Inside the Minds of America’s Prisoners

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “out of sight, out of mind.” Whether it’s a long-distance couple or friends that drift apart, humans are forgetful of things that are not right in front of us. We need to be reminded of the important things every day. In my case, I have two corkboards, a planner, and a whiteboard calendar. With these tools to help me, I regularly jot down to-do lists, dates I need to remember, topics I want to stay updated on, and the like. It may seem like overkill, but the brain fog I experience makes it increasingly hard to remember things.

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What if there was something we Americans needed to be reminded of collectedly, something hidden from us that will only get worse if we continue to overlook it? In 2004, studies suggested that around 320,000 inmates in America were mentally ill. After that, The Great Recession hit and states cut public mental health spending by 4.35 billion. Only three years ago, Hillary Clinton said:

“The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population.”

Sure, there are plenty of easy targets to blame. Ronald Reagan passed the Omnibus Reconciliation act of 1981, which enabled the federal government to stop providing services to those with a mental illness. There was also the movement in the 1950’s that pushed “for deinstitutionalization.” What about Bill Clinton’s welfare reform that required welfare recipients to participate in work-related programs? While it seemed like a bright idea, the mentally and physically disabled fell through the cracks, along with many others. We could make it a party issue, blaming republicans or democrats. But is it really that easy? No. And how does placing blame help us fix the problem?

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The truth is America’s inmates are “out of sight, out of mind.” Those of us who have the luxury of roaming the world freely are more concerned about the people we can see, rather than the ones we can’t. Especially if these people are demonized as criminals, even the ones who should have never been put there in the first place.

Heard, if Not Seen

It’s no secret that America needs mental health reform. But how? And where do we start? Thanks to Doran Larson, America’s prisoners now have a way to at least be heard, if not seen with the creation of the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA). The APWA is “an open-source archive of essays by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, as well as correctional officers and staffers.”

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In an essay called “Being Mentally Ill in Prison and Not Knowing What is Going On,” Kemp-Horton, an inmate in Arizona, discusses a prisoner a few cells down from him who smeared feces all over himself and his cell. This cell was only cleaned “once a week,” and the prisoner was forced to eat in this state. After a year, the guards beat the prisoner up who had “no clue what [was] going on.”

This is only one account of so many that are now available to be read by the public. The more America’s prisoners stories are heard, the more they stay in the forefront of our minds. We must keep reading and sharing these stories, pushing ourselves and those around us to act now. We must keep the conversation of mental health going, even when it’s uncomfortable.

To get started, here are six things you can do right now:


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About the Author:

August Pfizenmayer is the founder of Survival is a Talent. She is a freelance writer, blogger, and student, studying writing & publishing at the University of North Georgia. She specializes in poetry and creative nonfiction. You can find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, Upwork, and Instagram.

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25 thoughts on “Inside the Minds of America’s Prisoners

  1. It is so true that America is in need of ‘mental health reform’ because like you said the society has the belief that ‘out of sight means out of mind’, so inmates with severe mental health issues are often not given the health they need because they are ignored and kept out of the public imagination. I think it is time that we all educated ourselves on mental health and spread awareness, because having a mental health issue should not be a stigma but at the same time neither should you suffer. Everyone should be entitled to mental health reform.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is something I was not very educated on before and I really enjoyed learning more through your article. It’s great that you are bringing more awareness to this. I’m glad I can now share this information with others! Thanks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your statements here are powerful and true. This country needs better informed social and political policy in terms of our mentally ill citizens. Prison is not the answer. But many families are too overwhelmed to give these people proper care. We are a rich country and can afford to do better.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. 25% of the world’s total prison population, that’s a huge stat to be known of. So true to know about mental health issue sin prisoners. Us really need Mental illness reforms, ignorance has to reduce and efforts have to increase.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is so unfortunate. I have never heard of such a bad instance where inmates are left to remain mentally ill. It is very brave of you to condone the act and advocate for its reform, all the very best in that! Inmates do have rights too, only denied of freedom.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Its sad that the US has such a high numbers of prisoners, especially mental health inmates. It does sound like America needs a mental health reform, although I think countries all over the world should be doing more to help citizens with MH problems. Here in the UK our National Health Service can’t seem to cope with the demand anymore.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. 50 years ago in Georgia you never saw a mentally ill homeless person wondering the streets. They were patients at the state hospital in Milledgeville. It was quite a large place, beautifully landscaped grounds. Almost looked like a college campus. A large fence kept patients from wandering off. Trustee patients were allowed to leave during the daytime hours and even had jobs. There was a prison for the truly dangerous criminally insane. A good use of tax dollars, I would not mind paying more in state tax if they could reopen the hospital.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. It’s disgusting. The majority of those imprisoned are black men. My son being a black male has had to fight his entire life to stay out of the system. Do you know that black men in the United States also have a greater rate of being mentally ill or bi-polar. I could go on and on about this topic. I commend this conversation you are covering.

    Liked by 1 person

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