Common Sense, Common Ground Agenda Part I: Prisons

Is it possible to create a “Rainbow Coalition” with a common agenda of (1) reforming prisons, (2) providing affordable housing, (3) limiting the use of psychotropic medications, and (4) providing community-based mental health and psychosocial support? Prominent psychiatrist Allen Frances asked us at the Mad in America Film Festival to join such a coalition. Rather than rejecting Frances’ agenda outright — as I appeared to do in a recent Mad in America blog — we should give his proposal a fair hearing. As always, the devil is in the detail. Frances explained in his Huffington Post blog republished at Mad in America: “[S]eemingly divergent abstract opinions are not so divergent when you discuss how to deal with practical problems… And when you discuss specific situations, there is much more common- sense, common-ground agreement…”

Frances is absolutely right to encourage us to look at the specifics of his agenda. While most of us with lived experience of extreme states and emotional distress would categorically reject a compromise that includes court-ordered outpatient psychiatry — as envisioned in Rep Tim Murphy’s legislation — we can still consider finding common ground on these four areas: prisons, housing, medication and community- based support. This is the first of four MIA postings that examines each of these areas in turn.

Gandhi advised us to refuse to view our opponents as enemies but instead to view them as potential converts to our cause. Gandhi’s definition of non-violent activism — Satyagrah, or “Truth Force” — allows for truth to be on both sides of a conflict. The Gandhi Foundation explains:

Satyagrah is unique in its conception as opposed to other resistance movements which strive to prove wrong or to defeat the opponent. [If the] situation so demands, satyagrah even goes to the extent of cooperating with the opponents to meet the end objective. Its foundation is empathy and compassion. Gandhiji expressed this aspect eloquently in his writing in Harijan, dated March 25, 1939, “The satyagrahi’s object is to convert, not to coerce the wrongdoer”.

If we oppose coercive psychiatry, shouldn’t we also advocate for Gandhi’s non-coercive approach to truth? A trauma-informed approach asks not “What is wrong with you?” but rather “What happened to you?”; and we ask this not to render a diagnosis but with empathy and compassion. So also when we examine an argument put forward by an opponent, we do well to ask not “What is wrong with their argument?” but rather “What specific experiences have brought us to this place?” We do well to take a few steps back from argumentativeness altogether and ask not “What is wrong with their version of the truth?” but rather “What specific experiences have brought me to my own truth?” Sharing these experiences can take us beyond mere argument and rebuttal toward a different kind of truth force grounded in empathy and compassion.

Part I: Prisons

Today we stand on the cusp of an historic bipartisan consensus that would roll back mandatory minimum prison sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses by 30 years. The total U.S. prison population has swelled from nearly 330,000 inmates in 1980 to 1.57 million in 2012. Mirroring this trend, the number of inmates under state jurisdiction has gone from 305,000 to 1.35 million in the same time period.

Legislation co-sponsored by Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee and Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durban seeks to reverse this 500% increase in the number of prisoners incarcerated in Federal institutions since the 1980s. Similar legislation is making its way through State Houses across the country. In same states, such as California, the issue is decided by referendum.

In California where a 1994 referendum passed a “three-strikes” law—which imposed a mandatory 25 years to life sentence for a third felony including non-violent drug-related offenses—a 2012 referendum changed the law so that it now applies only to serious or violent felonies. Today Californians vote on Proposition 47 which would take this reform another step by reclassifying possession of substances such as heroin and methamphetamine as misdemeanors, further decriminalizing nonviolent drug offenses. Although hopeful, we should not take the outcome for granted. Much must still be done before our nation finally declares that the War on Drugs is over.

Mass incarceration disproportionately affects Blacks and Latinos. One in nine African American children has a parent—usually a father—in prison. Lynne Lyman, California Director of the National Drug Policy Alliance and a strong supporter of Proposition 47, is quoted in a Nov 1, 2014 Los Angeles Times article as saying “The war on drugs and mass incarceration is just an extension of slavery.” This is not a metaphor; it is a social reality.

Why should this matter to those of us with lived experience of extreme states and emotional distress? Allen Frances contends:

We have half a million severely ill patients in prison for nuisance crimes that easily could have been avoided had they received adequate treatment and housing. Sleeping on a stoop, stealing a Coke, or shouting on a street can get the person arrested. Once arrested, not being able to make bail and/or not fitting in well with jail routine leads to prolonged incarceration and, too

When someone is arrested just for being homeless, addicted to drugs or in some other extreme state, they are prosecuted not for their behavior but for their very existence. The reality of a “status” crime for those of us who are viewed as “less than normal” fits well with my own experience.

In the early 1980s, I stumbled upon the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), an advocacy group based in Washington DC that sought to bring national attention to the problem of homelessness. This was a period when state psychiatric institutions were being significantly downsized. Without adequate alternative housing, many of us were ending up on the streets. After drifting for some time, I landed in an encampment in front of the White House dubbed “Reaganville” by the CCNV. This was an echo the “Hoovervilles” of the Great Depression.

Just as people in the early 1930s built shantytowns all across America named after President Hover, a growing number of people in the early 1980s were becoming homeless while President Reagan presided over a massive transfer of American resources away from social services toward the military-industrial complex. According to CCNV’s “Homelessness in America: A Forced March to Nowhere” — published in 1982 — one percent of Americans or 2.2 million people were homeless. Some have questioned this figure but all agree the nation was becoming increasingly perplexed by the problem of homelessness. This was due in part to the strong advocacy of the Community for Creative Non-Violence.

It was November and getting cold. Every time one of us who lived on the streets — all across the country — died in the cold, CCNV members would plant a cross at Reaganville marking another death. Hundreds of crosses where planted that winter. Each time another homeless person died in the nation’s capital, CCNV members would engage in civil disobedience marching to City Hall, pouring blood on the doors, and chanting to the mayor: “This blood is on your hands.”

My first arrest and trip to jail was not as a non-violent activist but as inadvertent bystander. I was afraid to go to jail through civil disobedience, so I enlisted instead in other CCNV activities such as “dumpster diving” behind supermarkets where we found the food needed to feed about 500 people who came each night to CCNV for dinner. The nightly meal was held in a back alley behind a small house some distance from the White House. This was to avoid coercing vulnerable people into political activism as the price of their dinner. Only those who wished to slept, as I did, in tents in front of the White House. Others returned to park benches, heating grates, abandoned buildings and the few overcrowded homeless shelters operated by the city. At the time, policy makers viewed homelessness as a local problem for city government, not a national issue for the Federal Government to address.

One of the regulars at the nightly CCNV dinner was Samuel, a Vietnam Veteran who suffered from post- traumatic stress. He was a large African-American man who had become addicted to alcohol. Earlier that day, Samuel had been seen by a doctor at the Veterans Administration Hospital where he was told that he needed to take a new medication because he had been exposed in Vietnam to the toxic chemical Agent Orange. Samuel was warned not to mix this new medication with alcohol, but this proved an unmanageable task for someone living on the street and addicted to alcohol.

We were finishing meal preparations inside the CCNV kitchen when the police arrived and arrested Samuel for drinking in the alley. The Samuel I knew was quiet and withdrawn. Often he appeared to be reliving events from the war. However, the new medication mixed with alcohol changed Samuel. When the police attempted to handcuff him, he pushed back knocking one of the officers to the ground. The second officer drew his pistol pointing it at Samuel from just a few feet away. I wasn’t sure if Samuel would charge or flee, but I could see the pistol shaking uncontrollably in the officer’s hand. I was afraid he would shoot even if Samuel just stood still. All I could think of was a camera that sat on a shelf in the CCNV kitchen. I grabbed it, even though I knew it had no film, and ran out into the alley pointing it at the officer whose hand continued to shake uncontrollably with the pistol flapping along.

Somehow neither Samuel nor the officer lost control. I’d like to think the camera helped. It felt like an eternity to me, but it must not have been long before the alley filled with about twenty police officers streaming in to protect their fallen brother. A police lieutenant grabbed the camera from my hand and ripped it open. I could see the surprise and anger cross his face as he realized that the camera had no film. The next thing I knew four officers were throwing me into the police wagon with Samuel. We were booked at the precinct. Samuel was charged with assaulting a police officer and I was charged with interfering in a police investigation. CCNV members pulled together enough money to bail Samuel out. I cannot say how long Samuel — as an African-American male living with post-traumatic stress, alcohol addiction and homelessness — would have been imprisoned if he had not been bailed out.

Riding a wave of adrenaline and indignation, I refused to cooperate and was sent to the DC City Jail where I was placed in solitary confinement. I believe I was placed in solitary for my own protection because I was white while the general population of the jail was almost exclusively black or Latino. Over subsequent years of civil disobedience, I became comfortable in the general population at the DC Jail — because I knew so many of the prisoners already from the streets — but at that time I was grateful to be segregated in a solitary cell.

In the solitary cell next to mine was an incredible human being. He was singing with astonishing force and wonderful joy. I no longer recall the exact words of his song but the gist was “You can lock me up but you can’t kill my spirit.” Like the feminist anti-war song “You can’t kill the spirit. She’s like a mountain. Old and strong she goes on and on and on and on and on and on…” this song had no end. He sang with the power of an opera tenor and with the rhythm of an African-American spiritual. He continued for hours and hours without losing his enormous energy. To my amazement, I began to realize that his voice was no longer coming from the cell next to me but had shifted into the ceiling above me. Somehow this indomitable spirit had found a way into the ceiling vents and was crawling toward freedom without ever losing a beat of his defiant, joyful spiritual. Eventually the prison guards caught up with him and dragged him back to earth. I believe they must have given him a massive dose of Thorazine because I cannot imagine anything else would have silenced him.

I share this story because it is consistent with Allen Frances’ description of a half million Americans in prison just for being who they are: human beings in altered and unique states of awareness who have done nothing wrong except to push back against their oppression. These stories come from the early 1980s, a time before mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses filled American prisons to the staggering levels of today. It was a time before one in nine African-American children had a parent in prison, a time before America — with 5 percent of the world’s population — had nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. As an April 23, 2008 New York Times article entitled “Inmate Count in U.S. Prisons Dwarf Other Nations’” explains:

Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

The question is what to do about this injustice. Eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing is certainly a very significant step in the right direction, but does it go far enough? In an earlier MIA blog, I argued that simply shifting inmates from penal institutions to psychiatric institutions is not the answer. So what common sense, common ground agenda is available?

Telling our stories — not as abstract numbers… half a million unjustly imprisoned for “status” offenses… but as concrete and detailed lived experience — is an important place to begin shifting the conversation away from “What is wrong with us?” to “What has happened to us?” Generation FIVE — an organization focused on ending child abuse in five generations—provides an example of this approach with five moving and empowering digital stories available on-line. I hope you will listen to this diverse array of stories sharing specific lived experiences of non-violent, non-coercive responses to injustice. Telling our stories of oppression and empowerment can begin shaping a common sense, common ground agenda that goes beyond ideological argumentativeness to genuine connection and collaboration. I hope that Allen Francis and all who wish to advocate for the most vulnerable will begin by listening to our stories.

Ije — an African-American woman whose story ends with these haunting words: “I’ll make due until the revolution sets me free”—recounts her childhood experience of abuse:

My mother interrogates me now. Did anyone touch you? Did someone hurt you? Did any man force you to do anything you didn’t want to? Her concern is suffocating. I drown in shame and guilt for causing her so much trouble. I regret ever mentioning my abuse to her. I stop being open with her and hide subsequent abuses from her.

One day I cut my finger deeply against an old rusty gate. In her panic, my mother says “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you just act right so you’ll stop getting hurt all the time!” The words stick. That day I make a promise to be a good girl, but this promise that’s meant to keep me safe ends up being a magnet for abuse. It attracts date rape, abusive relationships, severe depression and suicidal thoughts into my life.

How many of us have made a similar promise to be a good mental patient—a promise that is meant to keep us safe—only to find that this promise just sinks us deeper and deeper into despair; only to find ourselves drowning in shame and guilt at our inability to “comply” with our doctor’s admonitions?

So, if forcing us into psychiatric compliance is not the answer, what is?

Ije makes clear that her mother is not an evil person, but rather a person trying to protect her from evil. Ije explains:

My mother is one of those rare women who is in love with her own skin. She demands respect and doesn’t care if you don’t like her. She would never call herself a feminist yet she embodies what it means to be a woman who stands up for herself.

Ije is grateful that he mother believes her when she first reports her abuse and that she takes action right away, but Ije needs more than her mother can offer. Ije describes her experience with tremendous power:

The day after life stole my trust, I let myself drown. Slippery hands reached out to pull me up. I didn’t really want to be saved, so I fell into a quicksand of dark thoughts and wrapped myself with dark flowers… In the space between then and now, I closed tired eyes; found the place where fish swim in the sky and birds fly in the sea; where it’s possible to drown and be free at the same time.

Ije’s words describe a lived experience that cannot possibly be captured by a psychiatric diagnosis. In fact, words written on a page cannot do justice to the digital experience of the stories Generation Five has collected. I hope all of us—especially Allen Frances—will take time to fully absorb these stories.

Ije’s transformative experience is giving birth to the next generation. She explains:

I am 27 now and through pregnancy I’m reborn. I talk daily to you, my son, as your growing body fills me with hope. Still I know it won’t be easy raising a black man in this world. How do I teach you what it means to be a boy, to enjoy your sexuality, to be respectful, to defend yourself? How do I teach you to fly and swim in the face of a violent world that wants you to shrink and drown?

How do we teach each other how to thrive in a violent world that often seems to have no better answer to the question “What is wrong with you?” than either imprisoning us or shaming us into psychiatric compliance? Let us tell our stories. Through these stories we will find our way; we will learn the song I first heard from an anonymous prisoner in solitary confinement thirty years ago at the DC Jail — a song of joy and hope, a song of resistance and indomitable spirit, a song that lifts us up above jails and prisons and hospitals and well-intended questions aimed at shaming us into compliance. Hearing that song transformed me from a scared little white boy in a segregated cell at DC Jail to a committed housing activist — a practitioner of Satyagrah — in a non-violent battle for affordable housing.

This brings us to Part II of a Common Sense, Common Ground Agenda: Housing which I address in my next MIA blog.

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