Locked Up

Another headline stating a repeat felon was released from jail, went straight back to their criminal behavior and ended up back in jail. These types of headlines have become far too common. No one is surprised. Most people just read the article title, shake their head and continue scrolling without given it a second thought.

“Well, they’re just bad people and criminals. It’s who they are and that’s how it’s gonna be.”

Is it though? Is that how it’s gotta be? Are they despicable people? Or….. are their behaviors despicable?

Hate the behavior, not the person. That’s an important concept. Learn it. It brings compassion and grace.

As a society, we’ve established the prison system as punishment. Rightfully so, people that break the law should be punished. However, if the sole purpose of prison is punishment, how do we expect any actual change in behavior to take place if nothing is being done to actively change said behavior. These offenders are locked up and stuck in confinement to not only dwell in a physical cage… but perhaps even worse… stuck dwelling in the cage of their mind for far longer than they should. Most institutions don’t provide any sort of mental health services. Sad… but it’s the truth.

Most of my week is spent in a small office providing therapy related to mental illness for adults. Some people want to learn how to better manage depression and anxiety symptoms, some people struggle with psychosis, some people want to regain the self-worth they’ve lost, some people want to know how to effectively communicate in their relationships… the list is endless. The truth of the matter is, everyone could benefit from therapy. Therapy isn’t just for people who have “problems”, therapy is also coming into the office saying “I’m a good husband, but I want to be a great husband. How do I get there?” Its coming in and saying “I’m very successful at my business, but lack self-worth in other aspects of my life. I want ___.” Therapy can be a monumental transition into better living.

4 days of my week are spent in that kind of setting… but every Wednesday… my office looks different.

On Wednesdays, I typically swing by the office for a bit to check in to ensure there’s nothing pending or pressing. After catching up on notes or squeezing in a few individual sessions… I hop in my car and drive through a cute, old southern downtown area. Beautiful flowers line the porches of gorgeous craftsman style houses. I pull up to a stop sign and wave at the adorable old man in overalls watering his garden.

From there, I pull off onto a bumpy side street and make my way through a chain linked fence with razor wire adorning the top. I park my car and walk to the back door. I wait patiently as I hear the locking mechanism click and watch the heavy metal plated door slide open. I enter another space where I again wait for the door behind me to close and the one in front of me to open. I pass through a metal detector and hand off my bag to be placed in the sergeant’s office.

“How many we got on watch today Sarg?”

Before starting my day at the jail, I’ll swing by the nurses office to check in to see if there’s anyone that needs to be seen that hasn’t sent a request. Some people lose family members while incarcerated and they’re left to grieve alone. The nurse does a great job of identifying those scenarios and keeps me informed.

Depending on the day, I either get placed in a small room outside of the main booking space or in the inmate side of visitation. They’re remodeling the room that I’ll be consistently set up in, so I get escorted to a long, small room where inmates sit for visitation.

The room is slender, cramped, unwelcoming and warm. The AC broke earlier that day and the repair man hasn’t been out to work on it yet. I roll up my sleeves and unbutton the top of my shirt.

The stools anchored into the ground are hard and uncomfortable. They’re not meant for comfort or extended use. Typically, the chairs are used for 10-15min phone conversations through a small 3 x 12 inch glass window. Thankfully I’m able to pull 2 foldout chairs into the room to make myself and my clients more comfortable.

The first order of every visit is to clear the suicide watch list. A young man is escorted into the small room with me. He’s handcuffed and wearing a smock. A suicide smock is a tear-resistant garment that is used to prevent an individual from forming a noose with the garment. The suit covers all private areas because the wearer is naked under the suit for their own protection.

image from Hamilton Medical Products

The guard sits the client down in the chair in front of me, gives me a nod and exits the room. As the guard exits the room to head back to the booking area… I hear the heavy door shut and the locking mechanism click into place. Yes… I’m on camera… but I’m also a lifetime away from someone opening that secure door.

I immediately send nonverbal signals by sinking back and relaxing into my foldout chair to diffuse any initial hostile perceptions…

Hey man… my names Zach. How ya doing?”

The response varies from the nonchalant “man, I’m not doing too bad…” to the aggravated “I can’t fuckin deal with this shit anymore. I’m just done, man. Fuck this shit I’m done.”

Laughter or tears. There’s no in between.

My therapeutic approach has always been person-centered. According to the Great Carl Rogers…

“Individuals have within themselves vast resources for self-understanding and for altering their self-concepts, basic attitudes, and self-directed behavior; these resources can be tapped if a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.”

In Layman terms… every person has the capacity and desire for personal growth and change. In person centered therapy, therapists provide empathy and unconditional positive regard to help create change in an individual. Therapists don’t instigate change… they simply help clients come to their own personal insight and conclusions to make changes. Therapists facilitate… the real work is done by clients… not therapists.

Every person is different and thus every person deserves a unique approach… hence my belief in person centered therapy…

I go through a detailed clinical assessment with each client on suicide watch. Some clients claim suicidal ideations (SI) to get out of their cell, some claim SI because of boredom and some truly are suicidal. Despite the outcome of the assessment, I always offer further mental health services. Most want services. Most want to have someone to talk to and work through their shit while they’re incarcerated. I’m starting to get the impression that it gets lonely as fuck in jail.

After the watches are cleared, I start working through the list of inmates that have requested mental health services. The list isn’t short. The list isn’t something I’m able to tackle in a day… or even in the next few weeks for that matter. I wish I had more time. I wish these folxs had more resources. I wish… I wish I could do more.

I walk down the hallway into the main booking room where a recent arrest is screaming loudly and aggressively resisting the officers. He’s high as a kite. He’s fucked up. He’s scared. He’s lost. He’s screaming nonsense. He’s… he’s needing help… but help can’t be got until he comes down from his high. Hopefully I’ll see him next week.

I wait while the guards go through the booking protocol. I patiently watch and observe.

The guards are amazing. They don’t see the inmates as anything other than human. The guards are calm. They’re respectful. They’re diligent. They’re genuine. I’m proud to be working hand-in-hand with these folx. Despite the media push that law enforcement is “bad”… it’s relieving to see firsthand that at its core… law enforcement… and humanity in general… are good. Don’t get it twisted… there are many bad apples in every every orchard… but don’t let the media fool ya… the majority of humanity is alright. We’re alright… I promise.

After the scene calms down, I ask for the clients I see on a weekly basis.

Can I get XXX next?”

Despite the response, my affect always stays neutral.

“Damn. Ok…. Well… can I get XYZ?”

XXX had just received her sentence earlier in the week and is heading down to serve her time in prison.

XXX was one of my favorites. It took her a few sessions to truly open up, but after the rapport was built and the trust was gained… we had started focusing on some intensive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In a nutshell… CBT focuses on changing patterns of thinking by focusing on the thoughts/patterns that are creating problems and re-engineering them. It’s a very simple concept that takes a TON of actual effort on the clients behalf. Change isn’t easy. Most people aren’t willing to sacrifice what it takes to make actual change in their behavior. I’m honest with my clients… if they’re willing to put in the effort and work… big changes can happen… but… the effort has to be there.

XXX had the desire and put in the effort. She bought in. We discussed coping skills, explored mindfulness and processed techniques that she could utilize while she served her time. We formalized support systems and structures to actively allow her to escape her environment and make changes when she gets released in a few years.

Was it enough? Will she retain the techniques? Will she hold onto that hope that she created during our sessions together? I hope so. God I hope so. I hope she serves her time, follows through with her intentions and climbs out of the dark, depressive hole in which she currently resides. She deserves it. She’s truly a wonderful human that’s been dealt a troublesome hand. I may never hear/see from her again… but I’ll pray for her often.

XXX is one. One soul who bought into the idea of change. One soul that came to the understanding that her current predicament isn’t who she is and doesn’t have to be her future. XXX was given the chance to seek mental health services while incarcerated… she was given the opportunity to work on changing her behavior.

But how many don’t get that opportunity? There are currently 1.8 MILLION… yes MILLION… people incarcerated in the US. How many of those are getting actual opportunities to change?

I’m hoping your heart sank like mine.

I don’t have the answers… so don’t ask me what I think should be done. Hell… at this point… I’m not even sure of the question that needs to be asked. All I know is… I recognize the struggle and the hardships that community mental health agencies face. We’re trying. We’re throwing every hour, every physical body and every resource available to serve the public to the best of our ability… honestly… to the point where people are burning out and giving up. Until we… as a society… start recognizing the importance of investing time and effort into providing opportunities to change inmate’s behavior while within our penal system…we won’t see change. Perhaps it is the lack of resources. Perhaps it’s governmental laziness. Whatever the case may be… change is hard…change takes effort… change needs to happen… but people resist change for these reasons. So I’m curious… as someone with opportunity… what changes are you willing to make in your own life to help create a better future for yourself and the people around you?

2 thoughts on “Locked Up

  1. Zach – I was so moved by this post. You are one of the most honest, good people I have had the pleasure of knowing. The world needs more like you and I’m sure you are what the creator of all around us was intending us to be, but most took a left or right turn. Stay you my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words Al!


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