My second book, “Cherry Blossoms & Barren Plains: A woman’s journey from mental illness to a prison cell,” is about an inmate, Becca, who has been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. I first met Becca while writing my first book on an inmate in the same prison. I was drawn to Becca’s story because she was found guilty of killing her five-year-old stepdaughter, and still doesn’t remember committing the crime. Becca was found “guilty but mentally ill,” and is currently serving 35 years in prison.
One of my tasks was to explain how someone who is mentally ill deals with prison life. Prison life can be unbearable, but what about someone who is mentally ill? I decided to use a metaphor to express life in prison for the mentally ill.
In 2006 approximately twenty-five million of them, all colors — black, brown, white, and different shades of hue — came all the way from the spacious palings of Montana to the dairy farms of Wisconsin. Large numbers of them were funneled into lines, moving down a winding path of long-sweeping curves specifically designed to reduce stress and suffering. Their vision was restricted to the backside of the one in front of them so they couldn’t see what was just around the corner.
One at a time, they were knocked unconscious by an electric shock of three-hundred volts and two amps to the back of their heads. They were then hung upside down by one of their legs. The main arteries in the neck were severed with a knife; blood drained and spurted to the floor; skin was removed by down and side pullers; and internal organs were inspected for parasites and disease. To reduce levels of bacteria, carcasses were cleaned by steam, hot water, and sometimes, organic acids, and then chilled to prevent the growth of microorganisms. There are 5,700 of thees places in the United States that employ some 527,000 workers. They call them slaughterhouses.
Although they kill only a few, thousands upon thousands of citizens are systematically segregated from society and kept in holding pens, more commonly called prison cells. Some 2.5 million men and women are prisoners in the United States’ criminal justice system. More than half of them have mental health problems, some ten percent having been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses — schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. That’s approximately 250,000 individuals — similar to the population of Madison, Wisconsin or Akron, Ohio — who are incarcerated in the nation’s jails and prisons, rather than being treated in a mental institution or an assertive community treatment center, where broken minds receive the care and compassion they deserve.