Mental Health Inside Prison Walls

For my first blog post, I will be responding to a recent news story written by JB Nicholas from “The Crime Report” website. The link to this news story is here: http://thecrimereport.org/2016/09/30/how-prison-guards-drove-a-mentally-ill-inmate-to-suicide/

This heartbreaking story shares the tragic suicide of a mentally ill prison inmate who was arguably pushed to commit suicide due to a lack of mental health help and support while in prison. This is the story of Benjamin Van Zandt, who displayed signs of mental instability from a very young age. By the age of 17, Van Zandt was already diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychotic depression.

Age 17 is also the age he was sentenced to 12 years in adult prison for lighting a house on fire in his neighborhood because the voices in his head told him to do so. In jail he was raped, sent to solitary confinement, and deprived of his necessary anti-psychotic medications. At the age of 21, Van Zandt hanged himself in his cell at Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York, which was the 11th suicide in state prisons in 2014 and the youngest inmate to take his own life.

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Benjamin Van Zandt. Photo by Bethlehem Police Dept.

There are so many things that went wrong in the criminal justice system in Van Zandt’s case that unfortunately were too much for Van Zandt, and rightly so. I will be discussing the two main components of mental health in prisons and they are: criminalization of mental illness and solitary confinement. These two topics are very important when it comes to mental health and I feel that they are the most demonstrative issues in this particular case.

Criminalization of Mental Illness

Mental illness is often not separated from criminality in the criminal justice system. Inmates are often sentenced to prison when in fact what they need is rehabilitation and support. Fishkill Correctional Facility is a Level-1 facility, which is the highest level of mental health care available. However, according to the article, when the prison was visited and assessed by auditors, it was noted that Fishkill was not living up to its Level-1 accolade.

It was found that 464 prisoners were in need of psychiatric care, but there were only 42 available beds to treat them. That is a huge concern, particularly being the “best mental health care facility” in the state. Here is a link to learn more about the lack of mental health care in prison facilities and criminalization of mental health: http://mentalillnesspolicy.org/consequences/criminalization.html

Changes must be made on fundamental and societal levels for the stigma surrounding mental health, particularly relating to criminals in prisons. Inmates are often not given the same basic human rights that non-inmates receive. If a non-inmate has mental health issues and needs help, they more than likely receive it. However, if an inmate needs something, it’s much harder and much more of a process for them to receive it because of their criminal status.

Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement goes hand in hand with mental illness because it has been proven to not be effective in changing inmate behavior. This link provides more information on how mentality is negatively affected by solitary confinement: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/what-does-solitary-confinement-do-to-your-mind/

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Because Van Zandt was repeatedly sent to solitary, I wouldn’t be surprised if his mind began to wander while he was in there. Many crazy thoughts can come into one’s mind when they are sitting in a small isolated cell for 23 hours out of the day. It truly is very sad that the criminal justice system thinks treating a human being like this will incite conforming “good behavior.” It’s so unfortunate that Van Zandt was treated this way when he should have been treated, not locked up, particularly being so young.

What’s Next?

This is still an ongoing problem today in prisons across the country. Imagine a world where mental health was not stigmatized and people from all walks of life could seek and receive help. This would no doubt be a more positive world, promoting support and rehabilitation for those who need it. Criminals could actually get help instead of being punished for committing crimes that may have been associated with their mental states.

The criminalization of mental illness and solitary confinement can both be seen as huge contributors to the suicide of Benjamin Van Zandt. If he was given the proper medications and care and perhaps sent to a rehabilitation facility instead of prison, he could likely still be around today. This is becoming such an unfortunate trend in prisons across America in society today and something needs to be done about it. Institutional changes must be implemented for these prisoners to get the help they so deserve. The ultimate goal for humanity should be to help inmates that can be helped with the main goal being re-integration into society one day.

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