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  • Sarina Deb

It’s Time to Trade Handcuffs for Therapy; Ending Racial Injustice Through Prison Alternatives

In June of 2019,13-year-old Saraya Rees was just a teenager attending high school and struggling with depression due to being bullied for her biracial identity. In July, after being abruptly taken off of her antidepressants by a pediatrician that was not her regular doctor, Saraya went into a manic state of psychosis, and poured a small amount of gasoline from a lawnmower onto her living room floor. 


When Saraya’s dad woke up and found her sitting on the floor in a daze, he called the 24-Hour Crisis team a wellness center expecting to get mental health help for his daughter. Instead the police arrived, storming Saraya’s house, and handcuffing the 95lb girl in front of her parents and terrified 3-year-old sister. Saraya was held at a detention center for 23 days, questioned without a parent or attorney, and coerced into making statements that were later used against her in court. The 13-year-old was sentenced to 11 years in prison. 


Saraya’s story is one of many that highlights our legal system’s unfair treatment of people of color. But it is also one of many that highlights the compounded inequities that lie at the intersection of systemic racism and mental health stigma in our society, interwoven in the web of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex.  


Despite being home to only 5% of the world’s population, US citizens are a fourth of the world’s prisoners. Our prison population has grown 800%% since 1980, with Reagan and Nixon era policies and the continued “War on Drugs” leaving a lasting imprint on prisons and jails.These trends have disproportionately impacted Black and brown people and marginalized groups such as the mentally ill. An Urban Institute report shows that more than half of all inmates in jails and state prisons have a mental illness of some kind, and 2009 study in Maryland and New York jails found that approximately 20% of jail inmates today have a serious mental illness(schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression or psychotic disorder). 


Our criminal justice system applies a one-size fits all approach to a wide host of social problems, many of which require help beyond handcuffs. Here, addiction is met with punishment, psychosis with misunderstanding, antagonism, and eventually imprisonment.  At the lowest point of someone’s life, when they are considering ending their existence, we send the police. 


The stigma surrounding mental illness is exacerbated for people of color due to racial stereotypes and prejudice. Even though people of color are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, they are less likely to receive access to treatment once incarcerated. Research shows that mental health screening tools used by jails reproduce racial disparities, resulting in fewer Black and Latinx people screening positive and thus remaining under-referred and undetected in the jail population. At court, Black people are less successful in using their mental illness as a mitigating factor in sentencing and conviction, and are more likely to receive harsher sentences for the same crime, even when mental illness is a factor. 


There are alternatives to prison for people who struggle with mental illness. Take drug offenders, who make up 20% of our total prison population and nearly half of our federal inmate population. Drug Courts are specialized docket programs that target criminal defendants with alcohol and drug dependency problems, and research shows that they reduce recidivism and are cost effective. However, there are only 3,000 of these in the county, meaning we continue to process thousands of drug offenders every year through a legal system that lacks both the compassion and medical knowledge to adequately aid them in rehabilitation or recovery. 


Instead of jail, addicts need hospitals to recover physically, and treatment to recover mentally. Instead of trials, people who commit crimes due to psychosis and mania need mental health programs. And instead of juvenile prison, Saraya needs proper medical treatment, with the support and love of her friends and family. Prosecutors and law enforcement depicted Saraya’s parents as victims of an attempted homicide, but Saraya’s parents see their daughter as the real victim here — a scared child who needed medical attention and support in a dark moment. 


Until we stop treating mental illness as a personal failing instead of a medical problem, we will continue to perpetuate the systematic marginalization of people of color in our country, who suffer under the stigma of race and mental illness. And until we address both the racial bias deeply imbued in the criminal justice system and the failings of a system that conflates punishment and treatment, we will continue to watch children like Saraya grow up behind bars. 



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