Joseph L. Moore Jr. is a Restore Justice Future Leaders Apprentice. Joseph wrote the following essay during the fall of 2014 while incarcerated at Hill Correctional Center toward the end of his 26-year prison term. During his incarceration, Joseph witnessed dozens of people with mental illness being mistreated.
By: Joseph L. Moore Jr.
My conscience compelled me to inform as many people as would listen of this inhuman treatment. If this essay does nothing else, I hope it starts a conversation that ignites a brush fire that grows into a firestorm of concern that burns away the dross of civility that cloaks the depravity of the Illinois prison system.
As I lie in the bunk reading, I’m torn away from the pages by the unmistakable sounds of gym shoes squeaking, property boxes bumping against the wall, and thuds of fists crashing against bare skin. The occupants of the cell above the one in which I’m being held are fighting. With my thumb between the pages of the book, I lay it on my chest and listen to the altercation. As the fight intensifies, I sit up and put my feet on the floor; the book slides diagonally across my chest and onto the bed. I’m staring up at the vent from which the sounds escape. After what seems like minutes, but is actually only a few seconds, one of the men pleads with the other, “Stop, I don’t wanna fight no more.”
Fights are a common occurrence in prison. The difference between this fight and what is considered a common fight is that this fight is between, for all intents and purposes, a person who suffers from mental illness and one who does not. After a spew of profanity and threats of a worse beating if the guy suffering from mental illness does again whatever he had done to bring this beating on, the ruckus stops.
It’s doubtful the man with mental illness even knows what, if anything, he has done wrong. After all, it’s blatantly obvious to anyone who sees him that he suffers from mental illness. He talks to himself – sometimes using exaggerated forms of gesticulations. He is unclean, and he appears to always be spaced out. People who, like him, suffer from mental illness are preyed upon every day in prison. They are bullied, tricked out of the best food on their trays, strong-armed for their commissary, and, along with being physically assaulted, some are sexually assaulted.
The incarceration of the mentally ill has been on the rise since the 1970s. And, considering the cuts to mental health budgets nationwide, the incarceration of people with mental illness will not likely decrease any time soon. No help seems to be coming for people with mental illness who are incarcerated. The unfortunate guy in the cell above me is on his own. He has to sit in that cell in fear for his well being, if not for his life, until the cells are opened for brunch, 10 hours from now.
If he makes it out of the cell, because of the bruises on his face, he will be stopped by a guard, handcuffed, taken to health care and then to segregation where he will be placed under investigation. After a short investigation, his cellmate will also be placed in segregation. Contrary to popular belief, the person with mental illness, even though he is vulnerable, will not be placed in protective custody or in a ward for people with mental illness. After serving a 30-day stint in segregation for fighting – in his case for being a human punching bag – he will be placed back in general population in a cell with someone ill equipped to deal with his needs. So the chance that he will suffer some form of mistreatment at the hands of another cellmate is more than likely; it is inevitable.
I’m still sitting on the edge of my bunk peering at the silent, dark vent. Although the fight has ended, it’s going to take me a few minutes to shake off the thoughts of what could possibly happen to the man with mental illness if, unaware, he violates some prison mores. Contending with a feeling of unease, I finally lie back in my bunk, reopen my book, and gaze at the clock. It’s 11:15 p.m. Nine hours and 45 minutes until brunch. Hopefully the man in the cell above me climbs up into his bed and doesn’t do anything but breathe until then.