Quarantine the Mad: The Criminalization of Mental Illness


By David Roddy

Few stars shine over the small California town of Ione. Residents have become accustomed to starless nights since 1987, when the lights of Mule Creek State Prison began to cast a red glow over the sky, a constant reminder of the great Other imprisoned on the outskirts of Ione: darker skinned, disenfranchised, presumed dangerous, and nearly half of the town’s census designated population.

One such inmate was 36 year old Joseph Duran. Severely mentally ill, Duran also breathed through a tracheotomy tube in his throat, compounding the medically sensitive nature of his imprisonment.

On the night of September 6, 2013, Duran was placed in a single cell under suicide watch after he lapsed into a manic state. When he refused to remove his hands from the cell’s food port, a guard unloaded over 16 ounces of pepper spray into his cell, covering his face and neck.

Despite the pleas of the prison’s medical staff, the guards refused to remove him from the cell until the next morning, when they found his body. He had desperately torn out his breathing tube and had apparently suffocated. The prison classified his death as suicide.

Recently,his family filed suit against the guard responsible for spraying him, as well as other officials the family alleges covered up the circumstances of his death, of which they were notified four months after the fact by the Sacramento Bee. Their suit reopened a federal investigation that closed last December documenting the abuse of mentally ill prisoners in California, which the Duran suit alleges motivated the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to obscure the details of his death. The court questioned the use of excessive force, pepper-spray, and isolation to discipline mentally ill inmates, who compose 28% of the State’s prison population. After reviewing testimony and video tapes depicting the abuse of ill prisoners, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton ordered the State to revise prison protocol: requiring that guards wait three minutes between repeated sprays, a reduction in the use of solitary confinement to control psychotic patients, and increase access to mental health professionals. Additionally, the emergence of treatment focused mental health courts as an alternative to carceral sentencing in 27 counties has dampened the flow of mentally ill individuals into county criminal justice systems.

While these measures, if thoroughly implemented, are sure to reduce unnecessary deaths like Joseph Duran’s, they do not even attempt to address the rabid growth of the prison industry, nor the failure of our society to ensure adequate mental health care. A study released this April by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that state prisons in the United States held ten times as many mentally ill individuals as state hospitals, a grim complement to a report released in May from the National Research Council that found 1 in 100 U.S. citizens were behind bars, a situation it describes as“historically unprecedented and internationally unique.” 

The growth in prisons and incarceration rates of the mentally ill coincide with the growth of neoliberal capitalism, the global order personified by leaders such as Ronald Reagan that demanded globalized free trade at the expense of welfare, price controls, and full employment at home. In 1967, when Reagan was elected governor of California, more than 50% of the state’s mental patients had already been deinstitutionalized, thanks to the steady advancement of psychiatric pharmaceuticals since the 1950s. That year, Reagan signed into law the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act designed to protect individuals from unjust involuntary institutionalization.  Once implemented, the LPS Act made it nearly impossible for mentally ill individuals to be re-committed, forced patients unable to cope with an increasingly difficult economic environment to become homeless, imprisoned, or sent to profit driven “bed-and-care” facilities, which effectively privatized care for the mentally ill in accordance to neoliberal doctrine. By the mid 1970s, private “bed-and-care” facilities were under heavy scrutiny for placing profitability over care. During the same period, the percentage of mentally ill inmates in the nation grew to 5%, compared to 2% in 1930.  In 2004, the Department of Justice’s Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities found that 56.2% of inmates in state prisons experienced a mental health crisis in the previous year, in addition to 62.4% of inmates in local jails. The killing of Duran exemplifies the dangers inherent in this pattern of criminalizing the mentally ill.

One month prior to the 1981 presidential election of Reagan, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Mental Health Systems Act, which promised to fund projects for the National Institute of Mental Health as well as the country’s ailing mental health system. Reagan, ever ready to cut “wasteful” government spending, allowed the program to die under his presidency. Reagan advocated “community care,” meaning that families, churches, and other non-government institutions were expected to fill the void left by these cuts. Meanwhile, America’s mental health system solidified its current form: cycling suffering people from the streets to prison.

That same year, Reagan revamped Nixon’s “war on drugs,” channeling money that could otherwise be used to renew the country’s mental health system into law enforcement and prisons. Black communities, hit with high unemployment in the face of de-industrialization and a grossly defunded welfare system, fell prey to increased police surveillance and prosecution. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created disparate mandatory minimum sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenses, facilitating the flow of black men and women into a growing prison system.

Structurally, the neoliberal prison system quarantines economically superfluous populations, whether inner city youths who no longer have the jobs their grandfathers did because those jobs have been shipped to cheaper markets, or mentally unstable people who have no place in a society that demands individual productivity as the standard of human worth. These categories are not mutually exclusive: a 2009 study by the World Health Organization found that mental health problems were most pronounced in wealthy countries with high levels of inequality, noting that “The adverse impact of stress is greater in societies where greater inequality exists and where some people feel worse off than others. We will have to face up to the fact that individual and collective mental health and wellbeing will depend on reducing the gap between rich and poor.”

The growth of the prison industrial complex, defunding of mental health care, and rising inequality all interplay in a complex system of racial and class oppression. As such, any long term policy initiatives to prevent a situation like the imprisonment and subsequent killing of Joseph Duran will be necessarily radical in scope. Angela Davis, in arguing for the abolition of prisons, states that the current penal system “relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.” (1)

The door to seriously engaging with the problems of our society has historically been opened by mass movements from below, giving imperative to radical organizers in poor communities to agitate for the abolition of the prison-industrial complex as a function of addressing the concurrent crises of mental health care and poverty. These issues are not natural facts of life, but are rather political constructions designed by the organized interests of the business class, and can be demolished by the organized interests of the masses. Last year, over 30,000 inmates in California state prisons went on hunger strike over the use of solitary confinement, resulting in public hearings earlier this year addressing the state’s use of the punishment. Activists should encourage and participate in such grass-roots resistance whenever possible, for when the haunting glow of floodlights over towns like Ione is extinguished forever, when cold gray walls built to hide the violence and depravity of capitalist society are torn down, only then will any of us be free.  

David Roddy is a member of the National Political Committee of DSA and is active in the Sacramento local.

(1)  Davis, A. (2003). Are prisons obsolete? (p. 16). New York: Seven Stories Press

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