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I am a person with schizophrenia. I spent seven months in LA County Jail and four years at Patton State Hospital. Like many others like me I had several severe breaks from reality starting in my early twenties. I am somewhat unique in that both of my parents are physicians and they along with my grandparents and brother and sister had a great deal of insight into my illness. Not unlike many others with schizophrenia it took years before I really developed the insight into my own illness. Schizophrenia robbed me of my mind. It is very difficult to make rational decisions when you don’t have the very faculty of reason.
Schizophrenia is a conundrum, a secret within a secret, a double-edged sword. No matter how you try and grab it, hold it back, stop it, it cuts you. The best thing I learned to do was how to put the sword back in the sheath. This meant that I needed a medication regimen and the insight to take the meds. This also meant that I needed to develop lasting and trustworthy relationships with a support system that included mental health professionals. This also meant that I needed to know my limits and also know when to ask for help.
Because I was sent to the State Hospital system instead of the Prison system I think I got the chance to develop the skills I needed to stay healthy. That being said I have met thousands of people with severe mental illness in vastly differing groups of settings. I have found that those who are sent to programs and therapy generally have a much better experience than those who are sent to jail and prison.
The seven months that I spent in the LA County Jail were in many ways the most eye opening time of my life. I met people who were in jail who had committed serious acts of violence, but I also met people who were jailed for ridiculous and tragic reasons. There was a man who was jailed for throwing avocado’s at cars, I met many people who were in jail for stealing food, I also met many jailed for sleeping in cars or abandoned buildings. The list goes on and on. There were people in jail who did nothing more than be homeless and acted out in a bizarre manner. You don’t have to take my word for it. Look into it and find out what the research says.
That being said the jail is simply the wrong setting for people with serious mental illness. The setting is very punitive and harsh. Mentally ill people are often brutalized by fellow inmates as well as by the guards. I say this with a heavy heart. I was one who was abused by both inmates and guards. I also understand the difficult and complex reality of being a jail guard as well as being one incarcerated. Neither guards nor inmates have it easy in the jail.
I believe that there are solutions. Moving folks out of jails and into programs in the community could make a life change for an entire sector of the jail population. We know from evidence-based treatment that there are ways to get folks in healthy supportive community-based settings. We must work for these solutions, we must because it is more cost effective, because it is the decent and fair thing to do, and because we owe it to those like me, people with great potential who just need a chance to make that potential a reality.
In deep humility and in deep respect for those trapped in the LA County Jail
Here are some interesting links on the subject of jail diversion:
Tristan Scremin was born in Rosario, Argentina and emigrated to the US along with his family as a young child. He spent his formative years in Albuquerque NM and has lived in the Los Angeles area since 1991. Tristan believes that a true understanding of one’s own story is a key to understanding the world.