Locking Up the Mentally Ill?

Honestly, I thought my lil' African buddy had been tazed.

Kwame was on the ground convulsing, drooling, with his eyes rolling to the back of his head. Two big police officers were standing over him, armed to the tilt, making sure he wouldn't escape. They would not allow any of the watching public or his friends to come close and comfort him. The truth is, there was no way he could even stand up, let alone escape! His breathing was getting shallower and shallower. The police didn't know what to do as he lay on the cold street, next to the squad SUV, shaking uncontrollably. Alone! Many of us who surrounded him, silently prayed for our harmless little buddy as the ambulance finally came. The medics gave him breathing treatments and rushed him to the nearest hospital.

Well, the truth is, Kwame hadn't been tazed! Some of the people further down the block assumed he had been, but the group right next to him observed the whole ordeal. They explained to me that Kwame went into a grand-mall seizure when the cops did one of their simple "stop and frisk" routines on him.

Kwame, who is short in stature, somewhat scruffy and very dark skinned, was on the corner chatting with a few other fellas. When he talks, he's overtly flamboyant and an extremely emotional dude; his arms flay all over the place, his mouth opens incredibly wide with the occasional spitball flinging out of it as he endlessly and loudly repeats himself. That's all he was doing when the "blue n white" rolled down the block, pulled into the alley and ordered Kwame to come over. He was told to spread his legs, put his hands on the SUV's hood as they started to pat him down and search him.

Kwame hadn't done anything wrong, but neither had the police. They can legally stop and frisk people whenever they choose, anyone they deem as suspicious, just so long as they use the correct protocol and have the right motives. For whatever reason, on this particular day in February, he was deemed suspicious; so when they slid into the alley and ordered him to obey; this legal procedure freaked this young man out. As he placed his hands on the SUV, with the armed cops staunchly standing behind him, Kwame fell to the ground as he started going into a life-threatening seizure. Flashing lights, big dudes with guns, tazers, batons, bullet proof vests and the power to throw him into a small cell are suddenly surrounding him with force. This sort of legal aggressive intimidation happens all the time in Chicago and would cause any one of us to panic. When this happened to Kwame, it caused his fragile body and mentally ill mind to go into shock.

Thankfully Kwame didn't go to jail; there was no reason for him to be arrested, but he did end up in the local hospital for a couple of hours.

When we look at Kwame, we see that he suffers with severe bi-polar and paranoia, combined with an intense anxiety disorder and he also struggles with huge abandonment issues. When we realize all that, combined with him fighting for his "green card", (he's legally here - but there's always the fear of deportation, when it comes to being arrested), combined with his own personal decision to take himself off Depakote (medication for his emotional swings), we can get a glimpse into why his fragile body did what it did. It was his first ever seizure. We can thank God that he was released from the hospital later that evening and is physically okay today.

I may know quite a bit about this man, but these arresting officers don't. They've been trained and are paid to "serve and protect". They also get paid and are trained to continue executing this 40 year "war on drugs". There are thousands of people wandering around the Wilson and Broadway intersection every day, so why did the Police choose to "stop and frisk" Kwame? Why didn't they "stop and frisk" a Truman College student or a mother waiting for 79 bus to arrive or a random guy walking his puppy or a "red line" traveler wandering west toward her condo? Why didn't they "stop and frisk" me, who walks that same block many times every single day? The truth is: Kwame isn't any more likely to be possessing drugs than any other person wandering down Wilson, statistics actually show that college students are the people group most likely to be possessing marijuana.

My focus in this piece isn't about the horrible racial disparity over the "War on Drugs"; that angers me and I've ranted and raved about that many times on this blog. My concern now has to do with the criminalization of mentally ill people; especially those who are both mentally ill and homeless (or precariously housed or poverty stricken). It's becoming more and more common knowledge that the 3 biggest institutions that house mentally ill folk are the 3 county jails of this country's 3 largest cities. In other words; studies show that New York's Rikers Island, LA County Jail and Chicago's Cook County Jail are the largest mental health institutions in the nation.

It's not hospitals, but penal institutions, that end up having the biggest influence on too many of our nation's mentally ill population! In knowing this modern day reality; think of all the consequences. The purpose of hospitals is to cure the unhealthy, by helping them function better in our world, to better their "quality of life". The role of jails are very different, it's purpose is to isolate and lock people up, with the intent of keeping the public safe by punishing the "wrong doer", expecting them to be "fixed" when it's time to return to the streets.Yet, that is sadly NOT the case, because studies have shown that incarceration, in most cases, actually increases the severity of someone's mental illness. People don't leave the facility "redeemed", the recidivism rates reveal that. Too often, locked up men and women leave the facility struggling with greater burdens, issues and even new symptoms like PTSD.

In this piece I'm not speaking about mentally ill people who commit horrendous violent or sexual crimes, I'm talking about mentally ill men and women who commit minor offenses, misdemeanors and victimless non-violent crimes. I'm talking about folk who are constantly rotating in and out of these 3 jails and the hundreds more that occupy our towns and cities. I'm not talking about certain mentally ill criminals serving multiple years in prison for doing unspeakable acts; they are the exception! Just to clarify something; jail and prison are two very different realities; jail's have wide range of purposes, they hold people for very minor offenses like urinating in public or jumping a turnstile, for misdemeanors like drinking alcohol in public, for short felony sentences like possessing marijuana and they also hold many people who can't afford to pay their bond for a wide range of offenses; these people can spend many months (even years) going to Court and waiting for the Judge to determine whether they are "guilty" or "not guilty". Prison, on the other hand, only contains convicted felons; people whom their Judge has deemed guilty! Felonies range from simply possessing marijuana to horrific crimes against humanity!

Kwame may have dodged Cook County Jail the day of his seizure in February, but he went there 3 times in March. Each time he occupied a cell for less than 24 hours, he received 3 different Court dates and yet he never received a conviction. When Kwame starts riding on his emotional roller coaster, he can be extremely difficult to rationalize with, but he doesn't need jail. He needs caring people who will help him with a holistic approach. He needs people who will love him, listen to him and treat him like a person. He needs people who'll be firm and lovingly discipline him when he starts becoming uncoiled. He needs people who'll network and help him get on the appropriate medication. He needs people who are willing to sacrifice and be his family. He needs people who'll be his family!

Yet, Kwame isn't the only one who's constantly rotating in and out of jail, mainly due to a severe mental illness. When the public gets aggravated by annoying mentally ill people, too often 911 is the first response. It may be Alexander, taking too long in a public bathroom or wearing putrid smelling clothes in McDonalds. It may be Shane, loudly ranting and raving, his presence scaring the public. It may be Emmanuel, karate kicking the air and actively chatting to "whatever or whoever he's seeing" in his schizophrenic mind. It may be Fred, sitting in front of a store rattling a can, begging for change and refusing to leave. It may be Leon, sweating bullets and storming up and down the street yelling profanities at no-one in-particular. It may be a ton of other scenarios, each one aggravating some observer, who reacts by calling the police. When that squad car arrives, approaching them in their full armored and hostile looking garb, it often causes the mentally ill person to react in fear. They "freak out" in many very different ways (from yelling to running to stubbornly standing still), causing the possibility of a rational dialogue to vanish. The aggravated and frustrated cop then uses his authority to arrest the man or woman by forcibly taking them to jail and allowing the Judge to decide their fate.

These scenarios are very real! Many end up spending less than 12 hours in lock-up, while many others end up suffering a longer fate.

Do they deserve all this brutality, harassment and isolation; simply because their brain chemistry is different?

Do they deserve all this brutality, harassment and isolation; simply because their mannerisms are off-putting, their voices are loud and they look unsightly? 

Do they deserve all this brutality, harassment and isolation; simply because they try to self medicate with the same substances rock stars, actors and wall street brokers use?

Do they deserve all this brutality, harassment and isolation?

Often times, they're just doing what "everyone" else is doing, but because of who they are and the poverty they're in, they end up cuffed and sitting in the back of a squad car. They end up being criminalized, simply because they're mentally ill and poverty stricken, with no advocates. They do not deserve the harsh predicament they often find themselves in. They deserve better; so much better!

The nagging question that lingers in my mind is; how can we do our part in stopping or preventing the criminalization of mentally ill people? I know this issue runs rampant throughout the country. I also know that it's too big and too massive to exact immediate and radical change. I also know occupying DC and Springfield with flyers and petitions will do little to affect this nationwide problem. I personally think we need to occupy our neighborhoods with the radical revolutionary love Jesus demonstrated. We need to treat these men and women as human beings, not as sub-human drones that need to be kept out of sight and out of mind. We need to be people whose first response is not to call 911, but to think of creative ways to assist them.We need to "not be afraid", but instead be accepting and make them feel welcome.We need to be their family in this hostile world that takes pleasure in isolating our weak, fragile and sick citizens.

Look at what Jesus did when the townsfolk chained the demon possessed man on an isolated hill. Jesus met Legion's need and healed him. That radical response of love to a crazy person actually created more tension, as the townsfolk wanted to now run both Jesus and Legion outta town. His act of mercy cost them a huge amount of cash when all those now demon-possessed pigs ran into the river and drowned. One person showed love to "the least of these", the rest of the town loved their money and possessions more. We too must choose who we'll serve! We too must choose who we'll follow!

We may not have the power or ability to cast demons into pigs and instantly set a person free, but we do have the power and ability to love. I passed LaSean on the street today, he stopped, thanked me and showed me his brand new keys. A year ago, this man would storm up and down Clifton and Wilson, ranting and raving, threatening and cussing. He has bullet fragments lodged in his head that move and trigger emotional outbursts. He becomes almost unstoppable. Today he stood there grinning and peacefully thanking us at Cornerstone for helping him, for loving him and being his family. When he got completely out of control, we'd utilize the police's "Crisis Intervention Team", who would approach him in a non-threatening manner. That means, they'd hide their guns, speak softly, stand at a distance and end up taking LaSean to a hospital rather than jail. We didn't want him locked up, we wanted him helped!

LaSean appreciated that, and that is why we could stand in the middle of Wilson Avenue with no animosity or hatred. He showed me his keys, proudly telling me how he successfully moved into his apartment. He was so thankful that we didn't turn our back on him. We had loved him despite all the difficulties!

I was looking into the eyes of a miracle, one of the many miracles I see every year. LaSean's change wasn't immediate like Legion's, but it did happen.

Join me in prayer for Kwame, that radical life changing will also occur in him. Pray that the roller coaster he's riding on will slow down, he'll be able to reduce the harm and function holistically in this modern day society that to kick him to the curb. Pray that we, as Jesus followers, will not isolate, harass and bully, but instead, we'll imitate the Man of Peace by bringing about revolutionary change from the Ground on Up!

 May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so this is actually my final post about mental illness in the homeless community. Below are the Links to 4 Posts I've already written:.....
  1. This is about a man totally unaware of his personal hygiene, how he ostracizes himself and how his very unusual spiritual beliefs put himself in grave danger from Chicago's unforgiving temperatures and any callous thugs looking for someone to bully:  Stinky Shorts In Frigid Temperatures
  2. This is about another man whose impulsiveness, schizophrenia and bi-polar, coupled with an inability to read and write, have caused him to be unable to function properly in this technological world and how he remains constantly in danger of physical harm: Money Crazy: Crazy For Money
  3. I wrote this a while ago: here I focus on another aspect of mental illness which is often neglected, due to it's paralyzing silence. Yet many people in the homeless community (and also in the housed world) struggle with it daily: Social Phobia Anxiety Disorder and Homelessness!
  4. This is about how having a debilitating mental illness can affect our physical well being. Shane is a 41 year old man who lies on his death bed due primarily to his mental illness and poverty: The Self-Proclaimed "Craziest Man in Uptown": a look into mental illness and homelessness
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