Just Mercy for the Mentally Ill

Just Mercy

Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk (see below) is like a teaser for his excellent book, Just Mercy. I was especially interested in the chapter “Mitigation” about the mental health crisis and how our jails became substitute mental hospitals. Deinstitutionalization (the closing of mental health hospitals and the release of patients without replacement treatment and housing) occurred at the same time as the ramp of mass incarceration. Mentally ill people became victims of society’s appetite for imprisonment, often for drug and alcohol abuse and sometimes for behaviors their communities would not tolerate.

“Today, over 50 percent of prison and jail inmates in the United States have a diagnosed mental illness, a rate nearly five times greater than that of the general population. Nearly one in five prison and jail inmates has a serious mental illness. In fact, there are more than three times the number of seriously mentally ill individuals in jail or prison is a terrible place for someone with mental illness or a neurological disorder that prison guards are not trained to understand.” (p. 188)

He mentioned working with Pete Earley to raise the profile of prisoners on death row. Earley was one of the most popular speakers of all time at Housing California’s annual conference. So I pulled my signed copy of his book Crazy.  He tells the story of trying to get help for his son suffering with a mental illness and his year long investigation of a Miami-Dade County jail. I skimmed the book again but did not read it because I can only take so much learning about how screwed up our justice and mental health systems are in one week.

It makes me appreciate “stonecatchers” all the more. Bryan explains the term in the last pages of Just Mercy reminding readers of the New Testament story of Jesus stopping a stoning of a adulterous woman by challenging the Pharisees: those without sin, cast the first stone.

The Equal Justice Initiative law project helps people on death row and works to end the death penalty; working to end excessive punishment and improve prison conditions; Free people who’ve been wrongly convicted and stop racial bias in the justice system; help the mentally ill; and stop putting children in adult jails and prisons. (p. 293) I applaud EJI’s leadership on these issues.

“You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something… We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains is our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.” (p. 289)




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