First, this is some depressing material: “About two-thirds of the nation’s juvenile inmates—who numbered 92,854 in 2006, down from 107,000 in 1999—have at least one mental illness, according to surveys of youth prisons, and are more in need of therapy than punishment.” These numbers are surprising to me because, admittedly, I tend not to factor in mental illnesses like bipolar disorder when thinking about criminal activity. I think part of the reason why the two are decoupled in my mind is because I always considered (emphasis on the past tense here) certain mental disorders as “problems” of the rich (and white). I am revealing my own biases but when one thinks about how mental disorders, as opposed to physical or medical disorders like diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, and the like, are represented in popular media, the news, and even in schools, “illnesses” become stratified by race and class in the mind. To give one example, think back to when the character Kim from Moesha, says something like “Mama always said that the only thing black folks need is Jesus and Oprah.” I do not speak for all; I am simply relating the abstract image of diseases with their social groupings. Reading this article made me realize even more that such stereotypes, as stereotypes always are, obscure reality.
The fact that so many of the youth in the criminal justice system are suffering from mental illnesses is frightening. For if these documented number are this high, what are the projections for those actually suffering but have not received any form of documented help as of yet. However, what saddens me more than the staggering statistics is the slippery slope recent fiscal cutbacks have created for this population. In the article, Moore highlights the fact that since the incorporation of powerful “antipsychotic medications coincided with a national movement to close public mental hospitals” across the nation. What is worse now, given our “we so broke” phase of the recession, more and more youth who are being funneled into the criminal justice system instead of mental health facilities because mental health facilities (both at the community and state levels) are harder hit by budget cutbacks. Even parents have opted to send their children to get help in juvenile facilities because community based facilities are disappearing. In other words, instead of being in an environment with trained mental health professionals, juvenile offenders are instead in a farm environment: prison guards as trained herders, wardens as farm owners, and padded cells as one’s pen.
This “farm” metaphor leads to a different from of concentration effect. In the study of urban poverty, to channel Harvard Sociologist William Julius Wilson, concentration effect is the term used to capture the consequences of the historical social transformation of the inner city which resulted in the disproportionate concentration of the most disadvantaged segments of the urban black population, creating a social milieu significantly different from the environment that existed in all black communities several decades before. This current social milieu is one of rampant crime, high violence, and other social dislocation that plague inner city environments. The prison is yet another one of these institutionalized environments where the concentration of disadvantage leads to increased aberrant behavior.
For those who already suffer from mental disorders being treated like chattel and placed with others who are experiencing the “jail house effect” only places fuel on the fire. To put it simply, it compounds the problem further. It is not surprising that one hears accounts like “he’s been in 130 fights since he’s been with us” (though I think 130 may be an exaggerated number). Such new policy lines by judges, according to Moore, to argue that juvenile are better than mental health facilities ignores such a reality.
With respect to that article itself, I find it troubling that race and class are at once conflated and implicit. I find this problematic because nowhere in the article are we given demographic characteristics to access exactly who the juvenile delinquents are. Though it may not be point of the article, because we are left in the dark (literally and figuratively) with facts about the “who,” we also do not know if even in this disadvantaged population if everyone is placed on the same track into the jails and not mental health facilities. In other words, is there tracking even amongst those who are tracked?
However, the question becomes how do we know that the population is disadvantaged? The answer, which troubles me as well, is because of the offhand comments included in the article. Take for instance, including what the grandmother said about her troubled grandson and then the psychiatrist who Moore uses to close the article. We are left with the picture of abandoned children and helpless (or hopeless) parents.
“I’ve begged D.Y.S. to get him into a mental facility where they’re trained to deal with people like him,” said his grandmother, who asked not to be identified because of the stigma of having a grandson who is mentally ill. “I don’t think a lockup situation is where he should be, although I don’t think he should be on the street either.” (Grandmother)
“Often Daddy is nowhere to be found, Mommy might be in jail,” said Daniel Connor, a psychiatrist for the Connecticut juvenile corrections system. “The home phone is cut off. The parent speaks another language, so it’s often hard to figure out exactly what’s going on with each kid.” (Psychiatrist).
With its faults, I think Moore forces us to look at how the changing policies within the courts are dovetailing with the fiscal reality of communities, states, and the nation as a whole at the expense of those who are in need of help the most. For in this case, the help these young individuals need are beyond changes they can engender themselves.