Inside The Minds of America's Prison Writers

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 cork boards, 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.


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?


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."
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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