By Richard Gross
December 7, 2019
It was the first winter at Phoenix and I was facilitating a 10-week RJ Intro workshop. We met in the evening in a room that has no outside windows; twenty men in a circle that filled the square room. One of the participants was housed in a mental health block. I knew this, knowing which block each participant was from, but did not think much of it nor intend to mention it. Each week builds on the last while bonds within the circle grow. Several sessions into the workshop we had built community—a safe environment to share things about ourselves that we may not ordinarily tell people. As it happened, the young man decided to tell the group that he was on a mental health unit and took psychiatric medications. He likely thought he was alone in that. Maybe he felt he was dropping a bombshell. One by one other men acknowledged their own mental health histories. The time they had spent on mental health units in the past and the psych meds they were still taking. One man admitted to having been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital for a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation. I told my own story of the first six years of my incarceration on a mental health block and that I took psych meds for 10 years. I suffer from PTSD and need a different way of healing rather than psych meds. Before we moved on, at least a quarter of the men there related their own experience with mental health issues. Whatever stigma that may have been attached to a mental health history was gone. It is very common in prison for people to take psych meds, though they don’t usually volunteer that info about themselves. It is common for people to begin their incarceration on a mental health unit before moving later to general population. After all, the things we did to end up in prison were not exactly sane things to do. Irrational acts, cries for help, and crazy deeds are the things that bring people to prison. The best thing about LCU is the stories that people feel comfortable enough to share with others. The amazing thing about LCU is that these stories, no matter how rare, how bizarre, are not uncommon in our circles. There are always similarities in the stories of other incarcerated people regardless of the experience: mental illness, drug abuse, child abuse and neglect, dangerous schools and neighborhoods, chaotic relationships, poverty, desperate acts to gain money, attention, infamy. When people share their deepest darkest secrets, they find that they are not alone, and that is always a comforting surprise for them.