Mental Health Check

Every Wednesday in segregation is mental health check day. God help you if you lose your mind on one of the other six days of the week.

Due Diligence

“MENTAL HEALTH CHECK!”

The distinctly female voice sounded just outside my door. I rushed to see because it was new stimuli and because I’m a heterosexual male and she’s a woman. Even to my starved eyes she was rather plain looking, slim, petite. Nothing much distinctive about her. This seemed to be the mold from which many of the mental health staff and nurses are poured.

She moved along tapping on doors and saying in a too loud, too sunny voice, “Mental health check. Howya doin’ in there? Everything okay today?” I could never hear the other side of the conversation, but she always ended with “Okay, thanks, have a good day!” Much too cheerful. The whole thing was, essentially, a tasteless joke.

Many men languished in segregation while being investigated under the guise of it being essential to the “safety and security of the institution.” This is merely a pretext for the powers that be to do more or less whatever they want. I never got a sense that anyone too much cared for our mental health while back there, but by doing the once weekly visit DOC covered themselves from a liability standpoint in the event of any litigation or outside investigation.

Trite

Tap, tap, tap.

“Mental Health Check. Howya doin’ in there? Everything okay today?”

It began to grate on me, the hypocrisy of it. I had heard guys scream endlessly only to be ignored or told by a CO to shut-up. I had heard officers threaten to deny the inmate his shower, his food. Never while the mental health check was going on of course. Then everyone was on their best behavior.

Tap, tap, tap.

“Mental Health Check. Howya doin’ in there?”

This time there was an immediate and impassioned response from within the cell. From a distance it all came out in urgent consonants—hard k and t and s sounds, but nothing intelligible. Polite and seemingly obsequious “Mm—hmm . . . yes . . . alright” vocalizations was all I heard from her. Then: “Well, you know, the only constant in life is change.” This she said to the guy locked in a cell and going nowhere.

Outrage

Are you kidding me! I yelled within my skull. I couldn’t believe that’s what passed as keen psychological insight. I wanted to verbally excoriate her. I’d begin by asking if this was the type of worthless, pointless work she had planned doing when she was studying to earn her degree.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

Whether or not her great contribution to the betterment of society was to come in spouting naïve banalities to men she cannot help. Or whether she even gives a damn about them.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

I wanted to know if she had ever cared at all or if this was just a paycheck to her—a cushy union gig. I wanted to scream: “No! No, I’m not okay! What kind of stupid, asinine question is that? I’m locked in Seg! I’ve had everything stripped from me! My parents visited and had to see me chained like a wild frigging animal! I have no idea what the outcome of my situation is going to be because, guess what? I didn’t do anything wrong! I’m only here because smallminded fascists wanted to shut me up. I didn’t break any rules, but they don’t like that I put my prison experiences on a website for the whole world to see. Why don’t they like it? Because some of the essays might make DOC look bad, and God forbid that the truth gets out! They’re abusing their authority holding me here, and trying to squelch my freedom of speech. So, no, you know what? No, I am not okay. Of course I’m not okay!”

(“Mental Health Check.”)

I was going to call “Bullshit!” on this little routine of checking each cell off her list just so she could rubberstamp us all “sane enough” for another week and cover the prison’s collective and considerable hindquarters.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

I wanted to make her question, if not regret ever getting into the field of prison healthcare (an oxymoron if I ever heard one). I wanted to make her flee in tears and shame.

(“Mental Health Check.”)

She was almost at my door and I wanted to tell her all this. I was going to tell her all this and more. Know what I did tell her?

Reality

Tap, tap, tap.

“Mental Health Check. Howya doin’ in there? Everything okay today?”

By the time she tapped my door I was sitting, facing away from her. I merely raised my arm in her direction and extended one single digit to convey to her how I was doing. My thumb.

“Okay, thanks, have a good day!”

An important lesson: Learn to pick your battles or you’ll get tired or hurt from beating your head against the proverbial wall. Yet I’ve never gotten used to swallowing my ire in the face of callousness and injustice.

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Nobody Wins

“Oh yeah? That’s nothing, I’ve got you beat; check this out . . .”

I had just regaled Tee with a tale of the disgusting conditions of the officer’s bathroom that I had to clean every morning. Unfortunately he interpreted this as my throwing down the gauntlet for a competition to see who had the grossest feces cleaning story. I gleaned from the gleeful glint in his eyes that I was about to lose a contest I had never intended to enter.

Storytime

“Okay, so, I’d only been working in Seg as a porter for, like, maybe a week or so. So I didn’t know about this one dude yet. So, I come in one day and the CO tells me that this guy, the one I didn’t know about, was sent back to STC with the rest of the looney-tunes, and I had to clean out his cell. Turns out this guy was, like, a regular visitor in SEG. He was a psych dude who would bug up and freak out bad enough to get sent to SEG. You know, like, hit a CO or a psych doctor or an inmate. Something bad enough to get to SEG. He was basically famous. Everyone knew about him except me. So I had no idea what I was walking into. They just told me to put on some gloves, grab a rag and bottle of bleach.”

Surprise!

“As soon as I opened the door to the cell it was like I got punched right smack in the face by the smell. It was so nasty so strong. I caught a throat full of it and thought I was gonna puke for real. I had to walk away, but before I did I saw that there was clothes and bedding crumpled and piled up like a rat’s nest. And everything was covered in shit.

“My two coworkers were standing off to the side laughing their asses off, and even the CO wasn’t trying to hide his grin, but he told me that it still had to be cleaned out. He gave me some heavy duty rubber gloves instead of the cheap latex ones I had and a little paper surgical mask they had laying around and tried sending me back in there, but I was like ‘hell-no!’ I had to have more than that.”

Ingenuity

“So I went and got me some big, like, fifty gallon garbage bags. I put one on each foot and tied them on really tight so that they covered me good up to my knees. Then I poke holes in another one for my head and arms, and put it on like a poncho, but tied a bag around my waist like a belt so that stayed against my body instead of poofing out. I wrapped more bags around my arms and tied them tight before I put the gloves on. Over the paper mask I tied a clean T-shirt to better cover my face and mouth. It was like my own homemade hazmat suit. That was about as ready as I was gonna get, so I went back to the shitty cell.”

Hazardous Material

“Now, usually, when I clean a cell I toss all the clothes and blankets and stuff into the laundry bin to go into the washing machine, but this time it was all soaked through with piss and sweat and funk. There was so much poop smeared and smashed into it so I just had to gather it up and I threw it straight into the garbage. Turns out that the guy didn’t actually sleep on his bunk, but he laid in a pile of clothes, blankets and sheets. There was layer after layer that I had to peel free and toss.

“My little mask didn’t really do much of anything to block out the smell, but it was still better than nothing. I ended up retching and dry-heaving, like, twenty times. I came so close to puking, my eyes were watering. I took a break and shoved wads of toilet paper up my nose, and that actually made a difference, but I could only take small shallow breaths through my mouth because whenever I took a deep breath it would hit the back of my throat like a funky little fist and make me feel like barfing. It was rough, man. It was super rough.”

Finale

“It probably took me, like, an hour, hour-an-a-half to get it all out of there. I actually had my watch on, but I couldn’t check it without peeking back layers of plastic to get to it, so I just had to guess how long I had been at it. Once I had it all out, my job was really just starting because then I had to scrape and scrub every square inch in there.

“Shit was still everywhere. Wet and fresh, gummier than pudding, and old crusty dried streaks of it. On the walls, the ceiling, the floor, the bed, the sink, the door. It was unreal, man. I nearly puked, like, a hundred more times. It was so bad. I just kept gathering goop in my hands and flushing it, trying not to think about it. Flushing and swabbing and scrubbing. I was just finishing up when they told me it was my time to go back to the cell-house. My shift was over; I’d been cleaning in there for close to five hours.

“And you know what? They told me that was the fourth time the guy had done that. And they just let him. They don’t try to stop him or get the psych doctor to talk to him, they just let him build his crap nest and redecorate the place for days or even weeks. It sick, man.”

Victor

With his rebuttal tale finally told, I was left peering at Tee through a grimace of disgust and a sneer of revulsion. I had not wanted to hear that. I suppose I had only myself to blame by raising the topic of terrible turd centric narratives. I couldn’t think of anything much to say in response to the inhuman behavior and inhuman treatment he had just described. After listening to him I felt there wasn’t anyone involved who could be crowned a victor, but I merely conceded.

“Alright, Tee, yeah. You win, man.”

 

Psychotic Break

Aaron paced the cell endlessly, all through the night, mumbling incessantly in vicious whispers and angry vehement curses. He had taken a razor blade from its casing and kept it pinched between thumb and forefinger, slashing at the air as he went. He was off his meds and hadn’t slept in three days. He was unpredictable and utterly terrifying.

SMI

Aaron had been diagnosed with his particular psychological malady and classified as Severely Mentally Ill. In most circumstances, individuals such as him are housed in the psychiatric unit or special treatment center. However, in some instances if the behavior of the inmate in question can be regulated with medication then he is released into the prison’s general population.

As long as Aaron made his scheduled med line appearance every morning and evening he was fine. He slept for at least twelve hours straight, waking only to go to med line and work in the chow hall. When he was awake he was obviously in a dazed, drugged state. His eyelids were perpetually drooped, his speech was slowed but not quite slurred, and there was an overall impression that he was mentally through molasses as he reasoned, reacted and interacted. This isn’t the existence I would choose for myself or a loved one, but for Aaron it appeared to be what passed as closest to normalized or regulated. This was his version of being fine.

Oversight or Negligence

Aaron was scheduled to go home. He had served the time the judge had sentenced him to, but he had no family or friend who would take him in. This is far more common than most might realize. Rather than the Department of Corrections doing its job and finding a suitable place for the individual they just violate the inmate and essentially extend his prison term by two or three years.

The criminal justice system at its finest.

However, since the powers that be have to give the appearance of trying to place the inmate in a halfway house or homeless shelter, they also go through the entire charade of processing the inmate for release. Aaron had a new picture taken along with his fingerprints. He was made to sign several documents in anticipation of a release of custody which wasn’t actually coming. His meds were discontinued and a two week supply of them were prepared to be given to him as he walked out of the prison. Instead he never left, and his meds were never restarted.

Un-medicated

It was a precipitous in Aaron’s behavior. Within days he was sleeping less and more visibly irritable. He began quietly mumbling or chuckling to himself. He would get in the bed, roll around for a while, then get right back out again. By the end of the first week he was pacing and presumably arguing with whomever he was hearing or seeing. Besides Aaron and I there were four other men who shared the cell with us. When one of my cellies asked Aaron to please lay down or be quiet, Aaron raised up physically like a cornered raccoon and let loose with verbal threats of violence and promises to carry out these threats. Prior to this Aaron had been sedate (and sedated) and a complete milquetoast.

At ten days into the ordeal his rants and arguments with invisible or imagined individuals was a constant and he hadn’t slept in three days. It was also at this point that the razor blade became a component of his psychosis. While Aaron experienced a psychotic break from reality I lay beneath my blanket, wide awake and terrified that I’d have to somehow defend myself against this razor-wielding lunatic.

Little Help

I spoke to every security staff member that crossed my path. The COs referred to the sergeant, the sergeant referred me to the lieutenant. Everyone was quick to pass responsibility to the next person. Lieutenant Danish was potbellied and gave the impression of a clean-shaven, surly Santa Claus. He was skeptical of the veracity of my claims. He listened out of a sense of politeness or duty. It wasn’t until I confronted him for three consecutive mornings with tales of Aaron’s abnormal behavior that he finally said the most he could do was report Aaron to a mental health professional so he could be evaluated. It was better than nothing.

Decline

At this point I’d only been able to snatch snippets of sleep—an hour or two at a time. At night my exhaustion eventually overcame my terror and I would lapse into slim unconsciousness only to be bolted awake by Aaron’s increasingly loud ravings. I’d lay awake for long minutes and hours until I had to get up and go to work. Aaron was still working in the chow hall. They had discontinued his meds, not his job assignment. I could sleep some while he was gone. Aaron’s erratic behavior was showing at work and his coworkers reported him to their supervisor. The supervisor was apathetic and paid no attention, took no action.

The Way It Is

Aaron was called out for an impromptu call pass. He saw the psych doctor and apparently was able to mask his mania enough so that he was sent back to the building. Lieutenant Danish had set up the meeting just as he told me he would, and he reported to me that since the mental health professional hadn’t found cause to remove Aaron from the general population there was nothing he could do. Neither he nor the psych could force Aaron to take his meds, though they had finally been renewed. He also couldn’t just take an inmate to seg for no reason. I replied that I wasn’t saying that I wanted Aaron in seg, but that it was only a matter of time before he did something seg-worthy. That could mean attacking me and forcing me to defend myself, or antagonizing another individual to the point of violence. I told Lieutenant Danish that Aaron needed help. Lieutenant Danish said that the psychologist didn’t see it that way, so there was nothing he could do. He shrugged and simply stated: “That’s the way it is.”

An Inevitability

The next day at lunch Aaron’s instability was on full display. Lieutenant Danish had to order him to sit down and eat. A CO had to tell him to just be quiet and eat because he was ranting in a loud voice. Food flew from his mouth and across other men’s trays. When some of the men at the table with him took offense at his disgusting intrusion, Aaron threatened all of them. He called them all faggots, pussies and bitches. That’s the pretty much the prison trifecta of “fighting words”. By which I mean that, in most circles, to let such egregious insults stand would be tantamount to admitting that those statements were true. Aaron’s comprised state of mental health was a nonissue and didn’t make him exempt from reprisals.

Avoidable

I was performing my duties as a housing unit porter, taking the garbage out to the dumpster so I had an ironclad alibi with multiple COs as witnesses. It turned out that I would need it.

As I eventually made my way back to my cell, Aaron came rushing down the hall toward me. He was bleeding from a split lip and his left eye was already visibly swelling. Aaron walked straight into the officer’s control bubble and started raving and yelling. That is a completely unauthorized area for an inmate, and a place where no one in their right mind would ever dream of going. Aaron was handcuffed and Lieutenant Danish was called to hear Aaron’s grievance and deal with the situation.

Deaf & Dumb

The announcement came over the speakers for everyone to return to their cell. A few minutes later Lieutenant Danish sauntered up to my cell in a cocky strut. “Okay, guys, who did it?” My outrage over his indifference and incompetence up to this point got the better of me.

“Are you serious!? I’ve been telling you for days that this guy was losing his mind. You saw him in the chow hall. The COs on the walk back from chow heard him going nuts and yelling nonsense and they just laughed about it.”

“So it was you then, was it?” Lieutenant Danish brimmed with confidence and grinned like the cat that ate the canary.

“Nope. It wasn’t any of us. We would have done it days ago, that’s why we came to you in the first place, but you didn’t do anything. I wasn’t even in the building. I was taking out the garbage.” Then I named the four officers who could attest to that fact. My reveal and my tone smeared the smirk from his face. At this point I didn’t in fact yet now what happened, but I assumed my cellies were all innocent.

“Show me your hands,” Lieutenant Danish demanded. He was pissed and all business. He inspected my mitts for any signs that they had recently been used to assault Aaron. He repeated the ritual with my remaining four cellies, questioning them as to whether it was them who did it or they had seen who did it. Each of them shrugged and mumbled in the negative. “No one knows anything, huh? Big surprise.” He scoffed at our convict behavior and left in a huff, taking his entourage of three officers with him.

Outcome

Aaron was taken to seg for fighting and unauthorized movement. His description of his attacker—black guy with a bald head—wasn’t too helpful in narrowing the search. It did, however, exonerate me and my cellies since none of us fit that bill. According to my cellies, Aaron’s description was little more than a shot in the dark, and terribly inaccurate since Aaron hadn’t ever actually seen his attacker.

The attacker was one of the offended men who sat at the chow hall table with Aaron. He had followed Aaron back to the cell and put a choke hold on him from behind until Aaron ceased struggling and lapsed into unconsciousness. A couple of sharp cracks of Aaron’s face against the concrete floor accounted for the split lip and swollen eye. My cellies stopped the assault before it could get any worse and cleaned up the blood evidence before Lieutenant Danish showed up.

One of my cellies worked as a porter in seg, and for months he would bring back horror stories/reports of Aaron behaving more like a beast than a man, and being treated as less than human. This is what often happens to the disenfranchised mentally ill in this “enlightened” society.