I think at least 117 people out of 100,000 have an idea of what it is like to be incarcerated. We have images of guards and inmates but like many things, unless you have lived it you are not in possession of a complete picture. Unless you have been wrestled to the ground you won’t understand the damage. Unless you have been stripped you will not understand what it essentially does to you. Unless you have been lead to and lived in a cell with nothing in it but a toilet and a 24 hour light, unless you were the one to not witness day or night outside of meals you can’t understand what it does to you to lose the orientation of time. Unless you have been locked down in a cell built to punish 2 men with a third you will not understand what it means to lose all value.
I know there are some who would have us chained to walls and flogged every breakfast. My suggestion would be to travel to such a country where such practices are upheld. Many of these countries may not offer you the quality of life you can claim in Canada. How we treat the disadvantaged and the least among us spreads through all our lives. Part of the advantage of a social net is the mental outlook we all gain from it. When you can look around and see people who need assistance getting assistance something in the back of your head relaxes. It’s the place where you actually know that there is the possibility that there is very little that separates you from their disadvantage.
I am one of a very small percentage and I became at times an even smaller percentage. I experienced the legal system, the correctional system and the forensic system. Many of my experiences involved me in full psychosis for extended periods. The conditions we accept as a society for those we wish to punish are in many cases the conditions we are choosing to accept for people who are mentally ill. They are your neighbours’ relative if not your own. If we expose someone with a mental illness to all of this it may be worrisome enough. When an illness carries you off to jail rather than a hospital you would hope your treatment is humane. You may be of the mindset that it should be therapeutic.
We hear about jails with capacity issues and we yawn. We hear about 3 men bunked into cells built as punishment for two men while we sip our coffee. These jails are often in lock down. To be in lock down is basically a suspension of all movement. I think it is not therapeutic to prisoners of mental health when you enter a cell as the third person. You can bet you are the one on the floor. It’s no less comfortable but you get to deal with the toilet and each man who uses it. Normal access to showers are also suspended which when mixed with the fact that you never have the privilege of entirely new clothes on a daily basis means you are living in your own stink. Normally there was a common area to relieve your bowels. It was rare that a cell toilet would be used. I can remember a guard entering our common area when the conditions were normal, “It smells like ass in here.” I’m sure it did. There are no windows in jail and no switches to pull for the fan to kick in.
If you own a tape measure lay out on your floor a space roughly 5 by 8. This is your “house”. Bring in a toilet sink combo and two people you don’t know, three mattresses and a set of bunks. Your movement basically consists of twisting in and out of bed. I can recall being on the top bunk. I was in possession of the entire atmosphere but the traffic was light. I knew the one man a little but nothing of the new man on the floor. He was a harmless alcoholic. When he was not on a park bench he was in jail.
To have a mental illness through all this in my case amplified some of the experience. There was a drawing on the wall which terrified me. I was at times directed to stare at it and other times I would be directed to lay on my left. It was like having the devil beside you as you lay awake on your cot. I was at times reading a book I was fortunate to have in my cell. I read it at night to help the other prisoners to sleep. My thoughts were being broadcast so reading to myself or any thought carried a long way. This was also a nightmare for me as I was possessed by thoughts that I felt I had no control over. I had enemies and tricksters and they were my cellmates at certain times. Even my food intake was being directed by something. We sometimes fantasize about a day in bed, when it is the only option and for longer than could ever be comfortable it loses meaning.
Unless you have a mental illness which was alive as you lived these moments you will likely not understand. I am a small percentage but as I was stricken, it can be unpredictable. Mental illness does not look into your wallet or dodge your fancy car. Mental illness doesn’t seep out of the ground in the neighbourhoods you occupy. Mental illness doesn’t look at your age or measure your Body Mass Index. You can’t open your mouth or touch some surface and ingest its nature. You can’t study books or plan a vacation to flee it in any way. It may strike any of us and will surely strike someone we know.
When we don’t care about people with mental illness who come in conflict with the law it invisibly ripples through all our lives. It allows us to draw lines as to who or what we care about. It’s like my hitch hiker theory. If you remove the option of picking up hitchhikers you are less likely to help someone with car trouble. When we totally disown our responsibility to prisoners it is easier to do the same to the mentally ill. When they are one and the same you might want to consider their treatment because we are all one and the same.