After two decades of breathing in freedom, Wallace Kirby, an advocate for University Legal Services in Washington, reflects on an ingrained adolescent memory of being incarcerated in and also escaping from, various jails.

As he sat in a room at his office one recent afternoon, Kirby, now sixty-years-old, said that he couldn’t possibly remember how many times he has been imprisoned since his first incarceration at the age of 12. As to the reasons for his various sentences, Kirby recalls that his countless charges centered primarily on armed robberies and stealing cars, the latter was a skill he developed and implemented later in life to make money.

“I knew I wasn’t going to stop committing crimes,” Kirby said. “I was very angry because of our impoverished state. So, that’s just my way of acting out. I didn’t stop because I didn’t see poverty being eradicated.”

Kirby was raised with five other siblings by a single mother. He had become accustomed to his family’s poverty and had grown indifferent in his feelings toward his own life.  Kirby said that he never used to care about his juvenile delinquencies, or whether his continued crimes would land him back in jail.  For him, being in jail “was like a ‘family reunion.’”

“A lot of us knew each other, so I was like ‘we are at home’,” he said. “We just didn’t like being away from our families, so some of us would just run.”

Kirby spent most of his teenage life back and forth from his home —a public housing in Northeast Washington— to juvenile institutions like Maple Glen and Cheltenham in Lower Maryland. At that time, even though he had been seeing a psychiatrist every time he was locked up in juvenile jails, Kirby said he didn’t have any clue about his mental condition.

Until one day, after being released on parole and got locked up again for bank robbery charges, doctors at St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital officially diagnosed him with Paranoid Schizophrenia chronic type, the highest level of the disorder’s diagnostic scale. This chronic mental disorder causes people to suffer from delusions, to hear voices, and to experience perceptual disturbances. Using the diagnosis, he then was adjudicated to be criminally insane and considered incompetent to stand trial.

“They were suspicious that I really had a serious mental illness,” he said.  “But, I didn’t feel I had one. I didn’t believe anything’s wrong with me.”

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St. Elizabeth Hospital was built in August 1852 in Washington, D.C. to provide care for mentally ill residents. Since 2010, hospital functions have been limited and operated by the District of Columbia Department of Mental Health and most part is slated for redevelopment by the District which owns the site. Photo/Source: Wikipedia

For the next four years, he would have to keep coming back and forth from the hospital to jail for further diagnoses and evaluations. During the time, Kirby said that he was frequently “beaten, stripped naked, and put in a cell for failing to follow orders.”

“Back then,” he reflected, “they would do anything to you.”

Kirby was just one of mentally ill inmates in prisons and jails across the country who is subjected to physical abuse by guards as well as by medical workers in mental hospitals. Last year, Human Rights Watch released a report that prisoners suffering from serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are often punished with the physical force for everyday behaviors. Moreover, in prison environments, inmates labeled as “mentally ill” are more likely to be victimized by inmates who have not.

A Justice Department study also found that, in any given year, 50 percent of men in state penitentiaries and 63 percent of men in local jails will suffer from mental health problems.  While female inmates are of a higher percentage, around 75 percent in both gender categories populate state penitentiaries and local jails.

Scientific reports show that harsh and chaotic circumstances in most prisons and jails arguably deteriorate the condition of inmates who suffer from prior mental illness.

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Wallace Kirby, 60, who had been incarcerated for many years since he was a teenager, is speaking at an event in Washington, D.C. During the time of his imprisonment, Kirby said that he was frequently “beaten, stripped naked, and put in a cell for failing to follow orders.”  Photo by Mellie Cynthia

As if being caged behind bars wasn’t sufficient to control  Kirby’s criminal behavior, authorities at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore took one step further in sentencing him to solitary confinement. In 1990, Kirby was sentenced to four years in this maximum security prison in Baltimore. He described his life there as “the worst experience you could imagine for.”

“It’s almost like something is being taken away from you, inside your soul, your spirit, and your mind,” he said. “I think people who had been through it, it is difficult to explain what they had been through because it is so destructive on a deeper level than somebody is saying ‘a guy beat you up’, it is something that has been destroying inside of you.”

Due to the adverse psychological effects of prolonged isolation, he often witnessed suicidal tendencies among other prisoners who were isolated. After coming out of the experience like that, he said, it is very difficult to readjust and restore a sense of mental and spiritual balance, and, he continued that being able to socially be as “normal” is “almost impossible.”

Fortunately, he had found ways to keep himself sane.  Kirby, who identifies as a Muslim, says that he used his faith to pray and meditate. He also cultivated his interest in writing poems as outlets to deflate his aggressive rage and overcome depressive feelings. Today,  he still writes poems and plays.

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“Back then, they would do anything to you.”

-Wallace Kirby, formerly incarcerated man, prison reform advocate-

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The misappropriation of mental hospitals and prisons as places fit to ‘treat’ the mentally ill has long been criticized by advocates for people with mental disabilities. “The tradition in America was to put people in hospitals and in large institutions, but when people went and looked to see what is happening in those institutions, it is truly shocking,” said the Project Director for University Legal Services, Tammy L. Seltzer.

It wasn’t until 1960’s that the way people with mental illness were treated nationwide began to alter. The movement to deinstitutionalize mentally ill adults and children started after an investigative TV journalist, Geraldo Riviera, had gone with hidden cameras to Willowbrook institution in Staten Island, New York. At this campus for mentally ill children, allegations stated that some students were reportedly used as test cases for hepatitis studies and that others were abused.

Since the coverage, mental hospitals have been perceived as places of torture and humiliation, instead of places of healing, and a lot of the facilities were shut down or downsized, including St. Elizabeth’s.

The closing of mental hospitals might have contributed to the high numbers of mentally ill people who were incarcerated thereafter. There are now ten times as many mentally ill people in our nation’s 5,000 jails and prisons as there are in state mental institutions, according to the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center.

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“The tradition in America was to put people in hospitals and in large institutions, but when people went and looked to see what is happening in those institutions, it is truly shocking.”

-Tammy L. Seltzer, project director for University Legal Services, Washington D.C.- 

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Seltzer explained that there has been an implicit bias among the general population, to see mentally ill people as more violent, and stigma has developed against people with mental illness in the community. This bias resonates with the law enforcement, which has led them to make related arrests and incarcerations more often, even for nonviolent offenses such as public urination.

“Police are not going to arrest drunken university students if they are peeing in the alley or bushes,” said Seltzer. “But if it is someone with mental illness in public park, it is the same situation —they might be drunk or not— they are going to get arrested.”

When it comes to the treatment of mentally ill, Seltzer said that the best way to address this issue is to put the mentally ill in community-based treatment centers, where they are surrounded by family members and “other people who do not have mental health problems.” This model of treatment is called ‘the most integrated setting’, one that the University of Legal Services has been endorsing.

It is also significantly important to let mentally ill people decide what really works for them, given the fact that many mentally ill individuals are often prescribed various types of medication during their treatment.

“If the treatment is chosen, it’s much more effective than to have people being forced and coerced into doing it. It’s not going to be your psychiatrist that you see once a month for 15 minutes that’s going to help you figure out how to live in the world.”   Seltzer said, referring to Kirby’s successful process of healing.

Although Kirby, who has now been married and has one daughter, is still working on handling his mental illness, he thinks that he is doing pretty well. Besides his advocacy efforts, he is also in the process of creating a drama troupe to address issues of trauma with men being incarcerated, primarily with mental illness. He really knows that being in solitary is a very traumatic experience, that those afflicted need a venue to release the anger, and that art is a very good outlet.

He is committed to making the best out of his experience and is optimistic that it’s going to be fruitful.

“This is the longest time I ever stay (out of prison) in my whole life,” said Kirby, smiling.

Featured image by Creative Commons.

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