Mental Illness, Incarceration, and Treatment: One Mother’s Crusade

Do inmates with mental illness have equal medical treatment that a person out of the prison system would have? Are prisons the right place for people with mental illness at all?

When a person is arrested and comes into the state’s custody they are subjected to intensive examinations and tests to determine what kinds of illnesses that they may carry. Many prisoners suffer with conditions ranging from diabetes, sexual transmitted diseases (STD’s) to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Yet one of the most common afflictions for people going into the corrections system is not physical: it’s mental illness. According to Jennifer Costa’s article for WCAX, Mental Illness in VT. Prisons, “44% of male inmates and 70% of females inmates [are diagnosed with a mental illness]. Calls for this kind of care skyrocketed by 96-percent in just the past six years… as well of higher rate of inmates committing self harm…. On average three inmates a month attempt suicide, and all incidents of self-harm are up 55-percent.”

After seeing a story about Costa’s findings on local television channel WCAX, Barbara Germon felt compelled to comment and she did, vehemently. One of Barbara’s four sons has a mental illness and is in prison. She didn’t release his name, but she has been willing to share his story with The Chronicle:

In the case of my son, who has ADHD and a severe anxiety disorder, along with showing signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, his “medication” is whatever street drug will bring relief to the physical and mental suffering. Any drug that might make him feel better becomes a drug he would seek. Unfortunately those same drugs have other undesirable effects, such as interfering with executive function of the brain (decision making) and lowering, or completely obliterating components of self-control.

According to Barbara, “His latest ‘crime’ was crashing his car in an attempt to commit suicide. When the police came, he ran.” Allegedly he also tried to remove a hook from a taser (he was tasered 4 times) and that resulted in a felony charge . . . that case hasn’t yet been heard yet.” Barbara claims that his behavior was affected by his mental illness:

He was charged with driving under the influence because of his behavior, I suppose, not seeming to come from a normal or sober person, and was deemed to come from someone who had been under the influence. They’re right. He was “under the influence” but it wasn’t drugs or alcohol; he was under the influence of psychiatric disorders and anxiety. To some people, anxiety just means a few butterflies in the stomach before speaking at a podium or asking someone out for a date, but it is far more than that.”

Barbara feels strongly that “The system is not what it should be. . . .”

Her son is currently in the prison system and one of the untreated patients. Barbara claims that when she “…would speak about the system, [her] son would get punished.”

When contacted by The Chronicle for a response to Ms. Germon’s allegations, Mike Touchette, Director of Correctional Facilities with the Vermont Department of Corrections replied:

No, the inmate would not be in trouble. Now, if a person was speaking out against the system, and made a threat that would compromise the safety and security of a facility, we would take necessary steps to ensure that our facilities, staff and inmates are safe and secure; but it would not include the punishment or disciplinary action against the inmate who is related to the person making the statement.

Garmon contends that not only is the care given to mentally ill inmates not adequate, but also unfairly distributed:

The most severe cases receive some attention, and maybe even some medication, and it involves keeping them even more isolated (sometimes in solitary confinement). But it is far removed from the care and support these same people could receive on the outside, in their own communities, where a majority of them could become productive citizens. And who doesn’t want to feel productive!

Barbara believes…

“There are many things a patient can benefit from along with medication, for example, talk therapy, learning about coping mechanisms, learning what their symptoms are, learning what things could trigger some of the worst symptoms and how to avoid them…. these patients need a supportive family and community in conjunction with treatment; and the treatment can not be temporary because most mental illnesses have no cure.”

But what services are available to inmates? The Chronicle reached out again to Mr. Touchette for specific information about the types of treatments available within the prison system:

That’s an incredibly broad question given the subject matter, but I’ll do my best to summarize for you. Treatment can consist of, but not limited to any of the following, or any combination of them: meeting with Mental Health Professionals (MHP) for counseling, group therapy, prescription medication, intensive psychotherapy, placement in a hospital or other residential care facility.

The question as to when a person receives these services has many variables. Our practice is to employ the least invasive process to support the inmate, while balancing the safety and security needs of the facility. Any person receiving mental health support has continuous reviews of their case, where the team makes adjustments to the care plan in response to the person’s current state of well being.

Judging from Mr. Touchette’s response, much of what Ms. Garmon would like to see as adequate care in the prison system already exists.

Shortly after my interview with Ms. Garson, I wanted to check in with her again and see how her son was. She remains frustrated:

He is not doing well, he is not getting any medication. He is not getting any help in any form. He will suffer until he’s back home for that reason; the only ‘treatment’ they deliver is punishment. That’s a long time to be subject to neglect of his needs and punishment on top of it. We do have some plans in place for him when he’s home in May, 2018. I hope I’m still living because he’s going to need a great deal of support and someone to help him make the connections he’s going to need. We know that support will not come from the prisons, or from and part of the correctional system, including the courts.

Several questions remain in my mind: predominantly whether or not there is adequate psychiatric support for inmates with mental illness. Based on my research, I would say that there seems to be help available to inmates, certainly enough to keep them safe and perhaps even improve their life skills.

But no matter if they are in or out of prison, I believe treatment should depend on how mentally stable they are in essence. We must remember that according to Barbara, her son was attempting to commit suicide when he was arrested. His behaviour doesn’t indicate that his illness was under any kind of control.

Barbara feels that community support is critical to someone’s betterment.

But she also seemed unwilling to focus on a couple of lingering questions, only referred to the one time she attempted to get counseling for him:

What help was he already receiving the in community if any?

Yes, help exists outside the prison system; was he availing himself of it?