What we’ve done to the least of these

Published 8:26 pm Friday, April 6, 2018

The United States Federal Courthouse in downtown Jackson is a gleaming testament to the power of our federal government. The walls are literally works of art. The doors are hand carved in elaborate styles. Magnificent hallways and sheets of glass scream the power of modern prosperity.

So it seemed symbolic as I left the courtroom and noticed a 30-yard trail of blood all the way to the elevator.

I had just finished listening to testimony of a 26-year-old African-American man who had been in prison for seven years. He is mentally ill. Schizophrenia, bipolar — the works. He is a cutter, meaning that he won’t stop cutting himself. Several times he has come close to bleeding to death.

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I was impressed by his vocabulary. At one point he used the word “profusely” to describe his bleeding. He seemed intelligent.

Ten percent of Americans will suffer serious mental illness at some point in our lives. Just like we all harbor the vulnerabilities of heart disease and cancer, we are all at risk of mental illness. It is in the nature of the wiring of our brains.

Like a booby trap waiting to explode, mental illness is triggered by environmental trauma. Some of us are blessed enough to avoid such trauma, but the hard nature of life means, inevitably, like the random mutations that lead to cancer, some will fall prey. Highly intelligent and creative people are especially vulnerable.

The young prisoner has been locked up in the East Mississippi Correctional Facility which is the subject of an on-going federal lawsuit for its barbaric conditions.

He was asked why he cut himself.

“I can’t really say,” he testified. “I just get this overwhelming urge. After I do it, it’s a relief. Like a burden has been taken off my shoulders.”

Another time, the young man drank cleaning fluid off a cleaning cart. “That’s stupid,” the guard said and walked away. Somehow, he survived.

This prisoner is due to be released in a month, but there is little chance he will recover. There is a narrow window of opportunity to save someone affected by severe mental illness. They are paranoid. They are terrified. They are overwhelmed by anxiety.

Timely intervention can bring them back. A simple mouth swab genetic test can now identify the best medicines. Gentle and kind therapy in a peaceful, tranquil setting can stabilize their fear and slowly bring them back to reality, just like chemotherapy and angioplasty can save a person from cancer or heart disease.

In our ignorance, we still often blame mentally ill people for their condition. Because mental illness affects behavior, a mentally ill person lacking family support or financial resources will often find themselves arrested. Many of them find their way to EMCF, the Mississippi prison designated to house the mentally ill.

According to the law, these mentally ill prisoners are supposed to receive the intensive therapy and appropriate medications that can bring them back. But at EMCF, it rarely turns out that way.

Instead, they are thrown into a hellhole — a prison run by gangs, where they are beaten, raped, starved, gassed and stuffed in a dark solitary cell with roaches, rats and thin gruel.

If it had been the heart or kidney that had failed, these people would have Medicaid and could get decent medical interventions. But woe to a poor person whose brain becomes diseased in Mississippi.

Centuries ago, these people were burned at the stake for being witches. Or holes were drilled in their heads to let the bad spirts escape, a procedure that usually led to death. Others were locked up in insane asylums not much better than EMCF.

The Nazis just shot the mentally ill. We don’t do that in Mississippi. We torture them until they cut themselves. Then rescue them from impending death, punish them for the attempt, and then torture them some more.

It’s not that the administrators and guards at EMCF are bad people. They probably represent a standard Bell curve of human behavior. Some are saints. Some are sinners. Most fall somewhere in-between.

They are trying to do an extremely difficult job with inadequate resources. There is a shortage of skilled labor to fill these positions. Fire the existing staff and there is no guarantee the next crew will be any better.

During the trial numerous exhibits were submitted showing the staffing of mandatory positions in the prison is often half of what it is required to be. In addition, the cell locks are easily defeated. So the gangs take over.

Given the staff shortage, over time, the prison has learned to use the gangs to help manage the prison. The gangs, which have an elaborate hierarchy, decide which prisoners have which beds. They keep order and discipline. They are rewarded with a franchise to sell contraband. For a price, you can get anything you want.

Some of the guards are in cahoots. Others are intimidated by the gang leaders. Others just want to keep their head down and get paid. No doubt, some are trying their best.

Although expedient, using gangs to help maintain prison order is fraught with potential problems.

First of all, gangs are illegal organizations that engage in illegal activities and use violence to maintain discipline. Once gangs get a toehold, they expand. If gangs are allowed to run our prisons, they may infiltrate law enforcement and numerous other areas of our economy. Just look at Mexico if you want to see the pitfalls of tolerating gang entrenchment.

How can the FBI allow this to happen? They should be nipping this in the bud.

Second, it is absolutely inhumane to allow gangs to run a prison for the mentally ill. The gangs have no understanding of the unique nature of mental illness, so they just beat and isolate these people until they cut themselves, hang themselves and light fires in their cells as a cry for help.

Putting a mentally ill person in these conditions is a death sentence — either actual death or a living hell. If psychosis isn’t stabilized, the brain undergoes permanent physical changes that can be seen on an MRI.

I could recount horror story after horror story. It’s all in the transcript.

Society owes our affluence to brilliant, creative individuals. These are our inventors, entrepreneurs and writers. But the same mental structures that allow creativity also create a vulnerability for mental illness. To throw these people into a hellhole like EMCF is not civilized.

I am under no illusion that a federal magic wand can eradicate this blight on humanity. But there are states that have instituted far better practices and procedures, usually by federal decree. Mississippi is far behind. We must do better.

It would be great if our state leaders cared, but they don’t. I haven’t seen one of them at the trial. Nobody cares about crazy people.

Jesus spoke about the prisoners in Matthew 25:35. His words are clear. What we do to these people, we do to him.

Wyatt Emmerich is a columnist, writer and publisher in Jackson. He can be reached at wyatt@northsidesun.com.