Correctional facilities: The Band-Aid to mental health

Correctional Facilities: The Band-Aid to Mental Health

By Yesenia Barrios 

Shawanna Vaughn had no choice. She was born in a prison hospital to an incarcerated mother. 

Shawanna Vaughn

She endured a tough childhood, only to land back in prison at 17, and continue the harmful cycle.

“Nobody got to prison without adverse childhood experiences which turned into adult traumas,” said Vaughn, founder of Silent Cry Inc., a non-profit based in Harlem, New York that advocates for a comprehensive prison reform and supports people who have been victimized by gun violence and the foster care system.

Vaughn made the comments  during a recent episode of Therapy Thursday, an Instagram Live event hosted by Urban Health Media Project, which last month focused on incarceration and its impacts on mental health for individuals, families and communities. 

Vaughn advocates for prison reform and recently wrote the Post Traumatic Prison Disorder Shawanna W76337 Act which was introduced to the New York State Senate. She works to bring mental health treatment directly to low-income New York communities, which are disproportionately Black and Hispanic.  

William Hasan, a Cleveland-based licensed social worker who works directly with inmates, said mass incarceration results from wanting a simple “band-aid” for the complex issues involving mental health.

“If you want a whole bunch of people to not use drugs, instead of making a treatment program, just put a jail there,” he said. “You want to try to control your society? Just put a jail there, instead of trying to talk to them.”

The U.S. has one of the highest percentages of incarcerated people, making up 20% of the total inmate population in the world. According to The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, more than 350,000 people with a mental illness are placed in jails and prisons every year for low level, non-violent offenses. 

Michael Lacey

In the U.S, the societal response  to disruptive behaviors that can  arise from serious mental illness– such as hallucinations, psychosis-induced violence, and erratic or threatening behavior– is usually to punish or imprison. The end result: correctional facilities are the country’s largest institutions housing people with a mental illness, rather than treatment centers or hospitals.

Panelist Michael Lacey, who was imprisoned at 19 years old for participating in a robbery in which a person died, is now a TikTok influencer (@comrade_sinque) advocating for prisoner’s rights. 

“This is an issue of class and race as well. Low-income people suffer the most,” said Lacey. 

Therapy as a form of healing from trauma can be very effective but it is also a “luxury” not everyone can afford because some people “are too busy trying to pay the bills,” he added.

According to the Sentencing Project, Black Americans are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than white Americans, and one in three Black men are likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime.

Like Vauhgn, Lacey witnessed people in prison being severely punished when having a mental health crisis. 

“They start acting up, and what gets done is you get sent to the disciplinary board, where you are written up and put in solitary confinement,” he said. 

Many studies show solitary confinement is detrimental to a prisoner's mental health and can exacerbate symptoms or cause recurrences in people with serious mental illness. Isolation, depending on the duration and circumstance, can even lead to PTSD and lingering effects on the  brain and body. Medication is often prescribed in jails and prisons as a fast solution for mental illnesses.

“That is the answer for mental health in prison– to push pharmaceuticals,” said Vaughn. “We go in traumatized, we get more traumatized, we come out traumatized with 40 dollars and a bus ticket and they say ‘go live your best life.’”

William Hasan

 Working directly with New York Councilwoman Kristin Richardson Jordan, Vaughn aims to create a mental health program that starts in New York’s public housing, where trauma and the mental illnesses that can come from it are exacerbated by poverty and lack of resources in the community, trapping generations into the toxic cycle.

Vaughn hopes the program will have peer specialists that offer individualized therapy. She believes everyone heals differently, whether it is through art, with the help of animals or by simply talking.

“We need trauma-informed therapists in trauma battlefield neighborhoods,” she said.

Hasan said it is pivotal for therapists to be specially trained to work where poverty and violence have impacted the quality of people’s lives.

“They need to have additional training to understand just the people they are going to work with, to deal with trauma-specific communities,” he said.

All guests agreed a lot needs to be done for things to change. Hasan said prisons and jails need to take a real interest in the mental health of inmates. “The jails have to be invested in this,” he said. 

Vaughn is advocating for people to have health insurance and housing before they leave prison, be required to receive therapy with a method that works for each individual, and to receive a 30-day supply of medication before being released. 

“This is exactly why I wrote legislation,” said Vaughn. “The first line of defense to help us is us. And so I started in my house; I go to therapy, I won’t have any children of mine go to prison. The cycle stops here.”