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Mental illness in prison, why you should care

I have a friend who struggles with depression. She’s had a rough decade. In 2007 she was in a horrific car accident that killed her husband and left her with numerous broken bones, as well as two young children to raise alone. When a highly addictive painkiller finally ran out, heroin filled the gap and in 2012, she found herself in a women’s correctional facility serving three years.

As happens with many Americans struggling with depression, the doctor recommended Prozac and this, coupled with meditation and exercise, allowed her to begin to put her life back together. A pivotal part of her plan was work release, a program that allows nonviolent inmates to work in society during the final year of incarceration. With an 8- and 10-year-old at home already down one parent, she would be starting all over with nothing and needed to save some money. But in the end, she was denied entry into the work release program because she was prescribed a mood stabilizing drug which raised her psych level within the prison system. Once she became aware of this, she attempted to refuse her medication but it was too late. So a year later, she was released from a maximum security prison with nothing but a Greyhound bus ticket and a $50 check. So long, farewell, we’ll leave a light on for you.

Question: How many of your co-workers are on Zoloft, Celexa, or Prozac? I would guess that a substantial chunk of the American workforce is on some type of SSRI or MAO inhibitor.

I’m sure the Florida Department of Corrections’ intentions are well meaning. Nobody wants a bunch of Thorazine-soaked, shuffling, criminal psych patients drooling over the deep fryer at the local KFC. But there’s an obvious difference between a violent offender on anti-psychotic meds and a single mother struggling with depression.

This lazy, one-size-fits-all policy is a contributor to the recidivism cycle and only hurts the same society it is trying to protect. In addition to the beatings and gassings that have been showing up in the news over the last few years, this is yet another example of the department’s ineptitude regarding the mentally ill population. A complete overhaul is in order.

By the way, the girl? She’s kicking ass out there, despite the odds.

[This post is Part 5 of Malcolm Ivey’s series, Fixing A Broken Prison System, which appears under its own tab on this site.]

The opinionated voice in my head

I don’t know about you, but my brain came equipped with a paranoid, self-conscious backseat driver who is constantly bumping his gums about every catastrophic and humiliating potentiality that is mathematically possible in a given situation.

This is probably part of the reason why I continued getting high long after the party was over — silencing the inner noise, separating self from brain chatter. Although sometimes this backfired and the dope was like giving the voice in my head a bullhorn.

But this isn’t another of my anti-drug rants. I don’t even consider myself anti-drug. I just can’t use them. For me, drugs come with the curious side effect of landing in the back of police cars. In fact, I’m currently 11 years into a 30-year sentence for actions resulting from my voracious, insatiable appetite for mind-altering substances. But again, this is not about the drugs. This is about the voice.

If you’re thinking “Malcolm is a psycho, he’s got a voice in his head,” that would be the same voice I’m referring to. We’ve all got it. This highly opinionated, ultra-sensitive, threat-assessing, judgment-casting inner narrator who edits the inflow of the world through the senses with various degrees of inflection. Mine happened to be squawking this morning. I’ll explain…

I’ve been wanting to try yoga for a while, ever since I read Bo Lozoff’s We’re All Doing Time. I’ve been incarcerated for most of my life and I grew up hanging from the pull-up and dip bars on rec yards across the state of Florida. These sorts of exercises are a given, as routine as chow and count. There’s a reason why your crackhead nephew gets arrested skinny enough to hide behind a pine tree, and gets out with pecs like Lou Ferrigno. We get buff in here. It’s part of the prison experience.

Yoga has a different draw: flexibility, supple internal organs, reduced stress, increased energy, focus, concentration, peace of mind. At 42 years old, these things seem more important to me now than having massive biceps. So this morning I woke up, brushed my teeth, slammed a bottle of water, and settled into the Corpse pose in the space beside my bunk.

Almost immediately, the voice piped up: “You look weird, man.” I ignored it and climbed to my feet to attempt the sun salutation. The voice was silent for a moment, but by the time I reached downward dog, it was back with a nervous vengeance: “Dude, what the hell? People are staring. They’re gonna think you’re soft or gay or crazy.” The voice was right. Yoga postures aren’t exactly the most prison-friendly exercises. The last thing I wanted was some rapist checking me out while I attempted the plow.

I couldn’t help it. I opened an eye and surveyed the dorm. The guy across the aisle was zoned out on psych meds, another had toothpaste slathered over his face, the old man behind me was in a heated debate with an invisible opponent. No one was paying any attention to what I was doing.

I had to laugh at myself. Why was I sweating appearances when I live in a crazy house? Probably because my paranoid backseat driver convinced me yet again that my reputation, manhood, and very existence depended on it. Here’s hoping your voice is more laid-back than mine.

[This post originally appeared on http://www.malcolmivey.com in June 2016.]

The Behemoth and the Snowflake

They say that upon finishing a manuscript, writers should do something outside their comfort zone. Learn a foreign language, pick up a musical instrument, take a cooking class. Something that causes a different part of the brain to light up. I chose to learn Silat, an Indonesian fighting style that focuses on blocks, strikes and grappling.

The dude who’s teaching me is my polar opposite. A 330-pound, former powerlifter, military historian, ex-bouncer, Limbaugh-loving, NRA conservative who is always talking about the liberal media, fake news, and politically correct safe-space snowflakes.

Full disclosure: I think I’m a snowflake. Especially if that means I’m into human rights, civil rights, common sense gun legislation, clean water, clean air, and kindness. I even have a letter from President Obama in my photo album. Doesn’t matter. Through Silat, this neo-con behemoth and I seem to have found common ground, and after a little over a month of drilling, training, and sparring, I am excelling at the art.

It feels good to be excelling at something because lately I’ve been questioning my ability as a writer. My Amazon author ranking is hovering around two million (are there even two million authors in the world?). Literati industry snobs ignore my existence and, worst of all, my magnum opus, my Pillars of the Earth, my life’s work and beautiful child, On the Shoulders of Giants, has failed to place in a single contest this year. Crushing. I know… I sound like a whiny snowflake. Whatever.

So it was with a fair amount of hesitance that I passed my novel to this gruff, Fox News defensive tackle. I would have never considered doing so had he not already proven to be extremely intelligent and well read… almost to the point of arrogance. I wanted to earn his respect.

He smirked when he accepted it. “You wrote this?” I knew I was setting myself up for failure. On the Shoulders of Giants is a novel about race, addiction, lost love, gun violence, foster care and the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. Even the title is a nod to a famous President Obama speech. Not exactly required reading for Republicans. To further lengthen the long odds of his acceptance, dude is a sci-fi fan. I had already spotted Frank Herbert’s Dune series stacked on his bunk. Our literary tastes are as diametrically opposed as our politics. The question was not so much would he like the book? as it was would he finish it? Apparently my sadomasochistic snowflakery knows no bounds.

In the ensuing days, I watched him from across the dorm. He’s about as rough on a novel as you would expect from a sausage-fingered, powerlifting grizzly bear; dog-earing pages, folding the book back on its spine, setting his morning coffee on the cover. About midway through, we were sparring one day when I asked him how he liked it so far. He rolled his eyes. “Laden with white guilt.” But he read on.

It took less than a week for him to knock it out. One night he came and sat on my bunk, coffee-stained, dog-eared novel in hand. “You know,” he said, “what happened to Scarlett was…” He couldn’t finish his sentence. “Did you like it?” I asked. Tears streamed down his face. All the answer I needed. I placed a hand on his massive back. Humbled. Honored. Screw the contest snubs and academic cold shoulders. This guy’s emotional response was all the accolade I needed. A supreme compliment from the unlikeliest of readers.

And, by the way, it’s Mister Snowflake to you. Don’t forget, I know Silat.

Paradox and reluctant compassion

Every writer loves a good paradox. Our brains are trained to sniff out life’s Catch 22s and spin them into plot points:

A doctor must decide between saving a pregnant  mother or her unborn child. A cop with a drug dealer son must choose between loyalty to the job and loyalty to his family. A general has to decide between bombing a village or letting an international terrorist slip away…

These agonizing decisions are the beating heart of good fiction. They keep the pages turning and the reader engaged. But in real life, such dilemmas are a lot less fun. Consider the most recent in my world…

You’ve probably heard me talk about the blind man. He’s been in prison since 1986. I met him a couple of months ago when I moved into my current dormitory. He challenged me to a game of knock gin with his Braille playing cards and we’ve been cool ever since. I walk with him to the chow hall for meals, and most evenings we listen to Braves games together.

For the record, I am not friendly and I don’t require camaraderie. I think of myself as fully self-contained. I could do years on this bunk without speaking to a soul and be perfectly fine. I really prefer the conversation in my head to the conversations around me, and get cranky whenever someone interrupts. But I was intrigued by the blind man. Although my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, touches on a form of blindness called retinopathy, I’ve never actually hung out with a blind person and I was curious to learn how accurate my assumptions were. Plus, this dude has a sunny disposition in spite of his handicap and I admired his self-sufficiency.

The more I got to know him, the more I liked him. He told me stories about riding bicycles while flanked tightly by his two brothers who kept his course true, about the one time he drove a car (!), about his proficiency at the sport of wrestling as a kid in the 50s. When I asked him about the school for the blind where he lived from ages 5 to 18, his usual smile faded. “There were some nice people there, but some were just plain evil.”

I shouldn’t have looked him up. I usually don’t. Nobody is in prison for going to church, and I’d rather not know the sordid details of people’s criminal histories. But there are a couple of exceptions: 1) if we’re cellmates; and 2) if we’re friends. Then I need to know.

In hindsight, it was pretty obvious. What else could he be in prison for? Racketeering? Arson? A blind armed robber? I think I just assumed it was murder. I mean, he does have a life sentence. Turns out, it was something much uglier. Sexual battery. The worst kind. On a child younger than 12. Enter the paradox.

I know what you’re thinking: What paradox? He’s a diaper sniper. Case closed. I feel you. In the hierarchy of prison, child molesters are at the very bottom of the food chain, just below punks and snitches. During my quarter-century in the joint, I’ve witnessed them get turned out, pimped out, and traded like baseball cards until they eventually either commit suicide or check into protective custody. Those who manage to escape that fate are still robbed, extorted, or at the very least, slapped around and relentlessly ridiculed. Although I don’t participate in the abuse, I don’t have any sympathy either. I see it as karmic law in action.

I’m sure there are parents out there who take small solace in the fact that these men are being tormented in here. I know if one of my nieces or nephews were victimized, I would transfer to every prison in the state until I found the predator and punished him for his actions.

But this blind man… I can’t make myself hate him, or even be cold to him, in spite of whatever he did thirty years ago. This is a big-time conflict of interest. No self-respecting convict would ever treat a cho-mo like a human being. I keep rationalizing, maybe he’s innocent. It seems like the only thing worse than being a child molester is being an innocent man wrongly convicted of those charges.

And then there’s the evil he alluded to at the school for the blind. They say most predators were once victims. The idea of a little blind kid, hundreds of miles from home, being abused by some twisted staff member is as sickening as it is heartbreaking. I couldn’t hate that kid, even though he is now pushing 70. The best that I can do is this reluctant compassion. But see what I mean? Paradox.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in July 2016.]