great article Sean!
Yes, mental health is based on control of information.
And I say this now as California Governor Gavin Newsom is right on the threshold of a new law to subject the homeless to coercive treatment. There is a whole movement of legislators, social workers, therapists, and psychiatrists behind him who see being unhoused as a ~mental illness~