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Overcrowded California Prisons and Mental Health

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Eight years ago I taught a memoir writing course at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs for the International Women's Writing Guild, and one of the women wrote about being the mother of a son in prison.

"People don't realize," she said, "that not only is my son behind bars but I'm behind bars, too. I see the fear and disgust in people's eyes when I say my son is in prison. I imagine they're thinking, 'she must be a terrible mother for her son to be incarcerated.'"

I was deeply moved by her statement about being imprisoned. I had never thought about what it would be like to have a child in prison. She was the first memoirist I had encountered writing about being the mother of a convicted felon.

Now I am too.

My son was transferred from San Francisco County Jail to San Quentin three weeks ago. At the time of his sentencing hearing for receiving a stolen laptop, we were told that we wouldn't hear from him for the 90 days that he would be in "reception" at San Quentin, awaiting the designation of the prison where he would serve his sentence. So I was surprised to receive his letter describing his environs.

San Quentin houses 1000 male inmates in cells along five vertical tiers. My son's in a cell that's 3-1/5 feet wide with a cellmate who is a "whitepride" skinhead from Humboldt County. "He's a good guy by all means, but quite a powder keg if need be," my son writes. There is no racial mixing at San Quentin, which is different from what he experienced at County. There, the whites, Latinos, Blacks and Asians hung out together. But not at San Quentin. At present he can stay "independent," but I wonder for how long.

There is no desk or chair in his cell; only a bunk bed. He writes cramped, bunched in a space between the top bunk and "the sick green ceiling." At the time of his writing he and his cellmate were confined to their cell, fed through the bars, awaiting a search. "All cells will be flipped and the prison guards enjoy throwing personal items -- letters, photos, art, writing -- over the tiers."

"People flood their cells, or wash them, and black sheets of water rain, drip and cascade over the tiers. Sometimes it sounds like the ocean!" He writes about the sheer volume and cacophony of men yelling, singing, asking, pleading throughout the cells. There is no quiet time; the din is constant, the echo is intense: rap, rock, water, fans, metal clanking, shouts, laughs."

I can hear the voices in my head and I don't want to. I put the letter down.

I never expected him to end up in San Quentin. His Public Defender had reassured me he would serve out his sentence in County Jail. After all, his crime of receiving stolen property that he had paid for wasn't a violent crime and he had taken responsibility and expressed remorse. Family members, friends and his doctors had written letters in support of a minimum sentence, citing the mitigating factor of his bipolar illness. I had sent the Judge a summary of his hospitalizations over the past 22 years not only for his brain disorder, but for a heart condition as well.

His father, my daughter, my son, his Public Defender and I pleaded for consideration of probation and treatment or a low sentence. So, we were all stunned when Superior Court Judge Ulmer looked at my son and said: "You come from a good background, you had a good education, you've suffered no hardship. Four years."

After I recovered from the shock of the judge's words, I wrote him about his obvious ignorance about different levels of societal hardship. Poverty, a difficult childhood and lack of education seemed to be his benchmark for what constitutes hardship -- not dealing with the pain and debilitating effects of a mental illness. As a mental health professional, I even offered to send him information about how bipolar illness affects behavior, insight and judgment. I received no reply.

Under the sentencing guidelines, the judge could have given my son two years for his crime. He chose to give him four years instead, despite the overcrowding in California prisons and the extra cost to our state. This occurred three days before the United States Supreme Court ruled that more than 30,000 prisoners had to be released from California prisons within the next two years because of overcrowded conditions. They cited the fact that overcrowded conditions violate the 8th Amendment banning of cruel and unusual punishment. After the Supreme Court decision, Jeanne Woodford, a former director of the state prisons and a former warden at San Quentin was quoted in The New York Times as saying: "One major impact of the overcrowding, and a centerpiece of the Supreme Court's ruling, is the lack of adequate health care for prisoners with mental illness or other chronic medical conditions" (May 25 2011). An inmate dies every week in at least one prison in California because of the horrible conditions to which they are subjected.

I know I am not the only parent coping with a family member who suffers from a brain disorder and has been swept up in the criminal justice system. (See Pete Earley's book, "Crazy: A Father's Search through America's Mental Health Madness"). Remember that mental illness is a brain disorder, not a willful deficiency of morality.

It is imperative that we educate prosecutors and judges about the behavioral effects of mental disorders, create mental health courts and find treatment for those who suffer from a brain disorder so they can be contributing members of society rather than a $50,000 a year drain on the public.

Maureen Murdock Ph.D. is a psychotherapist, psychology professor at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, the author of five internationally published books and a member of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).

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