Spartanburg County Jail Portrait Series

Spartanburg County Jail Portrait Series by David Blackwell under creative commons on flickr.

There is a healthcare crisis in the US prison system.

For the past month, I have been looking at the legal file from my own case, and researching how it was possible to be convicted of, among other things, a DUI, when the blood test results showed no alcohol or drugs. I have read hundreds of Court of Appeals cases, and looked up information on all topics relating to my case. The entire floor of one room is covered with stacks and boxes of papers. Sometimes, several days pass when I have not gone outside, or even looked at the news. What I have learned is shocking, even for me, and I thought I had ‘seen it all.’ When the time is right, I will write a series of essays, because I am not just talking about my case. The vast majority of people plead guilty, never dreaming, because their lawyer failed to tell them, that they would do their time in the hell of a county jail, or that the evidence was exculpatory, or that the science was junk science, or that they would have to serve a longer sentence than they were led to believe.

Our country locks up more people than Stalin’s Gulag. Kentucky is one of the nation’s leaders for jailing children for status offenses, which are non-crimes like missing school. In Oklahoma, a pregnant woman went to a hospital because she was in severre pain. The staff called the police, the police searched her purse and found two pills for which she did not have a prescription; she was removed from the hospital, where she died.

One of the practices I find most appalling and offensive is locking up the mentally ill, including the elderly. ‘Harry’ was a mentally ill man who was in the jail at the same time I was. He was in a tiny isolation cell, without a book to read, a pencil and paper, or anyone to talk to. During the entire time I was there, he was denied recreation time outside his cell. We never knew who he was or why he was there, and we suspected he knew no more than we did, regarding his situation. I have shared this before, but since I believe that ‘Harry’ is so common and so heartbreaking, it is important for people to be aware of how the mentally ill are treated. I apologize in advance, because I cannot stay for very long today, as I need to get some sleep, before going downtown for an appointment.

The Jailhouse Bullying of Harry

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

Inmate names are changed.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

McCracken County Jail, February 2008

It is three o’clock in the morning, and a couple of female inmates next door, as well as Meg, in this cell, are on the floor, on their bellies, taunting and tormenting Harry, who is mentally ill and housed at the end of the hallway in an isolation cell. They shout, at maximum volume, “HAAAAAAARRRRREEEEEEE!!! Want some puuuuussssyy, Harrreee?!”

Harry shouts, “HELP! Somebody! Please! HELP ME! Let me out, please Helpmehelpmehelpmehelp.”

Harry’s repeated requests for help reveal Harry’s profound lack of understanding of his own surroundings.

I am on my bunk, listening. I cannot help Harry. If I try to intervene, the bully inmates bullying will turn their rage onto me. If I do not try to intervene, they will continue to prey on Harry.

I do not intervene, and I am ashamed of myself. I do not intervene, because I am afraid that I might hurt someone.

I have never seen, nor will I ever see, during my stay in McCracken County Jail, the pathetic man we call Harry. None of us knows why he is locked up.

If the guards were to take Harry out of his cement tomb for recreation in the outside cage, we would have witnessed it, because we watch the hallway that leads directly from his cell at the end to the outside cage at the other end. We never see Harry go to rec. Christie, who had been here for seven months on my arrival had never seen him during that time either.

On my bunk, I try to think things through, although the noise is distracting. There must be thousands and thousands of Harrys locked up everywhere. Harry the person is no longer Harry the person. Harry is a bait ball in a cement cell at the end of the hallway. He is as defenseless as a child. The apex predators are hungry to hate, and they feed on Harry constantly, kicking the steel door, shouting insults every time they pass by, picking what’s left of Harry and then picking some more.

I often wonder if Harry is somebody’s father. Or son. Was he ever loved? Did Harry ever matter, to anyone? Was Harry a veteran, psychologically crippled by tours of duty? I do not know.

Why are the Harrys out there picked up, locked up, and then alternately ignored and picked on? The bullies use Harry almost exactly as they would a bar. They wander by and use him when they need him, and when they’ve had their fill, they belch, toss the glass, and move on.

There are rumors that Harry has spread feces onto the walls on the cement tomb. Perhaps this is the only thing left for Harry to do, to tell himself that he still exists.

I wonder also about Harry’s mental and physical treatment care plans. This jail has a social worker who oversees the medical needs of the mentally ill inmates. While there may be a nurse practitioner or an off-site physician signing off on the care plan and the medications, all initial requests for such must go through the social worker gatekeeper first. The sad thing is that Harrys own profound disability at the moment prevents him from filling out the initial request form on his own behalf.

This jail is not at all unique. Jails are the new ground zero for Eighth Amendment violations of the mentally ill, as I see it. Harrys are warehoused, untreated and abused everywhere.

There should be a zero-tolerance policy for inmates tormenting their fellow mentally ill inmates. If I were the jailer I would post signs everywhere: You torment Harry and you go to the hole, to sit and think about your bullying. Signed, The Jailer. But, it is not meant to be. Rather, Harry is shelved jailhouse prey and nothing more.

What will eventually happen to Harrys everywhere? On my bunk, I wonder these things.