For this week’s entry I present to you Institutionalized by Suicidal Tendencies. I chose this song as I would like to focus on one aspect often discussed in relation to prison abolition, the topic of the carceral approach to mental health treatment.
As per my first entry into the mix tape I would like to lead with an anecdote. (Content warning) One of my closest family members (a first cousin) was diagnosed with autism at a young age. Once he reached his 20’s he was evaluated to have developed a rather severe form of schizophrenia. For years he’s been completely depended on my aunt for all his needs being ostensibly unable to care for himself. As is the case for those suffering from a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, he frequently has violent manic episodes often directed at those closest to him. In one of the most dangerous episodes, he physically assaulted his brother and mother, grabbed several knifes throwing them, and threatening to kill himself. My aunt, having been reluctant to involve the police for fear of his safety, had no other option but to call them in this instance. When they arrived, the police proceeded to tase and mace him, throwing him to the ground, and fracturing his left arm in the process. What followed was an overnight stay in jail, costly hospital bills, and a permanent record. Left with no other options and seeking immediate treatment for my cousin, she found only one institution three states away that would accept someone with his condition that had exhibited prior violent tendencies. After a month of treatment costing $107,500 it was determined that they could no longer help him.
I’m sharing this story because I believe it reflects the way police and prisons operate as the primary vector for engagement with mental illness as articulated by both Angela Davis and Allegra McLeod as well as by Suicidal Tendencies in Institutionalized. To quote the second verse:
They give you a white shirt with long sleeves
Tied around your back, you’re treated like thieves
Drug you up because they’re lazy
It’s too much work to help a crazy
With an absence of proactive community-oriented prevention, all that remains for those in distress are expensive private mental health facilities or the police and incarceration/institutionalization. McLeod echoes this stating:
“The Oakland Power Projects, organized by the Critical Resistance chapter in Oakland, California, offer another approach to addressing harm in which community street medics and healthcare workers train residents in de-escalation and other tactics. These other tactics are aimed at assisting neighbors confronted with a loved one facing a mental health crisis — a frequent reason for calls to police that result in violence and unnecessary jailing.”
The institutions of prisons and mental health care are inexorably tied, being ostensibly reflections of each other. Issues of mental health are direct precursors to or just blatantly causal factors of crime and criminality. America’s prisons inexorably become extensions of the mental health care system, housing millions of untreated peoples for whom mental illness has been manifested in criminality.